Woman in a man's world

I like art. I'm a rotten artist, you'd have difficulty telling a fish from a cow if I painted it (yes, it really is that bad). I like to think that I've got a reasonable knowledge of art history, and I can tell a Da Vinci from a Picasso (occasionally even a Rubens from a Caravaggio); but I'd never heard of Artemisia Gentileschi. And although I've long been a fan of Jackson Pollock, I didn't know that his wife, Lee Krasner, was an artist; or that her work was an enormous influence on his. Looking at Shellflower this seems blindingly obvious.
Shellflower by Lee Krasner (1947).

The history of art is littered with forgotten women, who were air-brushed out. From Gentileschi (the only female follower of Caravaggio) to Krasner, Dora Maar (she wasn't just Picasso's muse) to the weird world of Bridget Bate Tichenor. 

Siri Hustvedt's feminist novel The blazing world follows the fight for acceptance in the art establishment of a female artist, Harriet Burden. Married to a wealthy art dealer, Burden's own talents become quickly eclipsed under a wave of misogyny. Determined to prove that her work is the equal of any man's, Burden  presents three art installations; and in each case uses the identity of a male artist to mask the female who has actually produced the art.

Her accusations of misogyny are proved to be only too true when the art world refuses to accept that she is indeed the artist, preferring to believe the male perspective even when it is clearly false (an ignorant young artist is believed to have created the work called The history of Western Art).

Ultimately Burden is unable to prove that she deserves her own place in the sun, but lives to see a male artist, whose most famous work is largely her responsibility, eclipse her posthumously.

Allegory of Inclination (1615) by Artemisia Gentileschi
The blazing world is a clever, if somewhat depressing read. The novel itself deals in fakery masking its fictiveness by purportedly being an academic work. As such there are interviews with key characters, excerpts from Burden's diaries and notebooks - in which her own confusions over her gender and the gender identities of her art are unmasked - and the editor's own response to perceived misogyny.

All of this makes it a fascinating, if sometimes confusing read. Was the fictional Burden's artwork rejected because of misogyny or her own lack of ability? It's not easy to tell. 

What is slightly easier, in the non-fictional world, is to note the change in attitude towards female artists. There is a growing awareness of the forgotten female artists of the past; and although that may not make a huge difference to the female artists of today, ultimately the acceptance that art is not purely a male preserve must make the likelihood of being forgotten or patronized less likely. There's a fascinating bibliography and more, if you wish to find out about women artists, here.


Popular Posts