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The Story of Art Without Men: and Without Brains?

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Mark Stocker
Written by Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker argues that a new exhibition experience entitled ‘Museums Without Men’ will lead to a distortion of the history of art. He is at pains to say that he is as committed as anybody to scholarly and curatorial excellence in the presentation of women artists, but he argues that the way you do it matters a great deal.

This month five major museums, including Tate Britain and the Metropolitan in New York, are launching new audio guides entitled ‘Museums Without Men’. Katy Hessel, author of the recent book The Story of Art Without Men (2022), is the genius behind this.[1] Doubling up in her role as Guardian art critic, she recently published an article to announce the exciting new move, modestly subtitled ‘my project to end [museums’] shocking gender imbalance’, but regrettably not open to readers’ comments.[2]  This art historian would like to comment on it here.

1920px Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1852–55

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair, 1852-53 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

From Hessel’s podcasts, I fear I can spot the likely content a mile away.[3] She will shock visitors about the historic wrongs visited on women artists in past centuries. One such example is Rosa Bonheur, painter of the wonderful, massive Horse Fair in the Metropolitan Museum. Hessel tells us how, in preparation for it, Bonheur required a police permit to wear trousers to facilitate tramping through paddocks, yards and manure. The problem is that anyone with Art History 101 knows this story, and the shock factor of the reactionary, prescriptive and sexist clothing laws of Second Empire France has long since dimmed. It’s a given. It would be more intellectually interesting to learn about the formal qualities of Bonheur’s painting: its colour, light, brushwork, composition, scale and not least anatomical accuracy. It makes sense to measure all this against other artists, such as Géricault and Courbet, to assess her significance in 19th century art. No, stop! This is the last thing Ms Hessel will do, as it egregiously positions Bonheur against her famous male counterparts, and the audio guides explicitly constitute an art history without men!

Thrown jar by Lucie Rie (YORYM 2004.1.73)

Lucie Rie, Thrown jar, 1971 (Lucie Rie Estate/ York Museums Trust)

Another artist focussed on is the Anglo-Austrian ceramicist, Lucie Rie, represented in the Hepworth Wakefield, a participant in Hessel’s project. Rie is in my book absolutely up there (and it’s reflected in the market place): modern studio pottery of exquisite gestalt, aided by its gorgeous glazes, pensive and piquant shapes and delicate striations. You never get bored with a Rie vase, and when mine was shattered in an earthquake, part of me was too. But no serious discussion of Rie can take place without cross-referencing her close friend and fellow practitioner, Hans Coper, another Mitteleuropa expatriate. Rie and Coper’s mid-century pottery is like the interlocking Cubism of Picasso and Braque, and perhaps even like love and marriage. But in ‘Museums Without Men’, you can literally tell only half (albeit the better half) of the story.

A point that feminist art historians frequently underplay is how, in modern times, infinitely better opportunities for women’s art education, indeed women’s place in society, yielded (surprise, surprise) more great women artists than ever before. So much so that the art historian Linda Nochlin’s challenging question of 1971, ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ now appears risibly reactionary. The possibility that there weren’t, or at least not all that many of them before the mid-20th century, can be explained remarkably simply, by invoking the ‘obstacle race’ (thank you, Germaine Greer), that women had to negotiate: the sheer inequality of opportunity. Hence the shocking statistic provided by Ms Hessel that researchers who looked at 18 US historical art museums in 2019 found their collections were 87% male and 85% white. You can make a fair bet that 20 years earlier, 10% could be added to both these figures, and unless a museum adopts a foolish policy, like the one where I last worked, of positive discrimination in favour of women artists, it will necessarily take a fair few more years for numbers to even out.

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Doris Zinkeisen, Riding in Rotten Row, Hyde Park, 1960s

An indication of how things are evening out can be related to my own research. I did a head count recently and found that of my last 20 publications, 13 were on women artists. I am about to publish three entries in the online version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (on Charlotte Rhead, Doris Zinkeisen and Pauline Boty). Did I write about them because they were women? Emphatically not: this would be poor art history and highly patronising. I did so because they were three remarkable artists, the first two with a lifetime’s achievement behind them, the third because of her tragically unfulfilled potential and what she did pack into her glorious, brief life. This is not to deny the role that their gender played, far from it, and it arguably makes their stories more interesting and their achievements seem greater. But I can’t resist paraphrasing Edwina Currie: ‘I’m not a woman, I’m an artist’, the best possible riposte to Hessel. The utterly self-confident Zinkeisen, who was a champion horsewoman, designed stage sets and costumes for Noel Coward productions and devastatingly depicted the recently-liberated Belsen (words are inadequate here), would have agreed with me. She would probably have voted Conservative too and is a regrettable omission from The Story of Art Without Men.

Another problem of feminist art history, reflected in the Bonheur trousers anecdote, is an incessant litany of age-old, oft-repeated complaints about the undeserved and, quoting Hessel, ‘underserved’ obscurity of women artists. This was a weakness in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition ‘Pre Raphaelite Sisters’ (2019), which assumed an instantly polemical tone by asserting that the male protagonists of Pre-Raphaelitism dominated accounts of the movement.[4] While this was undeniable before pioneering feminist interpretations were published some 40 years ago, it ironically demeans their achievement to repeat the same thing today. Admirable scholarship and exhibitions foregrounding Pre-Raphaelite women have intervened, and we rightly admire Evelyn de Morgan ­– rather like Burne-Jones on steroids – and if we’re real art history buffs, the Vermeer-like Joanna Boyce (sorry, male comparisons again!) Are we going to get the ‘same old, same old’ from Hessel in ‘Museums without Men’?  I’d love to be proved wrong.

This article is literally a prejudiced one: I’ve heard none of the audio guides yet, but I have my fears. The type of art history purveyed in them appears worryingly one-dimensional and distorted for all its gushing enthusiasm. A final, perhaps mischievous thought: this preoccupation with women artists ipso facto ignores men. When I went through the gallery devoted to Annie Swynnerton at Tate Britain, I needed to see only two or three paintings to appreciate her essential, slightly coarse aesthetic. She wasn’t as talented as her comparatively unsung contemporaries Alfred East or George Clausen, and was perhaps a tenth as brilliant as William Nicholson. Whether with Tate Britain’s hanging or ‘Museums Without Men’, you obviously aren’t in a position to know it.


[1] For an effusive review, see  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/sep/11/the-story-of-art-without-men-by-katy-hessel-review-putting-women-back-in-the-picture

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2024/mar/01/museums-without-men-audio-guides-celebrate-dozens-female-artists

[3] https://www.thegreatwomenartists.com/katy-hessel-podcast

 

[4] For my review, see file:///Users/markstocker/Downloads/article_43402.pdf

About the author

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker

Mark Stocker, FSA, is former Curator, Historical International Art, at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. He has taught at the universities of Canterbury and Otago. His publications include numerous contributions to The Burlington Magazine and When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 (2021).