Women and contemporary art, how to redress the years of silencing
How many women artists can you name? Do you know any orchestras conducted by women? Why are we perpetually obliged to specify when we talk about ‘women artists’ but never male artists?
In New York in 1989 a series of posters began to appear. They had been left by the activist feminist group the Guerrilla Girls, bearing slogans such as “Do Women Have To Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female. ”
So now, almost 30 years on, what role do women play in the art world? Judging by their presence in the world’s museums, it is a rather insignificant one. But all is not lost, there is the gradual emergence of a number of platforms with the primary aim of increasing the visibility and recognition of women artists. One such initiative is run by Camille Morineau, director of exhibitions and collections at the Monnaie de Paris, and founder of AWARE. Here she is in conversation with Sophie Payen.
Sophie Payen: How did AWARE evolve?
Camille Morineau: AWARE whilst I was working at the Centre Pompidou, in 2009 I suggested to the director at the time, Alfred Pacquement, that we did a rehang of the museum’s collection focusing on women artists. I had previously tried to organise exhibitions of feminist art, but without success. With “elles@centrepompidou” I put forward an exhibition centred around women artists, using pieces from the existing permanent collection. It was only once I started this project however, that I realised that I really didn’t have the tools to carry out the work properly. Most of the artists that I was exhibiting had had few exhibitions and few articles on their work. For these women to find their place in art history, we must provide the necessary tools so that they can be evaluated on the same scale as men.
The exhibition “elles@centrepompidou” was a first step towards creating such tools, we launched a website, with artist biographies, the cultural, economical and political contexts that they were working in, interviews and a historical, theoretical and intellectual analysis. After the exhibition closed in 2011, I began to think about how this could become solidified and more ambitious. How could we develop resources that covered a huge time frame and geographical span.
AWARE was built from the start with the support of men, and that’s very important for us. We develop museum visits, conferences and speeches that are aimed at engaging the widest possible audience. I think that today there is a real interest in the long-silenced history of women.
SP: In the 19th century, in a copy of the Gazette des Beaux Arts, Paul Mantz called Berthe Morisot a ‘painting maid’ in the same way as you’d qualify someone as a housemaid. Art critics wrote about the way in which women artists would paint ‘feminine subjects’, but while Renoir would paint scenes of family intimacy, no one would qualify him as a painter of female subjects. It is a similar issue of discourse when we say that Berthe Morisot followed Edouard Manet or that Camille Claudel followed Rodin, but never the other way around…
This way of speaking about artists is still ongoing today, Artemisia Gentileschi is perpetually reduced to her status as a woman, and more so as her status as a veiled woman.
Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, Maisons Françaises, une collection #240 - 241, 2015, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Allen, Paris
How can we speak about women artists without reducing the conversation to one of gender, in favour of a discussion about artistic practice. How can we speak in the same terms that we use with men? That is to say to discuss the social, cultural and historical problematics implied by the work. How can we progress our critical regard?
CM: What we need at our disposal is information, archives and the creation of knowledge. Women have long been denied the notion of invention. This is something that dates back in psychoanalytic and anthropological debates: can a woman be a genius, can she create something totally new? The only efficient way to respond to these kinds of prejudices is to stockpile information, to create a database where students, researchers, and members of the public can see clearly all that women have created.
SP: Certain artistic practices have been qualified as ‘virile’ art, reserved for men only. This was the case for sculpture in the 19th century. Today, artists such as Anita Molinero and Morgane Tschiember use concrete and car parts and some critics have called these works ‘virile sculptures’. It is the same in music, what has really changed since the 19th century?
CM: In France there is a problem with culture and education with regards to the question of gender. In the United States there has been huge development in the field of Gender Studies since the 1980s, but it isn’t really the case in France. Questions of gender are still treated with the same naivety that we faced in the 19th century here. With regards to artistic creation, to see this kind of work within the framework of gender is completely up to the artist and doesn’t necessarily always impinge upon the work.
When we start looking at interpretation and reception of these artists, we start to create grounds for discrimination. To come back to the question of female conductors of orchestras, which also implies an artistic skill, the management of a team, and the management of a budget, we see discrimination. When a career involves a lot of money and management, the number of women in these fields drops dramatically. France is a country that is both slow and reactionary with regards to these issues, but it is also a country that can be revolutionary.
SP: In 2009 the prospect of eventually creating a museum for women in Paris was posed to the director of the Centre Pompidou, Alain Seban, who responded: “why not? But we must take into account the difficulty that we face today with regard to the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary creation, and how that impacts the quality of a collection, and allows for frequent rotation of collections.” He added: “If such an initiative should come to fruition, it would be in the best interests of Centre Pompidou to contribute.” Would a collection dedicated to women artists not allow us to give greater visibility to undervalued, or forgotten artists like in Washington?
CM: The best way of valuing what women artists are doing today is to show their diversity and their complexity, and make their work available for research. Before creating AWARE I always thought that it was more useful to create a website than a collection, firstly because it is far cheaper, and also because I think women artists are stronger shown alongside men in museum collections and in exhibitions. It is preferable to have more women in permanent collections and a higher proportion of solo shows, than to ghettoise them in one specific space. We need to highlight and rectify their prior absence in the critical, theoretical and historical fields.
SP: In 1987 Wilhelmina and Wallace Holladay created the National Museum of Women in the Arts to house their 4,000 work collection of exclusively female creation. In Quebec, German and Vietnam, there are museums dedicated to women, while in France Pierre Soulages, a contemporary artist who is still alive already has a museum dedicated to him. It is only this year that Camille Claudel, who died in 1943, has had a museum opened in her name. Why is it unimaginable that in France we create a museum for women?
CM: Things are changing in France. I was able to organise the Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition at the Grand Palais, and more and more people are getting behind this issue and rendering it visible. There is a more theoretical issue however for me, and it starts with education and culture. There are very few universities treating these issues — Paris 8, Sciences Po and EHESS being the exceptions — the prestigious Ecole du Louvre almost never addresses gender polemics in a direct way. We have to catch up theoretically, we should build up a field of theory, develop our critical tools, support museum research, help art centers and regional funds to direct their attention to this issue.
SP: In France, the fine arts school became mixed in 1897, however women were only allowed to access studios and exams by paying for their classes, while for men it was free. Today the cost of studies is the same for everyone and since the year 2000 around 60% of art school graduates are women. Should this change not be reflected in museum collections?
CM: You raise an essential question here, which is that of access to education. Women have long been excluded from life drawing classes, yet it is the base for learning to draw. Yet this did not stop them from becoming great artists. Just because more women are going to art school today, it does not afford them equal recognition, we need better recognition from galleries, museums and art critics, and all this relates back to our fundamental anthropological beliefs relating to the creativity of women.
Read the full interview (in French) here.