the gender disparity in art is still utterly shocking

(Luca Fullalove)

Art books get awards, but most of us have never heard of them. Even the most popular of artistic titles are niche; they are mostly sold in galleries, snooty boutiques and, as art historian Katy Hessel puts it, “on the third floor of the bookstore.”

So it’s a big deal that recently its own title, The Story of Art Without Men, won mainstream Waterstones Book of the Year, automatically claiming a prominent place in half of Britain’s high streets. Previous winners include Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust.

Hessel is, of course, happy. “It’s a testament to all those people who fought and fought for their place in the history of art,” she says.

His work is about celebrating those typically excluded from the canon; Prior to the book, she was known for the Instagram account she started in 2015, @thegreatwomenartists (she has over 300,000 followers) and a related podcast.

The Story of Art Without Men, which was published in September, is loosely based on the respected The Story of Art by EH Gombrich, first published in 1950.

Hessel admires Gombrich’s work, but points out that “his first edition did not include female artists, and the 16th edition included only one.” For balance, the version of him doesn’t include men.

Hessel is 28 years old and grew up in London. He has a BA in art history from UCL but says he has hardly studied any women. When he finally remembered this at the age of 21, it was because she had walked into an art fair and suddenly noticed that all the artists were male. “I hadn’t even thought about the gender disparity in the art world before, and it was completely shocking,” he says. “It’s half of the world’s population.”

Even today, based on the works exhibited in the main galleries, one might think that art is created only by men. Female artists make up just one per cent of the National Gallery’s collection, and 2023 will mark the first time the Royal Academy of Arts has hosted a solo exhibition in the main space by a woman (Marina Abramović). “Women have always made art,” says Hessel, “and more: they’ve had to work twice, triple, 10 times harder than their male counterparts.”

If you’re skeptical about it, I urge you to pick up his book, which is tremendously eye-opening and very readable. Leading us from the early 16th century to the present day, it reveals hundreds of astonishingly talented artists – many of whom will be new to you – working in everything from wood carving to oil painting to photography. Hessel’s clever storytelling explains the obstacles they had to overcome to do that job: Women weren’t allowed to study the nude body or enroll in art academies until the late 1800s, and they didn’t have the freedom to wander unaccompanied in search of inspiring landscapes or churches. Many of those women who have managed to make art were born lucky: they had fathers who were artists.

    (Katy Hessel)

(Katy Hessel)

Hessel quotes a comment by 20th-century artist Roland Penrose, husband of famed photographer Lee Miller, which sounds particularly silly in this context. “Of course women were important,” he said in the 1980s, “but that was because they were our muses. They weren’t artists.”

It is because of this disempowering lie, which has been so pervasive, that we desperately need books like Hessel’s.

You will not read about women as muses in its pages. “When people discuss Dora Maar, Picasso is often mentioned, because they dated for a short time,” she says.

“I won’t mention Picasso, because it’s not relevant to his artwork.

“Why do we always have to mention Jackson Pollock when we talk about Lee Krasner? When we talk about him, we never mention her. So what I really wanted to do, grounding them in their social and political history, is forget this whole “wife of,” “muse of,” “daughter of” thing. These people should be there in their own right. They were pioneering and revolutionary artists.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) is one of these figures. She had the unusual opportunity to apprentice with a local painter, and she went on to be an artist at the Spanish court, admired by Michelangelo. Her works are playfully subversive. Self-Portrait with Bernardino Campi shows her master, Campi, painting a portrait of her. A careful viewer, however, will notice that she is the dominant figure, not the teacher; in the 1990s it was discovered that Anguissola had originally painted his own hand leading Campi’s.

Elsewhere in the book is a 1612 still life by Clara Peeters (1594-c.1657). At first glance it’s just a couple of goblets and a vase of flowers; upon further inspection, Peeters’ reflection is painted into every facet of one of the goblets. “So what might appear to be a still life actually hides 11 self-portraits,” says Hessel. “It’s almost like, let’s ask to be seen and let’s make sure our work isn’t misattributed to male artists.”

Hessel takes particular delight in the work of Charlotte Salomon (1917-43), who painted Life? O Teatro?, an autobiography in 784 gouache works. “I think it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces in the history of art,” says Hessel.

Self-Portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (Sofonisba Anguissola)

Self-Portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (Sofonisba Anguissola)

“It’s essentially a graphic novel about growing up in Berlin as a Jewish girl, falling in love, discovering music – and then when the Nazis come to power, everything changes. She died at the age of 26, five months pregnant, in Auschwitz. Somehow this work survived.’

It is disappointing that an artist like Salomon is not better known. ‘I think arts education in general is a big problem in the UK, because our government doesn’t pay enough attention to it,’ says Hessel. ‘Obviously every school subject is important, but so is art. It gives people agency, because they feel they can do things. No matter what activity we engage in, we all need that freedom.”

Her conversations with students give her hope. ‘The amazing thing is that young people are driving the change. They don’t want to learn an “definitive” art history – they understand that the canon is ongoing and global. We need to see history from a broad perspective.”

By writing the book, he could play his part in shaping both past and future history. He hopes that other scholars will delve into the artists he has studied on; The Courtauld Institute of Art has included The Story of Art Without Men in their curriculum. To mark its publication, Hessel also curated a Victoria Miro Gallery exhibition of post-2000 women’s art, which attracted long queues of visitors.

She wants to show the world, not just women, that the history of art is the story of all of us. “There’s so much work to do,” she says. “Everyone should feel welcome to have fun and make art. If we don’t see the art of a wide range of people, we don’t see society as a whole.

“My dream for this book is for a 13-year-old to come across it in the school library and think, actually, that he sees me again in this.”

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