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Interview: The Historically Hidden World of Women in Art

Posted on 29 Mar 2019

We spoke to Flavia Frigeri, author of 'Women Artists', about women's often overlooked contribution to art.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) Young Woman Seated on a Sofa, c.1879. Oil on canvas, 80.6 x 99.7 cm (31 3/4 x 39 1/4 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Partial and Promised Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Dillon, 1992 (1992.103.2)

Women Artists is an accessible introduction to the sometimes hidden life and works of women artists from from the Baroque to the present day. Curator, art historian and author Frigeri describes her new book Women Artists as a title that allowed her to “devote an entire book to the art produced by women across different centuries”, she says “I wrote this book for an audience who is interested in art, but still curious to learn more about it”.

Frigeri describes how “with this book I wanted to pique the interest of those who might be familiar with the work of some women artists, but who perhaps are not fully aware of the extent to which women have contributed to the making and shaping of art and its history. In other words, I would love for readers to pick up the book, read it and then go out there and not be surprised that women were working alongside their male peers. The idea is to raise awareness as to how integral women were to the making of art throughout history.”

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) Group of Three Girls,1935. Oil on Canvas, 73.5 x 99.5 cm (28 7/8 x 39 1/8) National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi. Photo The Picture Art Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

“Definitely the more we look backwards, the harder it gets to fully grasp the full extent of women’s contributions to art. These days, however, a fair amount of research has gone into the rediscovery of women artists from past centuries”. The book encompasses the work of women artists born as far back as 1550, introducing the reader to women artists of significance throughout the years and ending with those who have shaped the contemporary art scene, which Frigeri defines as those born between 1942 and 1985.

Although to the casual reader it may not seem as though women artists from the past are easy to find, Frigeri still had to be thoughtful about who to include in her book, saying “I drew up a list of the artists that readers would expect to find in a book of this kind. Then I revised this list and to a certain extent enhanced it by adding artists who are perhaps lesser known but equally significant… the aim was to get a broad but also strong overview of how women have significantly contributed to the history of art”.

Lyubov Popova (1889-1924) Architectonic Painting, 1917. Oil on canvas, 75.6 x 53.3 cm (29 3/4 x 21 in.) LACMA, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Purchased with funds provided by the Estate of Hans G. M. de Schulthess and the David E. Bright Bequest (87.4)

In trying to make the book accessible and appealing to those who might not have an existing knowledge of art, Frigeri was careful to consider what information to include about each artist, striving to create a balance between biographical information and information about the art they created. When discussing what she wanted to portray about an artist, Frigeri says “the book was meant to introduce readers to the topic and hopefully if intrigued they would go on and read more about individual women”. Examples of artists featured include what Frigeri describes as “lesser known but equally key figures” like the futurist Benedetta Cappa Marinetti and figurative painter Amrita Sher-Gil, as well as better known icons such as Yoko Ono and Guerilla Girls, giving readers plenty to explore, as well as potentially new information about well-known favourites.

Despite the outlook for women in the art world looking less bleak than in centuries past. Frigeri states that 87% of the permanent collections of 18 major art museums and galleries in the USA are works by male artists. However, she does not believe that this can be solved by simply increasing the number of women artists represented; “Gender should never be treated as a means of distinguishing between artists. We need to get to a point where works speak for themselves, regardless of the artists’ gender… My hope is to get to a point where it won’t be necessary to single out women artists, because their work will be part of art’s larger narratives”.

Guerrilla Girls (b. 1985) Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? 1989. Off-set print on paper © Guerrilla Girls, courtesy guerrillagirls.com

Frigeri says that “informing a younger generation of art historians is crucial to the development of a more inclusive art history”. In raising awareness and therefore working towards redressing the balance in the art world, Frigeri’s book is a step towards more equality.

Women Artists is part of our Art Essentials series, offering accessible comprehensive introductions to key movements in art. 

Interview conducted by Sarphia Stratford