Why I find women-only exhibitions depressing

The depressing thing is not that shows like the Scottish National Gallery’s ‘Modern Scottish Women’ exist. It’s that they need to exist

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

29 October 2015

9:00 AM

Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885–1965

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, until 26 June 2016

Modern Scottish Men, a new exhibition celebrating the achievements of male artists in the 20th century, opens next month in Edinburgh. Men only; no women. Bold! Only joking. That show would never happen today. How could it? Where would an exclusive, specifically male-only exhibition be tolerated these days? A women-only show, on the other hand, would be fair enough; we need to point out that the wee dears can paint too. And so we have Modern Scottish Women: Painters and Sculptors 1885–1965. Should we perhaps be feeling patronised, ladies?

The recent death of Brian Sewell has again thrown up his old allegations regarding the inferiority of women artists. ‘Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness,’ he said, and the art market would appear to support his position by stoutly refusing to take any great interest in work by female artists. A Georgia O’Keeffe sold for $44.4 million last year, which seems a lot until you consider that two years previously, the market had seen fit to lavish $118 million on a thoroughly bland Modigliani.

Examine the catalogue of most expensive artwork. In February this year, somebody paid nearly $300 million for one of Gauguin’s Tahitian pieces. A length or two behind are Cézanne, Rothko, Picasso and Pollock. Painters of greater or lesser ability fall in below them but not one of them is female, until you reach O’Keeffe. It was not until 2004, more than 30 years since the bloated market began throwing millions at works by men, that something by a living female artist, Marlene Dumas, scraped $1 million at auction.

The market is only part of the story. It operates according to its own purpose, and is, evidently, no great arbiter of quality. What other mechanism would rank Barnett Newman above Titian? What is important, and what endures, is not the market value of an artwork but the work itself. The market merely skews perception among those who cannot be bothered to look for themselves.

John Berger summarised much of art history as crude objectification: ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ Simplistic though this is, when female artists began exhibiting paintings of male nudes it was considered a shocking inversion of tradition. A fine nude, awkward and emaciated, by Joan Eardley in the Modern Scottish Women show illustrates this progression; she presents a real man, closer to Egon Schiele than the heroic torsos of the Renaissance.

Beyond painting men as objects, the feminist response was to turn the lens, or canvas, on themselves. Judy Chicago and Suzanne Lacy led the way in the 1970s with tortuous performances of writhing naked women smeared in blood and muck, accompanied by audio accounts of rape. The work was born out of a determination to subvert the orthodoxy and to that extent it worked. The unfortunate outcome was not a greater respect for women artists, however, but a generation of art made by women that became depressingly solipsistic. The feminist artist maintains a profile in the public consciousness as a straight-fringed fury, sewing tampons on to bras. This disproportionate appreciation has been fed by media fixation on Tracey Emin’s bed and Sarah Lucas’s entire catalogue. Yet despite the female members of the YBA bubble, it is worth noting that only five of the 30 Turner Prizes have gone to women.

Women are sold short by artists who claim to speak on their behalf. They are, obviously, discrete individuals and the idea of women’s art as something homogenous is ridiculous. Nobody is a ‘good woman artist’, but either a good artist or a poor one. Brian Sewell was wrong to assert that there have been no great women artists, a claim he was far from alone in making. In truth, there have been very few great artists of either sex but certainly some of both. What was Artemisia Gentileschi if not a great painter? If the impressionists are to be classified as greats, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt must stand among them. And Frida Kahlo was one of the most extraordinary of all.

Where women can be roughly grouped is in the obstacles they encountered. None of these — children, domestic obligation, historically limited access to formal education — is unique to art but they help to explain women’s diminished presence in galleries. Highlighting the impact of limited opportunities and the reaction of a sceptical patriarchal establishment to women’s art is a central element of the Modern Scottish Women show, and it is the necessary bit. The quality of work by these artists is not in doubt. Anne Redpath is an acknowledged leader of mid-century British art, while the work on display by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham compares favourably with any Ben Nicholson. The less illustrious artists are also compelling. Norah Neilson Gray and Bessie MacNicol may be unfamiliar to most visitors, but their paintings will impress with their tonal harmony and soft, painterly modelling.

Scotland has been particularly well furnished with female artists of outstanding ability but it is still worth explaining why women have been exhibited less than men, and appreciated below them. It is opportunity, not ability, that has held women back historically, something that Modern Scottish Women demonstrates with lucidity and confidence. The exhibition is not patronising; it is informative and revealing. The depressing thing is not that it exists but that, until everyone who shares Sewell’s prejudice has joined him through the pearly gates, it still needs to exist.

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Show comments
  • Richard Eldritch

    Sewell was right, Women can’t do Art.

  • Esmee Phillips

    Gwen was better than Augustus, though.

  • LoveMeIamALiberal

    Well we are certainly missing Brian Sewell, as we now have no choice but to put up with this dribbling PC nonsense. His opinion of Kahlo is about spot on: “My argument about Frida Kahlo is that, had she been Fred Kahlo, she’d have been forgotten.” It’s also frustrating to read an article about the greatness of female artists that does not mention the greatest female artist of the last 100 years, Barbara Hepworth.

    Creating great art is an extreme form of behaviour and men are much more likely to engage in extreme behaviours. Murder is also an extreme form of behaviour and men are much more likely to do that as well, so it’s not all positive.

  • edithgrove

    How to lose an argument: “Judy Chicago and Suzanne Lacy led the way in the 1970s” (and did you really refer to Sarah Lucas’s work as her ‘catalogue’?) Mind boggling!

  • Rocksy

    I usually find ‘women only’ anything depressing. There always seems to be an air of hectoring and lecturing and depressing finger wagging. Perhaps it’s the topics or maybe I should say topic singular.

    • I don’t like ‘women only’ events of any kind. I attended one, grudgingly, and will never do so again.

  • Terence Hale

    “Why I find women-only exhibitions depressing”. Why are all “renommiert” painters, poets, TV cooks, Formula one driver’s men?

    • HegemonyMakesYourBlind

      Because men were physically stronger and more egotistical, meaning that they dominated the culture from our earliest prehistory, meaning they stole all the land several thousand years ago, meaning they became richest, meaning they were in a position to socially engineer women into being an inferior, unpaid caste of support staff, meaning they had the freedom to travel, build institutes, set policy, maiming they had the means to set the standard of what is good, bad, indifferent.

      • Terence Hale

        Yes, thank you for the exposé, but it could also mean women can’t cook, paint or verse.

      • Solage

        Women are generally far more aggressive than men, though less prone to violence; and also far more likely to hold grudges and to seek revenge. This is a truth that many, especially men, would prefer not to hear.

  • Captain Dryland

    Anyone looking at much of Joan Eardley’s work is bound to suffer a fit of depression at some point.

  • Edwin Moore

    I was brought up a few yards from Eardley’s studio – i knew the
    Samsons. They used to bring loads of sketches home and their mum refused
    to have that ‘s****e in the hoose’. Not quite how Brian Sewell would
    have put it of course.

    Sewell was a katyusha rocket launcher of a
    critic and he got a lot right as well as a lot wrong – a necessary and
    enjoyable aggravation of a man. He is wrong about women artists of
    course, One luminous, mysterious landscape by Eardley alone is
    sufficient to refute him as are a few of Tracey Emin’s rapid sketches

  • Eardley fan

    Interesting article! And I love that Eardley painting! It is an irony that gender divisions which
    undermine opportunity have to be drawn on to create opportunity. This is
    because merit, or painterly skill, as Brian Sewell shows us is judged
    subjectively. Women only painting exhibitions are a tool to address the
    imbalance and challenge the assumption that the painter is a man. It is
    affirmative action and it works in other areas such as quotas on
    corporate boards. Like you say, hopefully in the future gender
    categories are not the basis for exhibitions.

    • Jambo25

      Believe me, I’m not Femo friendly but Joan Eardley is one of my favourite modern painters and ought to be much better known. Her paintings of the Samson children are full of life, compassion and love. Her Catterline paintings are simply wonderful.

    • Mr B J Mann

      Most women follow careers in things like medicine, nursing, teaching, social work…… where there are no corporate boards.

      Where they work in corporations they tend to work in fields such as research which do not usually lead to board positions.

      Where they do opt for line management, due to maternity leave, part time working, job sharing, family responsibilities, etc, they cannot put in the hours, and do not achieve the levels of experience or seniority to warrant a board position.

      And, according to a report for the (if you haven’t read it, pretty lefty) Economist written by a team of female writers, most of the women who are in the line management in the corporate sphere aren’t interested in climbing to the top of the greasy pole.

      So what should the “quotas on corporate boards” be?

      10%? 5%?! 1%?!?!

      Or should women be pressganged from the hospital ward or the nursery to make up numbers?!

  • Perhaps the truth is that no single artwork, especially one as how shall we say wallpaperish as a Georgia O’Keefe, is worth a price in the millions. It is all — mainly — nonsense.

    • HegemonyMakesYourBlind

      That’s certInly one theory.

      Could even be true if there was no such thing as market forces, subjectivity or bias.

  • HegemonyMakesYourBlind

    Same story everywhere. Men love having gods like themselves, giving themselves awards and stars for their achievements, holding centenary marches to pat themselves on the back, watching films about themselves, looking at statues and portraits or themselves, naming roads after themselves, watching news about themselves, reading articles, blogs, books and epic poems about themselves, looking at pictures about themselves, reading internet comments about themselves. To mix it up a bit they like looking at pictures of naked women. And seeing as men have already successfully land-grabbed all the country’s and the workd’s assets and ensconced themselves in every single position of power, those are the gods, awards, marches, statues, portraits, news, books, epic poems and pictures the rest of us have to suffer through.

    • Solage

      Beware the sweet but deceptive comforts and certainties of monomania, especially if they appear to make sense of life, the universe, and everything.

  • MC73

    “it is worth noting that only five of the 30 Turner Prizes have gone to women” Not a cause for concern…

  • Further thought: I have often thought that a world ruled (hypothetically) by h m s xuals would not be kind to women. If women are something of the ‘other’ for straightforward men, they are the ‘other other’ for g ys. Most of Brian Sewell’s sympathies were no doubt absorbed by his own ‘gender’. At least women can take some comfort and assurance from the fact that the vast majority of males have an instinctive and simple interest in them, from which may arise a more complex and mutually rewarding connection.

    • Solage

      Homosexual. Gay. Do these innocuous little words really cause moderation? I am about to press the Post button to find out!

      • Solage

        does cause moderation, though sexual, sapiens, and erectus do not…….

      • Callipygian

        They do when *I* type them. I still get modded when I type normal prose and get spiked for unforeseeable reasons. So with anything to do with secks or h=ll, I automatically resort to these absurdities.

        • Miss Floribunda Rose

          Hold on, your comment is waiting to be approved by………Oh, I see what you mean! F–kin’ ‘ell!