Art book recommendations #3 Women’s Work, Kusama, Nineteenth-Century Women Artists.

Welcome to Part 3 of my art book recommendations. Enjoy!

Women’s Work. From feminine arts to feminist art by Ferren Gipson

Kusama. The Graphic Novel by Elisa Macellari 

Nineteenth-Century Women Artists. Sisters of the Brush by Caroline Chapman

Three books on a grey woolly surface. From the left, Women's Work, Kusama, and Nineteenth-century Women-Artists.

Women’s Work. From feminine arts to feminist art by Ferren Gipson, published by Frances Lincoln Publishing 2022 

Book cover. Text says Ferren Gipson. Women's Work. From feminine arts to feminist art. The cover is an image of vertical stripes of soft fabric in blocks of different colours, mostly red, orange and blue on a black background with white stitches vertical pattern.
Book cover: Ferren Gipson. Women’s Work. From feminine arts to feminist art.

Ferren Gipson presents a fresh take on the history of ceramic and textile art in this beautiful album. The book is like a quilt. A selection of profiles of over thirty women artists became a patchwork of art histories. Each mini-biography includes a photograph of the artist, and a few selected reproductions of their works. The artists’ profiles are ordered chronologically by their year of birth, with the exception of the only group included – The Women of Gee’s Bend, a quilting community named after the location in Alabama. 

Although many of the artists included in this book worked in a variety of mediums, the focus here is on the art forms traditionally associated with women. In her introduction Gipson sketches the short history of ‘women’s work’ tracking how attitudes to these art forms have changed over the years. Quilting is a great example because it was long considered a domestic feminine craft, but it is now acknowledged as a skilful art form. Faith Ringgold (b. 1930 in New York) is one of the most renowned artists working in quilt and textile art. Her artworks are masterpieces of storytelling, often filled with historical and art historical references. Through her textile works she also celebrates the contributions of Black Women to history, art and culture. 

View of an open book. Left Page a black-and-white photo of a Black woman ( artist Faith Ringgold) smiling next to a painting on an easel, there are  two paintings on a wall behind her. Right page text with heading Faith Ringgold.
View inside book Women’s Work by Ferren Gipson

Each of the artists included in Women’s Work left a legacy which helped shape the way we look at art today. Ceramic and wearable art for a very long time were seen as separate from so-called fine art because of their utilitarian nature. As a result of courage and perseverance of many art pioneers ceramic and textile art have become elevated to the status of art, not mere craft. Gipson introduces the women artists who made it happen. From ceramics of Maria Martinez, wearable art of Elsa Schiaparelli to sculptures of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Polly Apfelbaum and Sarah Lucas. Hanna Hill and Tschabalala Self, working in embroidery and appliqué respectively, belong to the youngest generation of artists included in the book. Women artists continue to break the mould. 

Women’s Work is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of art. For those interested the author also included a list of noteworthy women artists working in ceramics, soft sculpture and textile arts. These art forms are of course not limited to women artists, but the feminist art history angle employed in the book adds a valuable perspective. Very good quality art publication that will spark your curiosity.   

Kusama. The Graphic Novel by Elisa Macellari, published  by Laurence King 2020, translated by Edward Fortes 

Book cover. Elisa Macellari. Kusama. The Graphic Novel. Image on the cover is a young Japanese woman (artist Yayoi Kusama) with long black hair and fringe, dressed in tight red costume with white dots. She is stretched out with her arms wide open on the surface of a floor covered with white organic-like shapes with red dots.
Book cover: Kusama. The Graphic Novel by Elisa Macellari

Elisa Macellari, the author and illustrator, was fascinated by the art of Yayoi Kusama for many years. Her book about Kusama is not a typical biography, but a beautifully illustrated lyrical account of the artist’s life and career. 

The story begins in Matsumoto, 1939 where we meet Kusama for the first time as a child. At a very young age she already struggled with her mental health in addition to family problems. Although there is no direct mention of WWII going on in the background, we realise that for Kusama art was increasingly becoming a refuge from reality. A way to process what was happening around her. Kusama’s inner life had a profound impact on her art and events in the unfolding story. The narrative jumps between New York and Japan. We accompany Kusama in New York in the 1950s, we see flashbacks from her childhood and youth in Japan, follow her art career in America and return to Japan where she decides to get admitted into a psychiatric hospital, and then, finally, we witness her ‘rediscovery’ by the art establishment. 

Today Kusama is one of the top-selling women artists in the world, and is famous for her polka-dot artworks. But there is more to her art than meets the eye. In the 1970s she was engaged in peace activism through her public performances. In one of the scenes in the book we see Kusama on stage, dressed in a close-fitting red costume with white dot pattern, asking the participants of her performance a question: ‘What would you rather? War or free love?’, to which the answer is: ‘Let’s make love’. 

Open graphic novel book. Left page, black background. A woman on stage, dressed in a close-fitting red costume with white dot pattern standing away from the audience but turning her head towards the audience of naked men and women shown with their backs to the viewer. Right page, light orange background. Three close-up pictures of the same woman's face turning towards the viewer gradually on each picture. In the middle picture and right picture she is shown with tears in her eyes.
View inside Kusama. The Graphic Novel by Elisa Macellari

The use of colour throughout the pages is superb. Macellari uses a limited colour palette, which really lets the patterns stand out. Vivid reds and calm blues aid the narrative. Red is often connected with intense emotions. Blue is more neutral and peaceful. In the more surreal parts of the story we often see Kusama surrounded by dots and patterns. The cover image of the artist immersed in dot patterns is magnetic. What a beautiful book and a wonderful homage to Yayoi Kusama.

Nineteenth-Century Women Artists. Sisters of the Brush by Caroline Chapman, published by Unicorn 2021

Book cover: Nineteenth-Century Women Artists. Sisters of the Brush.  Caroline Chapman. Image on the cover, black background with a portrait of a white woman with black hair wearing white shirt. Her hair almost blends in with the background. She is looking down, her eyes are almost closed.
Book cover: Nineteenth-Century Women Artists. Sisters of the Brush by Caroline Chapman

The timeline of this book spans from the early 1800s to the beginning of WWI in 1914, with main focus on the art scene in two major art centres at the time: Paris and Rome. Artists from all over Europe and beyond flocked to those two cities in hopes to further their art education and advance their careers. In her discussion of 19th century art in Europe, Chapman incorporates a wide range of women artists active in this period, including artists from North America, Scandinavia, Eastern and Central Europe. 

Across the pages we meet many iconic characters of the era, some only in passing. Life stories of individual artists are not very detailed, which keeps the narrative flow. Additionally a selection of short biographies of ‘the principal women artists’ can be found at the end of the book. Among those are: British painter Laura Knight, German artist Käthe Kollwitz and American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, Nordic painters Helene Schjerfbeck from Finland and Kitty Kielland from Norway, Polish painter Olga Boznanska and several Ukrainian artists including Sonia Delaunay and Marie Bashkirtseff, to name just a few. 

Open book with text on the left page and an image of a colourful painting of still life at a table on the right page.
View inside book: Nineteenth-Century Women Artists. Sisters of the Brush by Caroline Chapman

One of the strengths of this book is the social art history angle, backed by well-researched primary sources. Many women discussed in this book could not be admitted to art schools in their own countries. Moving to Italy and France opened the world of possibilities, but mostly to those who could afford it. Even those artists who came from privileged backgrounds had to deal with various obstacles on their career paths. Chapman paints a vivid image of their lives and the struggles they faced. Women artists were often dismissed as lesser artists because of the types of art they produced – portraits, still-life and domestic scenes, which were thought of as less prestigious than large historical and mythological canvases, but were more likely to sell.

Unlike their male counterparts, unmarried women could not move around freely without a chaperone. Social restrictions placed on women were slightly relaxed away from large cities, hence the popularity of art colonies during this period. Brittany and Cornwall were two of the most desired locations for artists seeking inspiration in nature and painting in the open air. Artists often forged lifelong friendships and relationships during their time in art colonies. 

Kudos to Chapman for bringing the lives and art of those fascinating artists back into the spotlight. This is a very good quality publication with over sixty art reproductions. An engaging read for those interested in art, women artists and social art history. 

Check out my other art book recommendations below:

Part 1 Art book recommendations link

Part 2 Art book recommendations link

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