“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

As usual, Hyperallergic opens many doors for me. For example, sycophantic fan though I may be, I didn’t know about some ugly personal peccadilloes of Picasso, i.e. that he was a raving misogynist.  Nor did I know about the movie, Surviving Picasso, (1996) where some of this is explored with mixed success.  In her Hyperallergic article, Ksenia M. Soboleva describes the differential and cynical promotion of simultaneous exhibitions at the Tate Modern – of Picasso and Joan Jonas.  I’ll let her speak for herself on that – see article.

A wonderful Door #2 for me was to another Hyperallergic article, An Illustrated Guide to Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” by Tiernan Morgan & Lauren Purje.  Linda Nochlin was a feminist art historian who died last year at the age of 86.  I’ve read feminist and other academic essays on the oppression of various  marginalized communities. Deep … thoughtful, very academic essays. I was gratified for this succinct summary of  Nochlin’s  views.

Linda Nochlin’s “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971) is generally considered the first major work of feminist art history. Maura Reilly, a curator, writer, and collaborator of Nochlin’s, described the work as “a dramatic feminist rallying cry.” “This canonical essay precipitated a paradigm shift within the discipline of art history,” Reilly states in her preface to Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (2015), “and as such her name became inseparable from the phrase, ‘feminist art,’ on a global scale.” 

from Nochlin:

Afterwards, Richard turned to me and said, “Linda, I would love to show women artists, but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?” He actually asked me that question. I went home and thought about this issue for days. It haunted me. It made me think, because, first of all, it implied that there were no great women artists. Second, because it assumed this was a natural condition. It just lit up my mind. [It] stimulated me to do a great deal of further research in a variety of fields in order to “answer” the question and its implications.

By stressing the institutional, rather than the individual, or private, preconditions for achievement or the lack of it in the arts, I have tried to provide a paradigm for the investigations of other areas in the field […] I have suggested that it was indeed institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius.

There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol, any more than there are black American equivalents for the same. If there actually were large numbers of “hidden” great women artists, or if there really should be different standards for women’s art as opposed to men’s — and one can’t have it both ways — then what are feminists fighting for? If women have in fact achieved the same status as men in the arts, then the status quo is fine as it is.

But in actuality, as we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.

Door #3, yet another painting prodigy.

Nochlin’s essay ends with an extended profile of Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), “one of the most successful and accomplished women painters of all time.” Bonheur specialized in equine and bovine scenes and was awarded numerous accolades, including a first medal at the Paris Salon. 





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