Great Women Artists – book review

This richly illustrated publication is one of the most important art books published in English in 2019. Great Women Artists is a survey of over four hundred women artists, or, in other words, great artists who happen to be women, spanning over five hundred years. Arranged alphabetically, each artist entry contains a short text accompanied by a single image of an artwork or art installation. The book contains four hundred fifty large and high-quality reproductions.

There is no single kind of women’s art. It is not just feminist art, or art exclusively about female experience, or art of female/ladylike subjects. Women and men are equally capable of creating art. Of course, art can be good, bad, mediocre or great. Some artists make it big, while others fade into obscurity, as was the case with many female artists rediscovered in recent years. We often hear of a female artist introduced first and foremost as a wife/lover/mother/sister/daughter of a better-known male artist, rather than an artist in her own right.

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from the book Great Women Artists, published by Phaidon

In the Introduction Rebecca Morrill explains the role of women artists in the history of art. Their historically disadvantaged status has implications on how we perceive women artists today. Women artists are underrepresented in galleries and museums. Their works achieve much lower prices at auctions when compared with male artists. For a long time, women had no access to art schools, a few were lucky to receive private art training. In the few art institutions admitting women, they were often banned from classes with nude models. Such classes were an important element of art education and considered essential in the most prestigious genre of painting, known as the history painting. Women artists became unfairly associated with ‘lesser’ genres of painting, such as landscape or still life. For many years the arts considered ‘feminine’, such as embroidery or quilting, were dismissed as mere crafts and inferior to ‘proper art’ – painting and sculpture. This book challenges some of these outdated ideas and puts women’s art in context.

No art historical timeline is included in the publication, but there is a useful glossary of art terms, styles and movements. Each glossary entry includes references exclusively to women artists. It’s great to see Baroque art introduced not through paintings of curvy female nudes, but through women artists, such as Lavinia Fontana, Artemisia Gentileschi and Michaelina Wautier. In this part of the book the editors made a point of not mentioning the names of male artists who might be more familiar to the readers, although male artists appear in the main body of the book to provide context (usually in reference to family ties, or private and professional relationships).

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from the book Great Women Artists, published by Phaidon

In many ways this is a book of ‘firsts’. Mary Beale (1633-1699, British) was the first woman to write in English about her artistic practice, Hilma af Klint (1862-1944, Swedish) was the earliest abstract artist (not, as previously thought, Wassily Kandinsky), Pauline Boty (1938-1966, British) was the only woman of the British Pop Art and one of its founders, Rebecca Belmore (b.1960, Canadian) was the first aboriginal artist to represent a North American country at the Venice Biennale in 2005. The authors of the book do not want to re-write art history but to expand and enrich readers’ existing knowledge about art.

The book presents over four hundred artists from over fifty countries. Attempting a global approach, the selection of artists is quite diverse in terms of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, especially when compared with some of the earlier, general art publications. As explained in the Introduction, a certain bias could not be avoided, as only named artists with surviving works were included, therefore most entries were taken by modern and contemporary artists. However, it is acknowledged that many anonymous artworks created throughout the history were made by women artists.

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from the book Great Women Artists, published by Phaidon

My only criticism is the noticeable overrepresentation of artists from USA and the UK. Out of the four hundred artists included, over one hundred twenty were born in the USA, approximately a quarter of the total number. Around sixty artists were born in the UK, which exceeds the number of artists born in Africa and Eastern Europe combined. Many artists made careers only after relocating to North America or one of the West European countries, such as France or the UK. Perhaps the choice of artists reflects the (perceived?) dominance of English-speaking, or so-called ‘Western’, countries in the contemporary art world. One might ask – are those great artists, or simply internationally acclaimed artists? There is no easy answer.

The title Great Women Artists references the famous essay by Linda Nochlin ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ published in 1971. Nochlin explained that the institutional barriers and socio-economic factors have contributed to the status quo, which favours male artists over female artists. Hence, the art historical narrative has been dominated by male artists, many of whom were described as great or even genius. Nochlin could not find many women artists who would fit such description. The authors of the current volume argue against Nochlin that the meaning of greatness is not set in stone but can change with time. Browsing through Great Women Artists we are reminded that greatness is subjective. The readers will find familiar names and perhaps discover their new favourite artists. It is up to the readers to agree or disagree with the selection of artists in this book, but hopefully it will inspire them to find out more about specific artists and give women artists the attention they deserve.

Great Women Artists.

Publisher: Phaidon

Format: Hardback
Size: 290 x 250 mm (11 3/8 x 9 7/8 in)
Pages: 464 pp
Illustrations: 450 illustrations
ISBN: 9780714878775

Authors:

Introductory essay by Rebecca Morrill

Artist texts by: James Cahill, Louisa Elderton, Elizabeth Fullerton, Orit Gat, Ferren Gipson, PL Henderson, Katy Hessel, Catalina Imizcoz, Louisa Lee, Henry Little, Helen Luckett, Kathleen Madden, Henry Martin, Tom Melick, Rebecca Morrill, Yates Norton, Cleo Roberts, Matthew Price, Gabrielle Schwartz, Robert Shane, Mitch Speed, David Trigg, Ellen Mara De Wachter

great women artists cover

 

More details and images on the publisher’s website:

https://uk.phaidon.com/store/art/great-women-artists-9780714878775/#tab-1

6 comments

  1. I’ve been looking forward to checking this book out and plan to do so soon. Indeed it is a great compendium of artists and an important contribution to art history. Another essential book that was published last year (but one that I read this year) is “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art” by Mary Gabriel. Thank you for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

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