Painted, Women

By Zonaira Chaudry

The topic and inspiration behind many of the greatest masterpieces of all time have been women. Gradually, they moved from behind the canvas to being in front and were inspired to express themselves through their own artistic accomplishments. Unfortunately, their work was often labelled as feminine seemingly to side-step artistic validation. Yet there are key voices from within the group, each one an individual vision, and the world is richer for it. After all, women bring a unique standpoint across all of the creative arts, a voice we need to hear. Find out more In Painted, Women Here.

The image on left-hand side, Janice Biala, Yellow Still Life c.1955 Oil on canvas, 162.6 x 129.5 cm Courtesy The Christian Levett Collection© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

“I didn’t want to be a woman artist, I just wanted to be an artist.”

Isabel Bishop

Maybe shocking (or not) but in the 1800s the famous French art institution École des Beaux-Arts denied women of state-sponsored free training which led budding female artists to receive expensive private tutelage from artists or art teachers. Women artists were also not allowed to learn life drawing or participate in state commissions and competitions.     

Marie Bracquemond, a young woman at the time, who became a famous French Impressionist artist as well as a notable name in the Impressionist movement was a student of the celebrated artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres who also taught young ladies to paint.

But of course, Bracquemond said that Ingres doubted the courage and determination of women artists. The male teacher would only ask women to paint flowers, fruits and portraits. Bracquemond’s opinion not only reflects her own experience in an art studio but the general societal mindset about women artists which remained sadly stayed unchanged till the 19th century.

This discrimination in art led female artists to lean towards Impressionism, expressionism and realism inspiring them to decode and create art reflecting contemporary life instead of historical themes; thus bringing with them modernism.

Elaine de Kooning, The Bull, 1959 Acrylic and collage on Masonite 76.2 x 88.9 cm Courtesy The Christian Levett Collection, © EdeK Trust

Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70 is the latest exhibition ( 9th February – 7th May)  hosted by the Whitechapel Gallery.  Consisting of 150 paintings belonging to 81 international women artists of a forgotten generation, the display highlights the Abstract Expressionist movement where female artists have proved themselves as competent competition for the dominant male painters of this movement. More than half of these artworks have never been displayed before in the UK.

The thematic exhibition gives gestural abstraction a platform to be fêted with the work of these artists and takes the visitor on a journey of discovering how Abstraction is reflected through the practices of these women coming from varied backgrounds, culture, and societies after the repercussions of the Second World War after all women had contributed unfailingly in the war efforts.

The artists have been inspired to paint vivid observations of bold subjects from Fascism in East Asia and South America to the impact of Communism in Eastern Europe.  Liberating themes like freedom of expression, perception and gesture within cultural contexts also transpired on canvas.

The exhibition shows the work of famous names like Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler and international artists like Mozambican-Italian artist Bertina Lopes and the South Korean artist Wook Kyung Choi.

Opening with “April Mood”, a four-meter log abstract painting by Helen Frankenthaler, the first section shows how artists explored paint characteristics and devised their own form of composition and structure rather than following conventional techniques. Frankenthaler’s work is accompanied by Marta Minujín, an Argentinian artist who created painted textured surfaces by using lacquer, sand, chalk and carpenter’s glue. 

Helen Frankenthaler, April Mood, 1974, Acrylic on canvas 152 x 434 cm Courtesy of ASOM Collection© Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2022

The artistic expressions in mythology and symbolism have also been underlined in the next section of the exhibition with works of Lee Krasner, Behjat Sadr, Bertina Lopes and Jay DeFeo.

Lee Krasner, Bald Eagle, 1955. Oil, paper, and canvas collage on linen 195.6 x 130.8 cm Courtesy of ASOM Collection. © 2022 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The “Bald Eagle” created in 1955 by Lee Krasner sheds a unique light on metamorphism. Iranian artist Behjat Sadr’s untitled piece shows the supremacy of calligraphy against a dark background with emerging oppositional colors around a red heart. Bertina Lopes’s work speaks about Mozambican iconography and the political situation of Mozambique.   

The next group of artists expressed their inner selves with pure emotions with pieces by Ukrainian-born Janet Sobel, the Spanish artist Juanca Francés’ and Venezuelan artist Mercedes Pardo.

Janet Sobel Illusion of Solidity c.1945 Oil on canvas 109.2 × 68.6 cm Courtesy of ASOM Collection    

The collection then moves on to pieces which are strongly directed towards performance arts like dance and music. “Black Pagoda” painted in 1959 is a masterpiece by the American artist Judith Godwin where she is inspired by the performances of the American dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. The painting mimics modern dance movements by a strong angled element bearing similarities with the sweeping movements of the dancer and her troupe. 

The final fragment of this exhibition is a visual excursion through the artists’ eyes where the subjects of their artwork are their own surroundings, rural towns and seascapes. Chinyee, a Chinese artist presents “A Touch of Red” where a subliminal idea is projected by bright colours amongst a green-colored foamless landscape. Taking the concept of backdrops further, Britta Ringvall paints “Swedish Landscape” where a peaceful rural scenery has been captured through a red-curtained window.

From the Whitechapel gallery to Barbican Art Gallery, female art with all its glory is being admired. Alice Neel’s Hot Off The Griddle ( 16 February- 21 May)has opened in Barbican Art Gallery. It is a collaborative presentation with the Centre Pompidou Paris and is Neel’s largest exhibition in the UK which shows her work of 60 years.

Based in New York, Neel carved her own niche by painting figuratively when it was thought to be unconventional.

Named the “Court painter of the underground”, her art shows unique subjects such as pregnant females, civil rights activists, queer activists and Black and Puerto Rican children.

Alice Neel. Support the Union, 1937
© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

Her work is a historic documentation of New York’s bohemian era. Neel’s own character bearing “hypersensitivity” and “the will of the devil” provoked her to be an artist. She claims that

 ‘One of the reasons I painted was to catch life as it goes by, right hot off the griddle… the vitality is taken out of real living’.

Alice Neel

Neel created artwork which was considered scandalously intimate at the time. In fact, a portrait of her friend and writer Joe Gould showing genitalia was not exhibited in public until 40 years after its creation.

 Alice Neel. John Perreault, 1972,
© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

During 1940-50, when she was financially unstable, she created mindful portraits of neighbours and friends to reflect on the inequalities and pressures on the psychology of the people she painted. Her portraiture skills also reached famous names such as Sam Brody, the Marxist filmmaker, Poet Frank O’Hara, Jackie Curtis, the actor and star of Warhol’s Factory and Harold Cruse, a communist mind of the times.

 She made a political statement by dabbling in portraiture when Abstractionism was in vogue. Her subject matter showed her desire to respect humanity’s vulnerability regardless of gender, colour, and class.

Alice Neel. Annie Sprinkle, 1982© The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel.

The exhibition showcases not only her vivid portraits but also historical material from that time like film, photography, and letters. “Pull my Daisy” is a 1959 short film directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie.

It features Neel herself with an improvised narrative by Jack Kerouac and can be viewed at the Barbican alongside her full-sized self-portrait which was completed in 5 years when the artist turned 80. She painted her ageing body with all its eminence thus again breaking stereotypical conventions.

All these women faced perils in making themselves established artists. The shifts in cultural mindsets initiated the Feminist Art Movement.  The 60s saw the rise of the Feminist art movement where female artists set out to claim their place next to their male opponents thereby shifting gender stereotypes.

But it was not till the late 70s that the Feminist Art Movement was successful in creating spaces and opening windows to female representation. Women created art which spoke about their experiences and gender politics. During the 80’s Feminist Art Movement took another historic turn bringing about Identity Art and Activist Art into existence thereby making women artists write their own art history.

Both exhibitions have showcased that women across borders with their distinctive foresight and the will to create art in front of adversity and oppression have the artistic capabilities to leave an imprint on the art world and initiate a dialogue amplifying the female experience.

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