Back in 2015 the German artist Georg Baselitz claimed, “Normally women sell themselves well, but not as painters.” Adding to his previous comments where he remarked, “Women don’t paint very well, it’s a fact,” they don’t pass “the market test”.
While it is true that men typically amass a higher value at auction, and indeed Pablo Picasso’s record fee of $179million far eclipses Georgia O’Keeffe’s female record of $44million, this is indicative of the societal preclusions that have suppressed women in the arts for centuries and his comments are revealing that those are clearly still at play.
In truth, the fact that women can now compete on a global scale with male artists and the fact that now art academies are made up of 90% female attendees is a triumph in itself, and that is in no small part down to the trailblazing forebearers that preceded them. The issue, of course, is that this discussion still goes on – as Marilyn Minter told Artnet when asked if the art world was still sexist, “Hahaha…is the pope catholic?”
Towards the start of the breadcrumb trail of women in art is Sofonisba Anguissola. She was an Italian Renaissance painter who lived between 1532 and 1625. She was born into a relatively poor noble family but expressed enough skill in painting that she was able to eventually travel to Rome where she was introduced to Michelangelo who immediately recognised her talent. Such lauded acclaim represented a seismic moment for women in the arts, but the reverberations would ripple very slowly.
Fortunately, the sui generis talents of many turn of the century female artists would rattle the scene about like a pinball in-play during an earthquake and hold the door open for others. It is these trailblazers we are focussing on below, and their life and legacy in the world of art.
“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
Contrary to popular belief, Georgia O’Keeffe’s art was not merely an attempt to effeminise every budding flower, erect mountain or horny skull into some gaping orifice or proud appendage of emboldened sexuality, but rather to get to the very core of a single subject matter. Admittedly, the “deeply vaginal” cliché has entered the lexicon of the critical coterie for good reason, but there is a grander notion at play than merely transposing a spasm chasm onto a buttercup – O’Keeffe’s attempt was to unearth the inner feminity or masculinity of the ‘everyday’ in an interesting display of vibrant colour and shape. In this sense, her art itself represented the truth of egalitarianism in a meta just as much as her presence within the industry.
Her singular approach to painting was seeded from the marriage of a curious youth and an indifference to the status quo of art in early adulthood. She was a farm girl raised on the American postcard prairies of Wisconsin. The wild canvas-like open space that surrounded her gave her license to roam, but O’Keeffe’s view, even at an early age, was that there was as much to explore in the miniaturised universe of a single flower, as there was in the macrocosm that they were part of. The reverberations of this philosophy can be seen in the ripples that continue to roll out from the epicentre of Modernism.
When it comes to modern artists, in general, the importance of the piece is not limited to the picture alone but deeply entwined with the artist behind it. The legacy of O’Keeffe defies the scope of her work alone with its cultural impact. O’Keeffe was a feminist who sat right at the precipice of the emergent frontier of female art.
This inner sense of defiant liberation was heavily rooted in her youth. Interestingly this usurps a notion we often uphold of feminism as a sort of urban battleground of ties and trouser suits, rebelling against the patriarchy, well away from the seeming conservatism of rural life.
However, O’Keeffe’s rural upbringing planted a resolute stem of autonomy within her. Her own mother had hoped to be a doctor, and several of her aunts never married and chose instead to pursue independent careers.
This forthright resilience was at the core of her feminism as she wove her way into the male-dominated world of the turn of the 20th-century art world. She was a vital figure in liberation not just through illuminating a necessary need for equality, but through a passionate propagation of self-expression that stretched beyond egalitarianism and elucidated the human need for creativity.
“They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”
This escapist pursuit of finding a deeper truth in art was an absolutely vital one for the troubled Frida Kahlo. It allowed her to rise above the pain that she lived with, concluding: “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.” She lived with suffering and strife and express that her work “carries with it the message of pain,” however, she was able to reach beyond that, finding both salvation in her art and a way to preserve a state of joyous exultation, poetically postulating: “I paint flowers so they will not die.”
The root of her pain was largely physical and perhaps this is why her work often deals with the physical form in the most perfunctory sense: self-portraits. In 1925, she was on her way home from school in Mexico City when a bus crash left her with severe injuries that would plague the rest of her life with persistent pain and health problems. At this time, she had planned to become a doctor, but the demands of such a job left the dream in ruins in the fallout of the accident.
During her recovery, she was bed-ridden for months and, as a result, she returned to the artistic passion of her youth using a specially adapted easel to paint her surroundings. Unlike the realism that had proceeded her, her own interpretation of reality was profoundly individualistic. Rather than copy her surroundings like for like, she coloured her canvas with reality in an experiential sense; “I am my own muse,” she said, “The subject I know best.”
With this development of a unique style, her work became emblematic of Mexico’s postcolonial search for national identity, a feministic depiction of the female experience and an exploration of sexuality made her an LGBTQ+ icon. This combination of beauty and harsh political, social, and individual realities contained within her work led the surrealist artist André Benton to describe her paintings as “a ribbon around a bomb.”
For a time during her marriage to Diego River, she was part of a primitive celebrity art couple dubbed ‘The Elephant and the Dove’, but far from being in her husband’s shadow she boldly stepped out and illuminated her own path. As River once remarked, “[her paintings] extolled the feminine characteristics of resistance, honesty, authenticity, cruelty and suffering. Never before had a woman depicted on canvas such agonized poetry as Frida did.”
With this, she inspired future trailblazers like Patti Smith to pursue the arts by showing it was not only possible to live both a full life and do so, but it was also possible on your own terms. This is a notion celebrated still by up-and-coming Brazilian artist and photographer Camila Fontenele de Miranda, “Frida taught me and inspired me to seek my sense of self in this world… In addition to the range of possibilities that an artist like Frida Kahlo gives us, there’s so much to discuss about the artist and the subjects brought up in her work including: sexuality, genre, language, that life is not separate from work, human relations, and so on.”
“Art is the only place you can do what you like. That’s freedom.”
The late Australian art critic Robert Hughes described Paula Rego’s work as “telling stories, fairytales, fables, plays, parables and the folklore with which she grew up. But it’s a psychic narrative laced with stories from the confessional, the psychiatrists couch and her own bad dreams.” That folklore with which she grew up was a subversive force against the fascism that surrounded her Portuguese upbringing. She still propagates that same subversive force of creativity to this day.
As the Tate Gallery in London adds, “Since the 1950s, Paula Rego has played a key role in redefining figurative art in the UK and internationally. An uncompromising artist of extraordinary imaginative power, she has revolutionised the way in which women are represented.”
“I think all paintings ever since there began to be paintings were about stories,” Rego says. “All stories give an explanation for the world. They all give a face and in their way they make sense of the world.” Her work makes sense of stories and gives them a physical form. Drawing on this central idea, she had given form to lives of many and often the obfuscated condition of women as sexism in art and the wider world becomes less clear.
Her work is noted by many critics for its depiction of women as unfeminine, displaying brutish and animalistic qualities in her uncompromising depictions. This, for many, is not a particular style and more so a true representation of women in the physical world and not the fantasies in the minds of the male gaze.
Paula Rego has boldly defined a large portion of modern art. Where O’Keeffe and Kahlo may have been outliers, she ensured that their legacy would prevail. There is still room for progress, and she still proudly pursues that, exhibiting works at the Tate and other notable galleries, alongside David Hockney and Frank Auerbach.
In short, the main rebuke to Georg Baselitz comments is that the value of art is not in its “market test” value, as the legacy of these women will attest.