Get to know three of the extraordinary artists featured in 'Art Essentials: Women Artists'.
Alina Szapocznikow was born into a Polish Jewish family in Kalisz, Poland, in 1926. As a teenager, she was interned in different ghettos and concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. Having survived the Holocaust, she moved to Prague to study at the School of Arts and Crafts and later to Paris, where she enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts.
Szapocznikow quickly rose to prominence with her expressionist sculpture, which radically re-conceptualised sculpture as a record not only of her own body, but also of memory and suffering. Her assemblage technique made groundbreaking use of new industrial materials like polyester resin, alongside mundane items like newspaper clippings and pantyhose.
The result was a unique aesthetic which nodded to the whimsy of Surrealism and mass market materiality of Pop Art, but with its own distinctive strain of trauma. “I am convinced,” she said, “that of all the manifestations of the ephemeral, the human body is the most vulnerable, the only source of all joy, all suffering, and all truth.”
One of Mexico’s foremost photographers, Graciela Iturbide’s art originates in loss. It was after the death of her six-year-old daughter, Claudia, that she took up the and enrolled in the Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos in Mexico City.
Her pictures, almost always in black-and-white, hold an austere beauty and sense of detachment. Her work explores identity, sexuality, ritual, and the role of women, as well as the many different experiences of her home country.
Some of her most famous photographs, including Nuestra Señora de Las Iguanas” (Our Lady of the Iguanas) document the indigenous peoples of Mexico, including the Zapotec people of Juchitán, where Iturbide was struck by the matriarchal organization of economics and politics: “Women run the economy, and they know how to manage their finances. Men, whether they are farm hands or factory workers, hand their earnings over to the women so that they can distribute money in the home. Women decide everything in Juchitán. Even physically,”
Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi battled against vicious sexism in her life and her art. In 1612, as a teenage student of painting in Rome, she was sexually assaulted by her tutor, Agostino Tassi. The case went to court, but it was the Gentileschi, not Tassi, who was publicly humiliated. Over a gruelling seven-month trial, she was shamed, exposed, and even tortured to “test” the veracity of her testimony. At the end of it all, Tassi – with the protection of the Pope – walked free.
Gentileschi fled Rome and moved to Florence. It was there that she made one of her most powerful works, Judith Slaying Holofernes, remarkable for its physical and psychological intensity and dramatic lighting. Later paintings such as Susanna and the Elders and Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist kept up the themes of powerful – at times vengeful – womanhood. Of her fifty-seven surviving works, 49 feature women as protagonist.
Gentileschi insisted on similar agency in her own life. She was the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence and established herself an international clientele. In a letter to her patron Don Antonio Ruffo di Calabria, she insisted that “As long as I live, I will have control over my being”.
Now recognized as one of the most progressive and expressive artists of her generation, Gentileschi will have a solo show at the National Gallery, London, in 2020.
Words by Eliza Apperly