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Women Artists Win!

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution

an exhibition at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, February 17–May 12, 2008
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Cornelia H. Butler and Lisa Gabrielle Mark
Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles/MIT Press, 512 pp., $59.95

In 1971, Linda Nochlin, an assistant professor of art history at Vassar, published an essay asking “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”1 Her question was meant to provoke, and it did, although she tried to suggest all along that it not be taken entirely seriously. Six years later, together with another art historian, Ann Sutherland Harris, she mounted an exhibition in several US venues featuring women artists from the Renaissance to the present.

The undisputed revelation of “Women Artists, 1550–1950”2 was a seventeenth-century Italian painter named Artemisia Gentileschi, whose imposing—but until then little known—Susanna and the Elders (1610), painted before she had turned twenty, showed outstanding skill. More pointedly, however, this painting of a terrified young woman, surprised at her bath by two old lechers, evoked the dramatic start of the artist’s own professional life. Brought up in her father’s workshop in Rome—Orazio Gentileschi, a contemporary of Caravaggio, ranked among the most competent and versatile European painters of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—the seventeen-year-old Artemisia caught the perpetually roving eye of his collaborator Agostino Tassi.

Orazio Gentileschi had engaged Tassi, a potbellied rogue who specialized in painting fantastic classical architectures, to teach his talented daughter the finer points of perspective. Tassi, however, had other pursuits in mind. Before joining Gentileschi’s studio, he had hired an assassin to eliminate his wife. Confident that he was a widower, he first tried to seduce his new pupil, and then resorted to force. Gentileschi pressed Tassi to marry his daughter (which may have been Tassi’s plan all along); but it quickly emerged that the wife still existed—her assassin had simply pocketed the money.

To save Artemisia’s social standing (and then only barely), the Gentileschi, father and daughter, had only one real alternative: to charge Tassi with rape in a Roman court. In the course of proceedings whose transcripts are still preserved in Rome’s State Archive, Artemisia endured a medical examination to establish the state of her virginity and then the ordeal of testifying under torture. She was subjected to the sibille, the “Sibyls” (for their oracular powers), strings threaded between her fingers and then progressively tightened, a dreadful prospect for a woman who intended to live by the work of her hands. It is unlikely that the sibille were applied for long, or with more than symbolic force: her testimony of Tassi’s misdeeds is a horrific tale of stalking and rape, and the court found in Artemisia’s favor. The rapist was sentenced to eight months in prison and a fine (it is not clear that he ever complied with either); his victim quickly married another painter and moved away to Florence. Susanna and the Elders was painted during the period of Tassi’s assaults, and it has been irresistibly tempting, then and now, to connect the biblical story with events in Artemisia’s own life (not least because the dirty old men who spied on Susanna were found out and executed).

The 1977 show also included female Old Masters of established reputation: Renaissance painters like the Cremonese aristocrat Sophonisba Anguissola and the Bolognese Lavinia Fontana; eighteenth-century professionals like the pastel portraitist Rosalba Carriera, whose Venetian studio was once as essential a stop on the Grand Tour as that of her male colleague Pompeo Batoni in Rome, and the Swiss-born Angelika Kauffmann, represented by a self-portrait that showed the dark-haired, porcelain-skinned beauty making a definitive choice between painting and music. Kauffmann’s specialty would be the manly preserve of classical history painting.

Beauty also probably played a certain part in establishing the reputations of the enigmatic Russian flapper Tamara de Lempicka (not included in “Women Artists”) and Argentine-born Leonor Fini (described in a recent Italian catalog, noted below, as bellissima—in his time, Edmund Wilson agreed). Although it may have been more of a grab bag than an encyclopedic retrospective, “Women Artists” nonetheless succeeded in achieving its fundamental aim, presenting women artists as fully competent, then and now, even in the restrictive sense of “artist” as synonymous with “easel painter in the modern Western tradition.”

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Susanna and the Elders—now in the Schönborn family collection in Schloss Weissenstein in Bavaria—was perhaps the most technically proficient painting she ever produced, vividly confirming that her father’s well-run workshop stimulated and reinforced the competence of everyone involved in it. The virtuosity of the Old Masters was shaped by a system that took them in as children and sustained them ever afterward in a collective endeavor—such notorious misanthropes as Michelangelo and Caravaggio still spent their lives in the constant company of assistants. Girls were largely excluded from this world—Artemisia Gentileschi’s experience suggests why—but this does not mean that girls lacked artistic talent, or, necessarily, that this talent was inevitably destined to be thwarted by an accident of birth.

Painting may have been a largely male preserve, but it was never exclusively so. Like Orazio Gentileschi, Tintoretto taught his daughter Marietta how to paint alongside his sons; so did Lavinia Fontana’s successful father, Prospero, and Fede Galizia’s father, the miniaturist Nunzio. Sophonisba Anguissola was only the most talented among six painting sisters. And when Artemisia Gentileschi, the most ambitious of them all, established her own independent workshops in Florence, Rome, and Naples, she used her father’s studio as her model; the architectural painter Viviano Codazzi collaborated with her much as Agostino Tassi had done with Orazio.

There is a fundamental problem, however, with restricting artistry to painting, either in the Renaissance or now. In the first place, Renaissance artists were also goldsmiths, sculptors, architects, military engineers, city planners, and designers of the sugar sculptures called “triumphs”—trionfi. Secondly, there were (and are) other preserves of wit and invention that have belonged predominantly to women, with their own traditions of apprenticeship and proficiency. These traditions have been relegated for several centuries to the status of craft rather than art, and the objects they have produced often wear out more quickly than painting, sculpture, and architecture. In their own way, however, they have been just as essential, as artistic, as art itself.

A fully equipped Baroque altar, for example, only began with the arts as we usually define them—its architecture, its sculptural decoration, and its painted altarpiece. In full glory, it was also lit by lamps of silver or bronze, by candles in ornate metallic or enamel candlesticks. The stone surface of its table would be covered by satin or velvet, intricately embroidered in silk or metallic thread, topped by cloths of white linen lined in lace. Along the tops and bases of the pilasters in most Baroque churches, there are still rows of small studs where elaborate embroidered hangings can be fastened on festival days, and these fittings are by no means gone: the Chiesa Nuova in Rome is resplendent in red and white every March 16, Santa Maria Maggiore in Florence has a gorgeous set of blue-and-white appliquéd festival hangings, and Palermo provides a veritable treasury of liturgical textiles.

This needlework and lace, meticulous in its perfection and complex in its design, is largely the work of women, and it requires the same coordination of hand and eye that Raphael needed to make a painting. Indeed, every woman who could was expected to sew, and few girls or women were ever seen with idle hands. Mary Queen of Scots whiled away her imprisonment with her “needyll,” and the calm, gradual rhythm of creation was surely the best sedative available to her. If we have no Leonardos and Michelangelos from this embroidered world, it is partly because so many towels and handkerchiefs have worn to rags, and partly because we have not been looking for greatness in their humble beauty. In the meantime, we do have that remarkable document the Bayeux Tapestry, a historical chronicle embroidered by Norman noblewomen. Embroidery was not always simply a way for La Bohème to eke out her living in a Parisian garret.

In the thirty years since Linda Nochlin wrote an article that really asked “Why are there no great women painters in the modern European workshop tradition?,” what were once known as the “minor” arts have changed status to become the “decorative arts.” This shift is no small matter, for many of these items originally cost more than the works of what has been considered “high” art. In many ways the most interesting answers to Nochlin’s question about women artists are those that emerge from setting the work of women painters and sculptors within a broader range of women’s—or human—handiwork.

In effect, this broader interpretation of the artistic impulse is now put forward routinely in exhibitions, not only in contemporary shows where “Fiber Arts” have garnered recognition in their own right, but also in historical exhibitions like the recent “Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797,” which traveled to Paris, New York, and the Ducal Palace in Venice. There Iranian carpets, Turkish damask, and Italian embroidery kept company with Murano glass, Bellini paintings, and Ottoman weaponry. Women’s hands were no less involved than men’s in creating the aesthetic environment in which people lived.3

Clearly, moreover, women’s handiwork had immense importance in earlier societies. Archaeologists now generally assume that the first potters, like the first farmers, may well have been women. In ancient Greece, where a single word, techne, described every kind of handwork from painting to weaving to blacksmithing, a goddess, Athena, ran the show, except for the smithy where the gods ordered up their armor (and perhaps the shoes for Pegasus and Apollo’s horses of the sun): that dark, dirty realm belonged to lame Hephaistos. The earliest architectural remnants in Italy, of Iron Age houses (2,600 years ago), show that the single most important article of furniture, the central idea behind the plan of these dwellings, was a great standing loom, the pride of the materfamilias, the mother of the family. Its rows of threads, in Latin the ordo, constituted the original meaning of the word “order”; thanks to increasingly sophisticated methods of archaeological investigation and conservation, we are able now to see just what those ancient fabrics looked like, and they are amazing. It no longer sounds implausible when ancient Greeks write about the intricate textiles made by legendary weavers like Penelope and Arachne, or about historical weavers, like the women of Athens who created a new dress, or peplos, for the statue of Athena Polias on the Acropolis. The rows and registers of figures on these fabrics were, in their own way, as carefully composed and worked out as a play by Sophocles or a frieze by Phidias. In a domestic setting, a mother’s loom was also as likely to produce a complex interwoven design as it was a rough bolt of homespun. The proverbial Roman woman’s epitaph, Domi mansit, lanam fecit (“She stayed at home and made wool”), praises a creator with the same verb, facere, that artists used.4

It is therefore discouraging that two recent shows at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York must propose elevating these traditional crafts to the status of art by adding suggestive adjectives—Extreme Embroidery, Radical Lace, Subversive Knitting; by opening the field to men; and by smacking down the women who “made wool” to less personal fanfare.5 Brutally, the museum’s Web site exclaims:

  1. 1

    Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” Art News, Vol. 69, No. 9 (January 1971), reprinted in her book Women, Art, and Power and Other Essays (Harper and Row, 1988).

  2. 2

    Women Artists, 1550–1950,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, December 21, 1976–March 8, 1977; University Art Museum, University of Texas, Austin, April 12–June 12, 1977; Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, July 14–September 4, 1977; and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, October 8–November 27, 1977. The catalog of the exhibition was published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Random House, 1976.

  3. 3

    Venice and the Islamic World, 828–1797,” reviewed in these pages by William Dalrymple, July 19, 2007. Exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, October 2, 2006–February 18, 2007; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, March 27, 2007–July 8, 2007; and the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, July 28–November 25, 2007. The catalog of the exhibition was edited by Stefano Carboni, with texts by Sylvia Auld, Michael Barry, Rosa Barovier Mentasti, Giampiero Bellingeri, Barbara H. Berrie, Stefano Carboni, Giovanni Curatola, Walter B. Denny, Maria Vittoria Fontana, Ernst J. Grube, Jean-Claude Hocquet, Deborah Howard, Susan La Niece, Julian Raby, Adriana Rizzo, Sandra Sardjono, Catarina Schmidt Arcangeli, and Marco Verità (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 2007).

  4. 4

    Cited in J.C. von Orelli, Inscriptionum latinarum selectarum amplissima collectio ad illustrandam Romanae Antiquitatis disciplinam accommodata, ac magnarum collectionum supplementum complura emendationesque exhibens (Zurich, 1828), Vol. 2, p. 4848 as “domum servavit, lanam fecit,” but often paraphrased.

  5. 5

    Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting,” January 25–June 17, 2007, and “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery,” November 8, 2007–April 27, 2008.

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