Friday, 26 January 2018

Taking notice of sexism in art galleries

While we're on the subject of how women have been objectively viewed since - well, whenever -  recent research established a variety of examples regarding how women have taken second place (if at all) to men in the world of art history.

According to an article in The Guardian just a year ago, in the UK female artists account for just 4% of the National Gallery of Scotland’s collection; 20% of the Whitworth Manchester’s and 35% of Tate Modern’s collections. Only 33% of the artists representing Britain at the Venice Biennale over the past decade have been women.

So, what's new.

The Guerrilla Girls have done a great job of calling out sexism in various spheres of the art world.

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But what doesn't appear to have been addressed, in my opinion, and has gone unnoticed despite being right in front of us when we visit art galleries, are the artist descriptions which are placed next to a significant artwork. The language used in such information notices is often blatantly sexist, as I shall endeavour to argue.

I first became aware of this systematic categorisation on a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, London, some years ago. Ostensibly it was to see Grayson Perry's wonderful display of ceramics, tapestries, silkscreen prints and embroideries, on display to coincide with his Channel 4 show on identity, called 'Who Are You?' 
Now ... Grayson is an artist who has an alter-ego in Claire. A more modern, forward-thinking white middle-class male it would be hard to find. And his pots, sculptures, tapestries and screenprints - which nestle in between colonial paintings and royal portraits in the gallery - reflect 'modern society'. Two men as parents to an adopted child on a vase; an X-factor Z-list celebrity on a pendant; a young British woman who has become a Muslim depicted on a scarf/hijab.

So it was a shock to go from the all-encompassing to the blatant sexism which I went on to read in the gallery descriptions beside the portraits in the permanent collection. Many of the paintings of women were described in reference to who they had married, had an affair with, been in love with and so on. (I have taken the descriptions from the NPG website) The language used included 'wife', 'lover', and 'affair'. Women were also referred to as property, as in 'his lover' and 'his wife'.

Compare and contrast these examples, in room 31 : (I have bolded certain words in red.)
Stanislawa Bevan (née de Karlowska)
by Robert Polhill Bevan
"(1876-1952), Painter; wife of Robert Polhill Bevan."

Vanessa Bell (née Stephen)
Vanessa Bell (nee Stephen)
by Duncan Grant
(1879-1961), Painter; sister of Virginia Woolf.

The description tells us: "Bell began to work with Grant, a younger painter, whose work she admired, from around 1913 and they subsequently fell in love." I have absolutely no need to be told this. If I wanted to find out more about Bell's personal life, I could research myself. It is, in my opinion, not relevant to the portrait of Bell.

Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938), Patron of the arts; half-sister of 6th Duke of Portland; wife of Philip Edward Morrell.

"Lady Ottoline Morrell, the chatelaine of Garsington Manor outside Oxford, was a ferocious socialite, friend and lover of artists and writers, including Augustus John, whom she first met in 1906 and with whom she had a brief affair in 1908. "

Even aside from the fact that the male portraits outnumber the females by a large amount, I personally feel there is no need to label a woman as to her personal life. This does not appear to be the case with the men. Even in room 24, where Elisabeth Barrett Browning hangs next to Robert Browning, it seems that their relationship has to be pointed out via Elisabeth. The description states that Elisabeth was married to Robert; his description simply states that he was a poet.

Portraits of women who were only famous by association were labelled as to their indiscretions (my word):

Emma, Lady Hamilton (1765-1815), Mistress of Lord Nelson
by George Romney
The daughter of a Cheshire blacksmith, Emma Hamilton became the mistress of Charles Greville, and later the wife of his uncle, Sir William Hamilton"

Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick (1768-1821), Queen of George IV.
by Sir Thomas Lawrence
"This portrait of Caroline of Brunswick was painted after her separation from the Prince of Wales. Thomas Lawrence - rumoured to be among her lovers - depicts her here in defiant mood, her left hand and wedding ring deep in shadow.


On a visit to see the John Piper show at the Tate Liverpool, I ventured into a the paired exhibition on "Surrealism in Egypt: Art Et Liberté 19381948".

The Tate’s website stages that ‘The Art and Liberty Group emerged out of travel, correspondence and conversation, with international artists such as André Breton or photographer Lee Miller playing an important role in introducing surrealism to the Cairo art scene and influencing its development.’
Knowing nothing about the artist featured, I read the descriptions to get more of an insight on their work. Again, it appeared to me that the prose used to reflect the life and work of a male artist was treated differently to that of a female.
In Roland Penrose’s description, Lee Miller - an established artist in her own right - is referred to as ‘his lover’, ie, she belongs to him, she is ‘his’ 

Also in the exhibition is Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar. Notice there is nothing in his description to describe any significant other in his life.

The description for Lee Miller, however, goes right in with referring to her as ‘his muse’ (Man Ray) ‘and lover’. Then apparently she married some bloke, but she had been having an affair with Roland Penrose.

Now I did ask an assistant while I was there what her thoughts were. She said she could see my point but argued that people who had not heard of Lee Miller needed to be informed of how and why she was being featured in the exhibition. I still fail to see what need there is to be told of her affair. It could have just read that she introduced him to the group.

Interestingly, Lee Miller is one of only two names mentioned on the Tate’s website regarding the exhibition:  ‘The Art and Liberty Group emerged out of travel, correspondence and conversation, with international artists such as André Breton or photographer Lee Miller playing an important role in introducing surrealism to the Cairo art scene and influencing its development.’

At least here, Lee Miller shares equal footing with Andre Breton.

Ida Kar is also featured at the exhibition - here again she is categorised as having married someone, divorced him and married someone else.

But Robert Medley’s personal life? Who knows!

Armed with my initial discoveries, I have continued to nitpick the descriptions at other art galleries whenever I am able to visit. Here are some findings from this year so far:

The recently revamped and reopened Leeds Art Gallery  has a collection of works from the 19th century. There are around 30 paintings in the collection, of which one was by a woman. No surprise there, of course - women had far more important things to do than paint, such as being a child-bearer and subservient domestic worker (ie housewife). The one painting is called Scotland for Ever by Lady Elizabeth Butler (1846-1933), painted in 1881. Now why would a woman have painted this picture, I hear you ask - after all, that is the question foremost on your mind. Fortunately the curator's description is there to enlighten us - Lady Elizabeth was married to a sergeant in the horse guards and was permitted to watch her husband's regiment during training manoeuvres, positioning herself in front of charging horses in order to observe their movement. Ah, good, now I can understand why a lowly female would have had the opportunity to paint a picture which, incidentally, was used as an inspiration for the depiction of the same charge in the film Waterloo ... information which I find far more interesting (and which I discovered on Google) than the reference in the notice as to whom she was married.

Fortunately for Leeds Art Gallery, this was the only example I could find - none of the modern work on display had labelling which singled out the gender of an artist by assigning it to a reason for their being male or female. However, the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool was a completely different kettle of fish and I found so many examples of involuntary sexism in the curators' notices that I almost forgot to look at the artworks themselves.

Where to begin.
The first room I came to had two pictures next to each other -  of Napoleon crossing the Alps and Genevieve Wilson. I don't know why these two portraits have been placed together but the descriptions are vastly different in their use of language.
Napoleon = victory, leader, momentous historic events, legend.
Genevieve = wife, daughter, married, posture, pregnant.
The description of Genevieve's portrait refers extensively to her attire and her posture. There is no description of Napoleon's attire and posture. Napoleon is a historical legend, Genevieve is a wife.

Ok so maybe this is only minor and I am literally reading too much into these descriptions. But lo, what do we have here?

This quartet of paintings comprises of one man and three women. Let's have a look at what the descriptions say:
The man is William Clayton, was a friend of a Duke and was made a Lord and then a Baron. Below him is Mrs Frances Hesketh. The first word in the description is 'Mrs'! Why not 'Mr' William Clayton? We learn who Frances was married to, and whose daughter she was.
Lady Cunliffe is top right. She was married, and in her mid-40s when this portrait was painted. Last but not least is Emily, Countess of Kildare was a third daughter, and married an Earl when she was 15. Hey curators, thanks for the information but I want to know - did William Clayton marry? Was he a son? Who was his father? Why are the women described according to their social status and clothing?

Here we have another two portraits placed next to each other. Anne, Duchess of Chandos was 'a chambermaid' with a 'clandestine marriage' but her social rank was secured when the marriage was made public (but caused a sensation at the time). Apparently this image "stresses her newly acquired social rank, emphasising her Duchess's robes and and coronet and the sheen of her dress."
Three sentences in a short paragraph, followed by a paragraph about the artist. Below, Richard Gildart, gets about seven sentences about his achievements, none of which refer to his marital status , attire or personal life.

Ah, how lovely - the gallery has hung two works by a man and woman, who were a married couple, together. But it is through Elizabeth Forbes that we are informed they were married. Stanhope's description is short and to the point, explaining where and why the painting was done. Elisabeth's description tells us more about her than the painting, and even adds another paragraph again to reinforce that SHE was married to HIM.

Now I mentioned this as an example to my son who is brilliant at playing devil's advocate. "But which one was more famous?" He asked. "Why does that matter?" I responded. "Surely the descriptions should be about the painting, not the painter's marital status and gender." He argued that if Elisabeth Forbes was more famous than Stanhope Forbes, then ok, fair enough, I might have a point. According to blogger Jim Lane:

"It's not often I find artists who are a married couple; and even less often are they more or less equally famous. That would be the case with Mr. and Mrs. Stanhope Forbes, except for the fact that Elizabeth Adela (Armstrong) Forbes, born in 1859, died of cancer in 1912 at the age of 52 while her husband, Stanhope Alexander Forbes, born in 1857, lived to be 89 years old. Naturally, the longer you live, the more famous you're likely to be. "

I referred earlier to Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Robert, a struggling young poet, wrote a fan letter to the much better-known Elizabeth Barrett, a housebound invalid. He began a passionate correspondence with her, they got married in secret and eloped to Italy. Until Elizabeth's death in 1861 they enjoyed a life of married bliss and increasing professional success as expatriate celebrities. The "much-better known" Elizabeth still has to be referred to in the National Portrait Gallery as Robert's wife, though.

Brother and sister painters Augustus and Gwen John both enjoyed relatively equal fame, although the Gwen is invariably mentioned in the same breath as Rodin because she had an affair with him. Well, that's the most important thing about her, of course.

The Walker Art Gallery's 20th Century and contemporary paintings collection of works has a few little nuggets of, in my opinion, irrelevant references to a female artist's gender. Mary Martin was apparently "the first woman" to win the John Moores' Painting Prize.

It is apparently necessary to tell us where Rose Wylie met her husband, 'the painter Roy Oxlade'. Note the word 'the', giving him a raised status of importance. I hope one day to find a painting by him with a description next to it saying that he was married to 'the painter Rose Wylie'. Somehow I doubt such a description exists.

Manchester's Art Gallery recently removed one of its artworks (below) to "encourage debate" about how such images should be displayed. After critics accused curators of being puritanical and politically correct, Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse was returned to its wall. The 1896 painting was removed in an attempt to rethink the "very old-fashioned" way images of women's bodies were exhibited as "either as passive beautiful objects or femmes fatales". Curator Clare Gannaway said: "It's not about saying these things can't exist in a public gallery - it's about saying, maybe we just need to challenge the way these paintings have been read and enable them to speak in a different way."

Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse

Contrast and compare to this work 'A summer night' by Alfred Joseph Moore at the Walker Art Gallery. To me the reasons for painting these scenes are obvious - they were painted by pervy men for other pervy men to look at. The soft porn of their day. The curator's description states: 

"By the 1880s, Moore had established a reputation as a painter of abstract beauty devoid of literary content, obvious subject matter of symbolic meaning. The four carefully arranged women in subtly-contrasted but related poses might suggest this is an academic study of the female figure resulting from Moore's admiration for Greek sculpture. However, as the girls are actually going to bed, it is also clearly erotic and suggestive. The flesh painting is very realistic for Moore, but the colour tones lack his usual subtlety and restraint."

Excuse me while I snort in derision.
In other words ... Moore was a perv who liked painting naked women and he was turned on by Greek sculpture.
And excuse me, curator person, why call them 'women' and then refer to them as 'girls'? If they are girls, are they all aged over 18?

It's now accepted that women artists have been undervalued over the centuries, shadows having been cast upon them by the men who took all the opportunities for themselves. Now, in a time almost of enlightenment, when the #MeToo movement, questions of BBC pay discrepancies, and the Hollywood producer etc scandals are suddenly at the top of the agenda and women are actually being taken seriously and listened to (YES!) ... it's about time that art institutions rethought the language used to categorise and denigrate women for their gender.

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