Pink V’s Blue
Remember a time – and I do – where it was pink for girls and blue for boys?
Gender roles were specifically assigned. So much so we’d tell a child’s gender merely by looking at the colour of the blanket they were wrapped in.
Down through the centuries you can also bet the gender of a person by the occupation they were in. Art is no different.
If I asked you to name 10 famous artists what percentage of them would be female?
Hmmm I thought so….
Tamara de Lempika
To my shame* (I’ll come back to this) these are the only names I could think of without looking up more. At least of the ones I know others may have heard of. Even so two of these are our contemporaries.
Thankfully if I was to name living artists whose work I like and follow I could easily name 30. At a push many more!
And a good percentage of these I’d class as naïve artists – HURRAH!
Virgins, Whores and Witches
Not only were we forbidden to pursue art as a career it’s the fact that our intrinsic artistic skills went unnoticed. For centuries we were kept out of institutions. Excuses such as ‘live’ drawing classes being deemed inappropriate. Incidentally in much the same way as we were kept out of the medical profession too. Heaven forbid we’d ever see a naked body. Honestly, it’s a wonder the human race has survived for so long!
Occupations deemed ‘suitable’ allowed some artistic skills to flourish. Textiles being a huge one.
Imagine a world in which the Bayeux Tapestry for example never existed!
Problem is so much has been lost. Quite literally the in the fabric of time. Fabric being the very surface that disintegrates over time. Its as if women’s efforts were never even there.
And if we were we were expected not be seen let alone heard!
Throughout history it’s widely been acknowledged that women fell into 2 categories: virgins and whores. I’d argue for a third, witches. Mind you, it’s possible to be two of these simultaneously. Let’s be honest choices were pretty limiting.
And here we have largely remained throughout recorded history. A footnote to achievements of men.
On paper, canvas, in a wood block carving; how we looked was controlled by men.
Think again about colour here. Blue was the colour settled on in the early days for THE Virgin. Mother of Christ. The most perfect of women deserved the most expensive pigment Lapis Lazuli. The purest of blue and associated with deity. Of course, there was also the direct correlation between blue and the sky. And many associated heaven with the skies and the bluest of blues.
Whereas the colour of blood and passion was often used for Mary Magdalene. As history portrayed her quite literally a ‘Scarlet Woman’. This of course mostly likely came in origin, from the description of the ‘Whore of Babylon’ as being a woman dressed in scarlet and purple.
In the Western world at least assignations of colour were at the behest of men!
Depictions in biblical scripts, in carvings and illuminated texts of the ‘fairer sex’ were created by men.
Men literally controlled the narrative. I mean who also wrote the scripts? To give women the power of literacy was dangerous or a waste of time. Or Both?
Ironically women gained their power through the marriage bed. And some were pretty canny about it. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Catherine Parr and Bess of Hardwick in particular, spring to mind.
And still in art we were being quite literally portrayed by men.
Perhaps this is why I have such an admiration for how Elizabeth I navigated her way through a man’s world. Not only did she maintain ultimate control of how she was portrayed in words but perhaps in a largely illiterate world, more importantly in paint and on canvas. Her rhetoric did reference a comparison to men but her images projected her femineity to the max!
And she was a redhead too. And quite liked wearing it by all accounts. Now THAT must have really pissed off her enemies. She lived to the ripe old age of 69 AND referred to herself as ‘The Virgin Queen’.
Smart and dangerous!
Witchcraft being levelled at herself as well as her mother to undermine her status and suitability to rule.
What she did though was to prove that a female was capable of so much more than just being a wife and mother. Of course she wasn’t the first but she did have the stage on which to highlight this to the masses.
She was the ultimate in self-image reinvention waaaaaaay before Madonna (Ciccone – the 20th century one) came on the scene. She had portraits destroyed for not meeting what she wanted to project to the world. Mirrors, it was reported, were also banned in her houses as she aged.
Eternal youth illuding her.
But NOT in her portraits!!
Portraits full of sumptuous gold and silvers and iridescent-like pearly whites. She may not have been the artist but she certainly controlled them!
Whichever way you look at it the Genie was out of the bottle. The Imp out of the box without a hope of being put back in!
Power and Sex – Sex and Power
Whichever way round you look at it with the role of women in art the two could not, indeed still cannot, be separated. Because the balance of power has always lain with the rich thereto lies the social voice of the people. If women could reach the highest office, monarch, head of the Church then they could damn well be listened to. But to be seen is to be heard!
More and more image played an important role. There was a yearning to capture the zeitgeist of the moment. The preferred power basis is always one of stability and enter into the picture: YOUTH
Or at least its essential role in how people of import should be portrayed.
A person (in this case the monarch) sticking around meant the establishment could build on their own fortunes. Their power base wouldn’t be changed by the changing of the guard.
And if you can’t stay young yourself? Well surround yourself with those that are.
It’s also no accident that the Witch Trials reached a frenzied peak in the 1600’s as women gained more power and prestige. The idea of the old crone is one that has stayed with us for centuries since. When we think witches we often think tall hats (17th century style ones) and broomsticks but also old age and funerial black.
Still black is a fairly gender neutral colour so those softer pink (reds) were an excellent way to contrast this and link it to youth.
Consider the court of Charles II. Concubines and Courtiers. Court whores or mistresses – here insert your own preferred adjective, played politics (Of course on this basis alone they were most likely witches – my tongue-in-cheek reference here to contemporary mens sensibilities).
A barren wife (therefore most likely a witch – again I’m being facetious) was not much use to the stability of the crown – at least in the eyes of men. Consider her portraits against those of the ‘Favourites’ of the day. Those such as Barbara Villiers and of course Nell Gywn.
There may be some of the usual decolletage on display for them all (cleavage to the masses) but it was the way the women were posed. Posed by men that is!
In Catherine de Braganza’s she is often shown with hands and fingers pointing away from her. Creating an aloof quality. Whereas the like of Barbara and Nell not only are their clothes much looser in fit (in fact very often so ill fitting they’re almost falling off – SHOCKER). But their bodies lounge or sit with fingers beckoning the viewer over for a closer look.
The images almost have a hazy quality too. Flawless skin glows on the surface, giving the paintings a sensuousness. For my part those light reds started to gain even more significance. Gentler on the eye than stark reds, plumptious pinks took prominence. Canvases for decades remained full of them!
Though still largely commissioned and painted by men the women knew what they were about when they ‘sat’ for them. The knew by making men look they were also making them listen – if only a little. No matter what their background what lay beneath the surface so to speak, was something worth paying attention to. If the likes of Aphra Behn and Nell Gwyn could find power by beating most men at their own game, then what next?
The base of social commentary began to shift away from the aristocracy as literacy increased across the classes. So too did the role of women.
And how they were portrayed.
Gradually something weird happened. We stepped over the threshold and OUT into the world – how very dare we? The men have since cried! We left the kitchens. We moved out of the bedrooms and into the studies. And even more surprisingly we didn’t spontaneously combust. Though no doubt if we had there’d have been some bloke screaming ‘WITCH’.
Stop Look And Listen
If we could be seen, we could be heard. If we could be heard we’d found our voice. If we had a voice we had words and what we wrote began to matter also.
Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelly were unafraid to explore their voices. There were many more but some still had to navigate a male world. George Eliot and the ‘Bells’ (Ellis, Acton and Currer – aka the Bronte Sisters) their very names belie the sphere’s of acceptability in which they lived. But they did have their portraits painted. Their words published.
Yet still I cannot easily call to mind a single female painter of this era! A woman making such an impact that she could control the artworld narrative.
In the Victorian and into the Edwardian era the assigned roles for women seemed to become even more straight-jacketed. The freedoms and liberties gained in the seventeenth and eighteenth century suppressed once more in the nineteenth.
It seemed as though strides to strike for control of our own narrative were to be dismissed as lunacy. Again another legal power at a husbands disposal if his wife got out of hand!
But the simmering angry voice of women was finding its way through.
The suffragists and suffragettes literally screamed ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’. They chose their own colours – not pink but green and purple. Still with white for purity though. But that’s THEIR choice.
And then all hell broke lose and they chose something very very clever indeed!
Women of Britain Say GO!
The suffragettes stuck to their motto of Deeds not Words but completely played this to their advantage.
In supporting the war effort and calling a truce they were able to shoe-horn themselves into roles traditionally reserved for men. They made themselves indispensable.
Factory work, labouring the land not babies, even states of office were at their finger-tips and society continued and didn’t implode. Of course practically restrictive clothing had to be replaced for more practical attire. Even trousers! Think of those government backed war posters ‘Women of Britain Say GO!’ Women of strength were now the order of the day in pictorial form as well! And when the war’s legacy meant they had proved their worth in every section of society they got the vote.
While the war took a terrible toll on the male population it also meant there was an imbalance. The women to men ratio inevitably meant some women would never marry. Imagine unmarried women with their own decent incomes to boot!
Yet still men largely controlled the narrative.
Because they still were the ones painting and now photographing and filming them. Let’s not even mention the casting couch. It was a male vision of desire that was still largely projected onto the screen and the world.
Soft focus lighting and all that sponsor-smoking drawing attention to lips and high cheekbones and sultry eyes. Not mention skimpy or bias-cut figure clinching dresses. Or both.
As corsets gave way to brassieres and skirts to trousers there were the physical signs all around that power was shifting. Women were making inroads. But it wasn’t until women had control over how they were portrayed that true strides were made.
With a shift in social mobility from class to class also came more freedom for women not to accept motherhood and marriage as their only options.
As black and white gave way to colour, the voices became louder. So too did the colour! No longer muted but bright multichrome drew attention to ever-shorter skirts. Handbags became a weapon of choice. (Their full contents still a carefully guarded secret from the world of men today).
Many were containing bank account pass books, which sat alongside crimson lipsticks, brilliant blue eyeshadows became a weapon of choice.
Women had war paint AND their own bank accounts!
A few made strides in the early decades of the 20th century. De Lempika, O’Keefe and Macdonald, I mentioned right at the start, alongside Cliff. Clarice made her name in the Potteries. In other words in industry, unlike the others.
With the 60’s came the pill. With the pill came choice. With choice came freedom and women were now no longer prepared to give up their lives to be soley responsible for hearth and home in a marriage. Moreover, they wanted equality and this meant in their wage packet too!
It was another industry, one based solely on image however that made its mark on the feminist movement. You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘pop music’ but here I’m actually referring to that once testosterone dominated world of cars!
Ford women workers being labelled as ‘unskilled’ and therefore set to earn less than their male counterparts went on strike. They fought – or rather didn’t – and won! In miniskirts and go-go boots and colour.
With higher wages also came more choice. What to wear and how to look.
And control over image also meant control over how THAT was presented to the world.
Roundabout the same time Liz Taylor had her own morality fight with the Pope and the film industry. She was the first to be paid a million. Despite the moral high ground the church took with her co-star affair, millions flocked to see Cleopatra. She also almost brought down the studios with their ‘system’ of controlling their stars into the bargain.
And what’s all this got to do with Women and art I hear you cry?
Quite simply all the obstacles to women making art their choice of career had been broken down.
It is the 1964 work ‘Single Form’ of Barbara Hepworth that sits outside the U.N. and not a man’s. The work of a female artist on the international political stage.
A stage promoting peace and harmony. Not a hint of pink (or blue for theat matter) in sight.
I have soo many mixed emotions about the arguments surrounding feminist history. Much of what they did they expressed through the arts. Now finally having the time and choice to do so.
I said I’d return to this. As a woman who has seen both the benefits and the backlash of the feminist movement, is it really our fault that we struggle to identify female artists? Burn your bra? Personally I feel rather attached to mine! Beauty Contests? Cattle parade! But I’m acutely aware I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.
Without the struggles of all the women who’ve gone before I couldn’t possibly do what I do today. I’m eternally grateful for the role every woman has fought is still fighting, to play.
The scarcity of women-artists is something I hope is now firmly consigned to the past. To use our sex as a means to have a voice is a choice not our only option. Just as importantly is NOT using it.
The most important thing is we HAVE a choice. We have and can weaponise art to our own ends. I think to Tracey Emin’s Tent and Bed. I never got it until I heard her speak about it. And the message is poignant and beautiful. Voice and image are intrinsic.
Maggie Hambling has come under recent fire for her sculpture to commemorate non other than the previously mentioned Mary Wollestonecraft. Yet for me to hear her speak is to understand. Not that I think she cares terribly what I think. Probably in the way that the women of the Bloomsbury Group, in the first stirrings of the feminist movement, didn’t much care for their contemporaries’ opinions either.
And that’s just it. As artists we have to filter what to accept, what to ignore. What to take to heart and what to dismiss. It is an acute skill we have to hone because putting our art out there means inviting the criticism not just of men but of women as well.
Naïve Art and Women Artists Today
Of course the work women artists produce today is as varied as the number of styles and movements out there. My particular interest lies with the Naïve of course because this is what I do too.
Yet now many of the (naïve) artists whose work I love, are female? The balance almost seems to be tipped in the opposite direction.
Back in the earlier half of the 20th Century the likes of Lowry, and A. Wallis were quite literally making their mark, alongside their female counterparts such as Hepworth, Macdonald and Vanessa Bell. This trend has just grown and grown. As we found our voice, our shapes and colours we began to shout: ‘We like blue too!’
I don’t think it’s a happy accident that many female artists are drawn to the naïve either. I think it’s a subconscious need to break the rules. To show that we can be ‘other’; that we have a voice that will not be constrained by expectation. That by moving outside the ‘norm’ we can make you look and look again.
That we have something to say!
It’s softer side means its often more inviting. Naïve art is often seen as unthreatening and accessible. It asks you to participate on your own terms. It gives the viewer a voice and a way for them to converse with their inner child, WHATEVER their gender.
Yet for all that, it DOES make you look and look again. It is in its own special way thought provoking and ingenious! The ability to disregard rules and expectations is for many artists a way for expressing their true inner selves and shouting out to the world – it is their unique voice.
This is where I’ve found my place in the women’s role in British art history.
For me it is rebellion presented in beautiful colourful wrapping, that invites you to smile.