Galleries continue to erase female artists in their blockbuster exhibitions

The National Gallery recently announced its summer 2023 exhibition, After Impressionism, claiming that the show will celebrate the “skyrocketing achievements of the likes of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Rodin.” The response on social media to this announcement was largely, “where are the women?”

Some on Twitter gave suggestions of women who should be included in the exhibit, including Suzanne Valadon, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gabriele Münter and Sonia Delaunay, to name a few. The National Gallery tweeted the same text to several of these replies: “We have announced a small number of confirmed loans for the exhibition. This includes Camille Claudel’s plea. We will be sharing more loans, including major works by female artists, closer to the opening.”

While it remains to be seen what these works will be, it is clear that they are not viewed by the gallery as an integral part of the exhibition, or a major draw for the public. If so, they would have been mentioned centrally in the press release.

That was accompanied by an image of Cezanne’s Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), which depicts a group of naked women. Obviously, in 2022, the easiest way for a woman to get on the walls of the National Gallery is still naked.

L’Implorante (The Supplication) by Camille Claudel has been cited as a piece that The National Gallery plans to show during its exhibition in the summer of 2023.
The Met

The National Gallery is somewhat of an outlier among global museums because it fails to broaden the stories it tells through its collections and exhibitions. But its focus on extremely well-known white male artists shows what it sees as innovative and important – and therefore what it doesn’t.

when women to have been blockbusters

The expectation that ‘blockbuster’ shows will be about famous artists is a vicious circle: artists cannot become household names if they are not included in major exhibitions. The lack of women in traditional art history science has led to the belief that there simply weren’t many, if any, important female artists working in Europe during this period, which is completely incorrect – as the backlash on Twitter highlighted. Yet museums still don’t seem to be getting them into canon.

The idea that only famous names sell tickets has also been repeatedly debunked over the past decade. The best example is the Guggenheim Museum in New York’s 2018 exhibition of the works of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, the first major retrospective of the artist’s works in the US — and the first time most people who attended the show, had seen or heard her. The exhibition became the museum’s most visited exhibition ever.

The National Portrait Gallery’s 2019-20 show Pre-Raphelite Sisters and Madrid’s Museo del Prado’s 2020-21 show Uninvited guests: Episodes on Women, Ideology and the Visual Arts in Spain (1833-1931) both at the forefront of women in traditionally male art movements and periods .

Both received some criticism, largely arguing that the curators hadn’t gone far enough in centering work that was actually created by women, rather than simply portraying them. However, both shows represent steps towards devising new methods to disrupt traditional art historical narratives.

Still woefully underrepresented in permanent collections

In the fall and winter of 2020, the National Gallery hosted its first exhibition headlined by a female artist. It was a retrospective of the works of the notable Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women whose work is kept in the gallery’s permanent collection.

Female artists are woefully under-represented in the permanent collections of major museums around the world – these are the works of art owned by museums and hung on the walls all year round, not just during special exhibitions.

Pregnant woman holds baby, top half exposed.
Self-portrait on the 6th birthday by Paula Modersohn-Becker, a female Post-Impressionist artist.
Wikimedia Commons

With a collection of more than 2,000 works, the National Gallery owns just 24 works by women, representing just eight female artists. While this ratio is remarkably bad, the National Gallery is not alone in having a profound imbalance.

Art publications Artnet and art podcast In Other Words entered into a collaboration in 2019 to analyze the representation of women in the collections of American museums. They found that between 2008 and 2018, only 14% of the work in museum exhibits was by women and only 11% of museum acquisitions were by women. These acquisitions and exhibitions are strongly focused on modern and contemporary art.

Female artists working before 1900 are much less represented in museum collections. In some cases, their works are in smaller museums or private collections, and in others they have gone undetected or lost. This makes including their work in exhibitions more difficult as it can be harder to find.

But despite the fact that women’s work has been less reliably preserved throughout history, a lot of it still exists. Museums hiding behind the excuse of a “lack” of women’s work are perpetuating a lie that has been debunked by countless feminist art historians since Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

Abstract painting.
Electric prisms by Sonia Delaunay.
Wikimedia Commons

Writing in 2015, art historian Griselda Pollock explained that the evidence of women artists “is in black and white” in exhibition and sales records in the 19th century. “This is the main proof. It cannot be contradicted. But it has been consistently ignored by 20th-century art historians and 21st-century museum curators.”

The National Gallery’s continued reliance on outdated art history is a failure of its duty as steward of the British public’s art collection. Museums, especially museums such as the National Gallery, which receive significant public funding, have a responsibility to accurately communicate the history and relevance of the objects they own. They must also continue to innovate and respond to cultural changes.

A museum whose collection is less than 1% women is hardly representative of a country with 50% women. Nor is it representative of an art history that, while still not providing equal opportunities for men and women, has certainly nurtured a plethora of pioneering female artists.

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