Blog: ARTY FACTS: Celebrating Women in the Visual Arts

Women in Art

For International Women's Day today, a celebration of the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of women globally, we thought it would be an appropriate day to take a look at pioneering female artists throughout art history, particularly those of the 20th century, a period that saw significant change with regards to the representation of women in the art world.

According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in the USA, 51% of visual artists are women, however this is not what is represented in public museums and galleries. In Britain, until the extension of the Tate Modern in 2016 only 17% of the exhibiting artists were women, the subsequent extension increased that to 36%.

There are many women currently working successfully as contemporary visual artists now that opportunities have gradually become more equal across gender and social demographics. It may therefore surprise some people to learn that there were working female artists in the 17th century such as the renowned Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. For centuries, like many institutions, the art world has been male-dominated so consequently women have had barriers to overcome in pursuit of their artistic careers. 

"I have made a solemn vow never to send my drawings because people have cheated me. In particular, just today I found... that, having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St.Gata, he, in order to spend less, commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work. If I were a man, I can't imagine it would have turned out this way." Artemisia Gentileschi

With many female artists to celebrate, we have chosen five influential artists from around the world, each with their own unique vision and approach to expressing the world around them.

Tamara de Lempicka

        

Born in 1898 in Warsaw, Poland, Lempicka moved to St Petersburg in Russia with her parents. Marrying a prominent Lawyer at the age of 18, the Russian Revolution soon after led to her and her new husband fleeing the country and settling in Paris. 

Describing herself as a self-taught artist in later years - Lempicka was known for augmenting facts about her early life  -  she was determined to be independent of her husband and had taken up art instruction and courses with notable Symbolist and Fauvist painters in those first few years in Paris. Inspired by the rich, saturation of colour and clean lines of 16th century Mannerism which she had discovered whilst visiting Italy with her grandmother during her childhood, the bold, geometric forms of Cubism, particularly Synthetic Cubism, and the birth of Art Deco were also a compelling influence. This led to the development of her distinct interpretation of the female form which incorporated clean lines, dynamic structural forms and bold use of colour.

Relishing the high-society life of Paris, Lempicka also worked long hours in the studio and became one of the most successful Art Deco portraiture artists of that time. Her female subjects represented glamour and independence, a reflection of the era which was seeing progress in many areas of society, culture and industry. 

Dame Barbara Hepworth

          

A leading figure in Modernist sculpture, Barbara Hepworth was a British artist born in Wakefield in Yorkshire in 1903. Training in Sculpture at Leeds School of Art in 1920, she went on to win a scholarship at the Royal College of Art.

Concerned with abstraction and working predominately with stone or wood, Hepworth along with other contemporaries led the way in the movement of  Direct Carving which emphasised the importance of working directly into the material itself rather than the tradition of creating preliminary models before creating the final 'perfect' large-scale sculpture. This ultimately meant that the material itself informed the final outcome.

Inspired by forms and patterns within nature, these words from the artist explains those influences perfectly.

'All my early memories are of forms, shapes and textures. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fullness and concavities, through hollows and over peaks - feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me.'

 

Barbara Kruger

           

Born in 1945 in New Jersey to a working class family, Barbara Kruger is a conceptual artist who combines mass-media imagery with text to create direct statements which critique cultural constructs relating to consumerism, identity and sexuality. Initially pursuing a career in graphic design, Kruger became head designer for Condé Nast Publications and also wrote music, film and television columns for Artforum.

It was the early 80's that saw Kruger develop and progress her career as an artist. Her black and white photographic collages with highlighted red text challenged media stereotypes and addressed cultural and societal issues. Her most notable works include 'Your Body Is a Battleground', 'You Are Not Youself' and 'I Shop Therefore I Am'.

In 2001, Kruger received the MOCA Award to Distinguished Women in the Arts and later became a member of the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

'I'm trying to deal with ideas about histories, fame, hearsay and how public identities are constructed.'

'But I really resist categories – that naming is a closing down of meaning. Women's art, political art – those categorisations perpetuate a certain kind of marginality which I'm resistant to. But I absolutely define myself as a feminist.'

Frida Kahlo

          

Born in 1907 in Mexico to a German father and Mexican mother, Frida Kahlo is considered one of the most significant female artists of the 20th century. Throughout her life, Frida suffered trauma which included a severe traffic accident when she was a teenager leaving her in acute pain for most of her life. With strong interests in politics, science and art, and a promising student who intended to study medicine, Frida's accident and recovery led her to focus on painting.

A political activist, she joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1927 and married the renowned muralist painter Diego Rivera. Her art which is based around her self-portrait is considered a deeply personal commentary of her own life. Fusing symbolic, dream-like imagery with realism led many critics and contemporaries to categorise her style as Surrealist. Initially influenced by the Avant-garde European art styles of the time, as Frida's work developed during the 1920's and 30's, it became more and more influenced by the Naive folk art style of her native Mexico.

Frida's unique vision which encapsulated the female experience through themes of identity, gender, post-colonialism and race, led to exhibitions in the USA and Paris. It was not until after her death however in 1954 that Frida Kahlo's art became so widely well-known and highly regarded and she has since become an iconic figure for many minority movements.

Jenny Saville RA

         

Jenny Saville, born in 1970, is a contemporary British painter who came to prominence in the 1990's as one of the members of the YBA's (Young British Artists). During that time she created large-scale, visceral female nudes, exploring a contemporary, abstracted approach to classical figure painting.

After gaining a degree from the Glasgow School of Art, art dealer Charles Saatchi purchased Saville's portfolio of work and offered her a contract to produce artworks to exhibit at the Saatchi gallery, London. Soon becoming internationally acclaimed, Saville continues to explore the strong physicality of the female form. Her interest has been predominantly concerned with the non-perfect body which led Saville to attend plastic surgery operations where she created drawing and studies which informed her large, expressive, fluid paintings.

'Beauty is always associated with the male fantasy of what the female body is. I don’t think there is anything wrong with beauty. It’s just what women think is beautiful can be different. And there can be a beauty in individualism'

 

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