Sarah Crompton chairs a panel of curators, artists and the director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery to discuss the future of women in the art world, as reported by Arts writer Miriam Al Jamil.
This evening of discussion at Dulwich Picture Gallery was a significant and timely event – one which is likely to resonate for many readers of Lucy Writers. Sarah Crompton, the former Arts Editor-in-chief at the Daily Telegraph, chaired the evening. The speakers included Jennifer Scott, the Director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery; photographer Carla van de Puttelaar, whose sumptuous new book Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World celebrates many significant designers, artists and gallery specialists; and curator and arts advisor, Lisa Anderson, who founded the online platform Black British Art in 2015. In the audience were many of the artists who feature in Van de Puttelaar’s book and others who are associated with Anderson’s initiative, such as artists from the Black British Female Artist Collective. The room was filled with creative and supportive enthusiasts for the subject, and the wide-ranging opinions and observations which emerged from the discussion were both personal and highly relevant to the current state of the Arts for women as artists and facilitators.
All three women outlined the paths their careers had taken, the decisions they had made and problems they had encountered within the Arts establishment. Scott highlighted the importance of having confidence in your ability. In her case, she was lucky to receive encouragement to apply for a Directorship instead of for a lateral post as curator. Early in her career, she was aware of how tough it could be and how many doors in the arts are shut for women. Van de Puttelaar too realised early how powerfully the Old Boy Network dominated the world of the Old Masters and was determined to provide a voice for women at different stages of their careers in the Arts, to encourage a network across the boundaries of expertise so that women could learn from each other and benefit from the positive energy this generates. Van de Puttelaar’s message throughout the discussion centred on communication and the opportunities this releases. Anderson is also concerned with women’s artistic networks. She identified the ‘double life’ she led, firstly in business development and fund-raising, and secondly her evening connections with the projects of friends, dancers and artists and attempts to help them in their planning and funding. Raising the profile of individuals online has become her mission.
Lisa Anderson decried the ‘educational blanks’ which still mean that both contemporary and historical women remain unknown and unstudied.
The discussion moved on to art history and how the male gaze determined the subjects of paintings by male artists. Evidently Scott is director of a gallery full of paintings by and for ‘rich white men’. She noted that she doesn’t apologise for this, but instead tackles the question of how we are conditioned to think about art. How do we know, for example, that those early cave paintings were not made by women? Women were, after all, more likely to be in the caves while the men hunted. We must always question, look for the presence of women who have historically been kept invisible such as those who helped Rubens become a success throughout his life. Crompton asked whether the key 1971 feminist essay by Linda Nochlin ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ and the historical ban on women joining art academies is still relevant today. Van de Puttelaar pointed out the truism that women were ‘snowed under’ with the domestic duties of daily life, childbirth etc. but that hidden treasures of womens’ creative production are still being found. So if white women struggled, how hard was it for women of colour to break through the barriers for artistic recognition? The Turner Prize winner of 2017, Lubaina Himid makes ‘the hidden and neglected cultural contribution made by real but forgotten people’ central in her work. Anderson decried the ‘educational blanks’ which still mean that both contemporary and historical women remain unknown and unstudied. Edna Manley, for example ‘played a major pioneering role in the history of 20th century Jamaican art’ and is still little celebrated. For Scott, the first time she browsed through the Phaidon book Great Women Artists, she remembers a release of the tension she normally feels when searching for women in art history books and the joy that a whole book of women artists brought her.
Crompton asked about the dangers of ‘tokenism’. Is it just a ‘moment’ for women, such as the new interest in Dora Maar who long remained in Picasso’s shadow? Could an emphasis on women provoke a backlash? Scott restated her focus on the necessity for a change of conditioning. She mentioned a news headline which introduced her as the first ‘woman’ director of Dulwich Picture Gallery. This clearly rankled. It is a question of making a ‘new normal’ but we need to be careful how we use language, and avoid the temptation to ‘overcorrect’, for example to use ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ to mean ‘he and she’. She feels that exhibitions on such artists as Vanessa Bell or Leonora Carrington should not present these artists as token women but as leading and interesting practitioners in their own right. Van de Puttelaar added the example of Berthe Morisot, who was not just a ‘female Impressionist’ but central to the movement and created her own work as well as helping the other members of the group.
Jennifer Scott sees no future in a ‘stuffy, closed’ view and rejects any accusation that art is debased through making it more accessible.
The converse of this re-emphasis argument might be that Picasso for example, would be ‘downgraded’ because of his personality and attitudes to women. Van de Puttelaar pointed out that much of his work was mediocre and commercial, and there would be no harm in levelling off the reputations of such seemingly unassailable great artists. Scott added that actually Rembrandt was not a pleasant man. He employed Geertje Dircx as a wet nurse for his son after his wife Saskia died. Dircx then became his lover, but after she later claimed a breach of promise. Rembrandt responded by having her confined to an asylum. Scott resisted having this fact hidden in a footnote in the current Rembrandt exhibition catalogue. As she said, Rembrandt channelled all his fallibility into his art and we should engage with both the flawed man and the artist. However, she draws the line at Eric Gill, whose personal life she does not wish to celebrate though, as she said, attitudes may be different in the future.
The panel discussed how art should be presented and how art criticism in its traditional form should be changed. All the speakers championed more instinctive and emotional reactions to art rather than those based on art theory and felt that voices from non-conventional art backgrounds should be heard. Scott has instigated rehanging in the gallery based on responses by different community groups to the works and the stories the paintings tell. She sees no future in a ‘stuffy, closed’ view and rejects any accusation that art is debased through making it more accessible. Anderson felt that the younger generation sees gender difference as less relevant. They are used to intersectionality and gender differences are more fluid. To hold on to and encourage new audiences, change is imperative. Van de Puttelaar saw education as crucial, how art is taught in the face of rapid globalisation and Scott added that competitiveness is outmoded and the new emphasis on kindness and generosity irrespective of gender should be at the centre of artistic practice.
The speakers on the panel approached the discussion from different career trajectories and artistic experience, but the message they shared was one of collaboration and embracing change, breaking down the entrenched attitudes to art, its practitioners and audiences, and opening up new opportunities for them. A browse through Van de Puttelaar’s book showed that her featured women from the art world were overwhelmingly white, a fact which suggests that Anderson’s work has only just begun.
Women in the Arts was held at Dulwich Picture Gallery on 12th November. Click the links above or here for more information on all the speakers.