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Female artists, the great forgotten ones in art history?
Major Questions in Art History
15.04.2020 | Nina Meisel

The place and importance of female artists in art history is still not self-evident for everyone. The Story of Art by E. H. Gombrich (first edition published in 1950), a fundamental art-historical reference, is a prime example of this. Its English and French editions do not mention any women, and its German edition cites only one. However, as early as the 1970s initiatives to (re)discover female artists, led by researchers such as Linda Nochlin, gave rise to exhibitions highlighting work by women, such as Some Canadian Women Artists at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 1975, elles@centrepompidou at the Musée national d’Art moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou in 2009, and more recently, Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, initially organised at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles in 2017.

Today – despite the emergence of great female figures in recent years – women artists still suffer from late recognition in comparison to their male counterparts. For example, Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), a major twentieth-century French American artist was seventy when she had her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1981. And then it was not until 2008 that a major French institution, the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Georges Pompidou, presented an exhibition of her work. Pioneer video artist, Nil Yalter (born in 1938), had to wait until 2016 before the 49 Nord 6 Est – FRAC Lorraine presented her first retrospective. Other artists have received posthumous recognition, such as the surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (1894-1954) who was discovered in the 1990s more than thirty years after her death.

Like institutional recognition, the art market has been late in taking notice of female artists. The financial question is clear in certain careers, such as that of Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), split between saleable academic work and mediumistic painting, where she distinguished herself as a pioneer of abstraction. She was not rediscovered until 1986, forty-two years after her death, in the exhibition The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting 1890-1985 in Los Angeles. According to the artist’s wishes, her will stipulated that her work was to remain secret for at least twenty years after her death, yet it was not until 2008 that her first retrospective was held at the Modern Museet in Stockholm. Cuban painter and sculptor Carmen Herrera (born in 1915) is another example: she sold her first painting in 2004, at the age of eight-nine. This sale was followed by institutional success and the inauguration of a significant retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 2016.

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