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Women-only Exhibitions - are they appropriate?

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

Reflecting on the experience of visiting the all-female Action, Gesture, Paint Exhibition at the Whitechapel and the Headstrong Women and Empowerment photography exhibition at the Centre for British Photography (see the images on this link), one key question that arises for me is: Is it appropriate to have all-female shows like these?

I found some reviews, interestingly all written by women. The art writer Florence Hallett is full of praise for the Action, Gesture, Paint exhibition, stating that the women of Abstract Expressionism were not lost - they were quite deliberately erased for not fitting into the white, straight, New York masculinity of American Values that Abstract Expressionism came to represent - and this show challenges us to rethink our assumptions about female artists. Sarah Kent, an art historian, suggests that we have been duped:

"Where have these artists been hiding? Or, rather, who has been hiding them from us? No marks for guessing it was the male-dominated art establishment.........As this exhibition reveals, dozens of women were making strong, confident paintings every bit as exciting and dynamic as their male counterparts. Some enjoyed a degree of success when they were young, only to be ignored, forgotten or overlooked later on and written out of history."

She concluded: "Action Gesture Paint is a revelation and an inspiration. It is also an irrefutable demonstration of the extraordinary number of brilliant women from across the globe who were making abstract paintings in the 20th century. Let no ignoramus ever again try to claim that there have been no important women artists."

So it seems like an exhibition like this can challenge the sexist art-history narratives, but Eliza Goodpasture in her provocative article 'The problem with all-women exhibitions' asks whether, just because there have been so many male-only exhibitions (such as Abstract Expressionism in 2016 at the Royal Academy), is an all female one appropriate?Eliza argues that "Surely, by now, it’s ‘tactically necessary’ to shake out where these artists fall in the whole context of their histories – and art history at large? What do they look like next to work by male artists? How does their work broaden, disrupt, fit into, or question existing narratives of art history? Women-only shows have been put on since the nineteenth century, but the format doesn’t seem to be helping to dismantle patriarchal (and by extension binary) modes of looking at and criticising art."

I can appreciate this point of view and her final sentence "What more could we uncover by finding a new tool of feminist intervention?" has provoked considerable unrest for me.

So I did some further research. A pivotal article in the debate, written by Linda Nochlin in 1971, is Why have there been no great women artists? She asks first "Could it be that women are not capable of greatness?" As a woman I am not likely to agree with that!

Could it be that there have been many great women artists, they just haven't been discovered/promoted into art history? Possible but that still doesn't resolve the underlying assumption. Maybe there is a different kind of 'greatness' - a feminine style - that has not yet been sufficiently appreciated? Maybe, as women's life experiences and place in society have been different to men over many centuries. But Nochlin rejects this as there does not appear to be common 'feminist' qualities to the work of female artists - they have more in common with the artists of their period than to each other as a body of work. No, the conclusion that Nochlin comes to is that:

"The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education—education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals."

Nochlin uses the example of painting nude models in the 17th/18th/19th centuries to illustrate that it was 'institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius'.

So for me it is fascinating that over 50 years on, there is still an argument about whether there should be an exhibition just for women's art or photography. Having visited them, my response is a strong yes! Nochlin's essay is still being debated and quoted. In 2017 Morgan and Purge said that her message was that "instead of bolstering the reputations of critically neglected or forgotten women artists, the feminist art historian should pick apart, analyze, and question the social and institutional structures that underpin artistic production, the art world, and art history."

Should I therefore continue my idea of researching female photographers in order to promote their work and to learn from their examples? I think that I should, but alongside that I must set their work into the historical and social contexts that shaped them. And if part of this project includes self-portraiture, I will also have to consider how the current social context is shaping my views of myself.

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