Until the early 20th century, being an artist was considered improper for a woman. The example given again and again was Camille Claudel. In Frankfurt, the exhibition “Storm Women, Women artists of the avant-garde in Berlin 1910-1932” dedicated to women artists who collaborated to Sturm magazine just closed its doors at the Schirn Kunsthalle. This magazine founded in 1911 by Herwath Walden, a gallery owner, editor and important cultural figure of his time, reproduced and helped publicize the works of many female artists for whom these publications represented their first big chance at exposure in the art world. At the time, such women had neither the recognition of society, nor access to the academic training available to men. However, through their visionary work and ideas, they played an important role in the development of Cubism, Expressionism, Constructivism, and many more movements. Walden’s part was unique in that he presented both female and male artists with equal enthusiasm, even though female talents were often criticized or belittled. The exhibition gave us a chance to see or discover the works of 18 European artists, some known, others now forgotten, like the Belgian Marthe Donas, Gabriele Münter, Sonia Delaunay, Else Lasker-Schüler, Lavinia Schulz, Marcelle Cahn… in an array of colours, power and media ranging from painting on canvas to drawing and printmaking, and even the creation of theatre costumes.
How far did we get nearly 100 years later?
In Brussels, Group 2 Gallery has been exhibiting female artists regularly ever since it was established in 1990. It just opened the exhibition Femmes aux pinceaux (running until 12 March), with includes works by Anne Bonnet, Mig Quinet, Marthe Donas, Natalya Zaloznaya,… all 20th-century artists, three of whom were founding members of the Young Belgian Painters group (1945-1948).
Even today, any initiatives, large or small, to promote female artists remain necessary and useful.
In London last week, during the award of the Max Mara Prize for Women Artists to the British artist Emma Hart at the Whitechapel Gallery, we endeavoured to paint a picture of the current situation by meeting the ladies involved in the prize.
Iwona Blazwick, Whitechapel Gallery Director:
Do you know that only 17% of women sit on the boards of directors of major global companies and that 70% of minimum wage jobs are held by women?
How many major women artists are there today in the West? And elsewhere in the world? In the top 100 most expensive works on the market? A Rothko sold for $ 75 M, whereas a Georgia O’ Keefe only fetched $ 44 M. This is due to the fact that economic power has been in the hands of men for so long. Including gallery owners and collectors.
Up until the 2000s, in the museums, there were no works by modern and contemporary women artists. But things are changing slowly. I think that, in this respect, visual arts are ahead of the other arts, such as theatre and music, and are paving the way towards change.
How did the Max Mara Prize come about?
The Whitechapel Gallery has a long tradition of showing women artists. In our 100 years of history, we were the first in Europe to present a solo exhibition of Frida Kahlo in 1974, of Barbara Hepworth in 1960, of Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin…
Max Mara was looking to establish a presence in the UK that it would dedicate to women. Together, we discussed ways to support women artists, how we could celebrate Italy, and what would be the best way to connect our two philosophies. The jury panel is there to ensure we fulfil these three missions. It consists of a collector or gallery owner, a curator, a critic and an artist. Each jury member nominates 5 artists who have yet to reach major recognition and could benefit artistically and professionally from a 6-month residency in Italy. They should be open to new experiences and be able to produce a significant piece at the end of the residency. Each jury member therefore discovered 15 artists who may or may not have been known to them prior to that. This process alone has expanded the visibility of these artists and created opportunities for further exhibitions.
Why is it still necessary to have a prize for women artists? Aren’t we ghettoizing them by doing this?
Art is not defined by the identity of individuals and therefore their gender. However, identity frames the way in which everyone experiences the world, in which opportunities are offered or denied. These elements impact the way art is created. For example, is the artist able to get a studio? Does she have to take care of her children? Is her work accepted? Is she supported by a gallery?
In our neighbourhood (the East End of London, editor’s note), two young women recently left for Syria! There, they will be treated like slaves. I want to show young girls and women that it is possible to have a vision, a personal opinion. Having a vision – and not just for artists – is a form of empowerment. A vision transcends text. Everyone, without necessarily being an intellectual, can grasp its meaning. It is very powerful.
Emma Hart (1974, London) obtained a master’s in Fine Art from Slade in 2004 and supplemented her training in 2014 at Kingston University. She is a lecturer on BA Fine Art at Central Saint Martins in London. She works with ceramics, video and photography.
My work questions relationships within a family. In particular, between me and my little two-year old girl. In Italy, I will be able to work in Milan with a specialist in family therapy. Then in Faenza, I will learn new methods and know-how in relation to ceramics. I must admit that I learnt ceramics on YouTube!
I studied photography. But I soon became frustrated by the difficulty in conveying through this medium the feelings linked to an event. Clay is something you can hold in your hands, squeeze, knead, scratch, bite, reshape… It is both raw and complex… no more need for a perfect picture! Everyone is mad about 3D. But there’s clay! It’s much more fun! I like this basic connection with the earth, getting my hands dirty.
Is a prize for women artists still necessary?
I would like to think otherwise, but do you know that the majority of art students are women, while most exhibitions in galleries or museums showcase male artists? I do not believe women are to blame. Our artworks do not differ from those of men. The problem is deeply rooted in society and in the power-sharing system.
What are you getting out of this prize?
It boosts my self-confidence. As an artist, you always doubt your abilities. Six months of research and work in Italy, that’s just fabulous. I have never been away from London for more than three weeks. There will be three of us going: my partner, my daughter and I.
Marina Dacci, Director at Collezione Maramotti (Max Mara) in Reggio Emilia (Italy):
Today, women’s point of view is richer than men’s. We live in a complex world. Women artists experience and interpret the world in a different way. I’m happy to support them, to get involved in this approach, to show that life can be seen from different perspectives. These works are echoes of our times. Each voice is unique. By giving women artists a voice, we restore the balance and provide a more comprehensive vision of the world.
Why a six-month residency in Italy?
This residency was created upon observing that female artists are often in a situation of stress, as they find it difficult to dedicate time to their art, in their daily lives. Those six months are like a period of suspended time in their lives that will change them.
Helen Sumpter, Art critic and Senior Editor for ArtReview :
I am not convinced that the important thing in this prize is the gender of the artists. For artists, every opportunity matters, whatever it may be. There are also criteria stemming from the personality of the two organisers of the award: the Italian family business that is Max Mara and the London art centre that is Whitechapel Gallery.
Was it difficult to shortlist the artists?
No, because we had to choose an artist at a particular stage of her development who could make the most of this long residency in Italy. It took us two days to make our selection. The last questions we asked ourselves were: Is this artist capable of producing a closing exhibition to be shown at the Whitechapel Gallery and later at the Collezione Maramotti? Is she able to travel and make the most of this residency period? In addition, all of us, the jury panel included, had the opportunity to meet and interact with many people with great potential for our respective activities. Exciting!