Erased by history, women artists gain ground in museums

For a long time reduced to the enigmatic silence of the Mona Lisa, women artists, still very much in the minority in museums, gradually take revenge on a past in which they were pigeonholed as “muse” or “woman of”.

How many women are forgotten by each exhibition dedicated to the Mexican Frida Kahlo or the French Louise Bourgeois? “We must end this refrain that they are represented equally today,” denounces the American historian Maura Reilly, from the specialized magazine ArtNews.

“87% of the works housed in the 18 major museums in the United States were made by men, 85% white”, points out to AFP Katy Hessel, an art historian, citing a 2019 study carried out by the Public Library of Science magazine. Katy Hessel, 28, has just published “The Story of Art Without Men,” a work dedicated to women artists since the Renaissance. “Currently, all museums pay attention to parity, exhibitions dedicated to women artists are multiplying, the Tate (in London) dedicates its annual program to women, but in reality they are vastly underrepresented in auction houses,” he told the AFP an observer of the market and contemporary art fairs. Although women under 40 are gaining in importance, as the Artprice 2022 report showed, “in historical sales at Christie’s or Sotheby’s, the records are still held mostly by men,” she adds.

One percent

In Britain, the Tate is “long committed to improving the representation of female artists in its programming and in its permanent collections,” Polly Staple, director of the British Art collection, told AFP. On her side, the Royal Academy of Art in London will offer in 2023 and for the first time in its history all its space to a woman: the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic. “Reversing the masculine canons that dominate art history is a daunting task, but I think museums are up to the challenge,” adds the British curator, who acknowledges that “much work remains to be done.” In 2020, the Prado museum in Madrid addressed the issue with an exhibition on the figure of women in art, which reveals an “ideology” and “State propaganda on the female figure”, a legacy of “historical misogyny” , explained to AFP the curator of this sample, Carlos Navarro. But the initiative did not fix the female representation in the museum. Of the 35,572 works of the institution, only 335 (1%) belonged to female artists. And more surprising, only 84 were on public display, while the rest were in warehouses. The proportion does not improve in the great Parisian museums. In the Louvre, only 25 referenced women appear in 3,600 paintings. The museum justified this figure to AFP “for the historical period covered from Antiquity to 1848.” At the Musée d’Orsay, which in 2019 dedicated a large exhibition to the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot, only 76 works are by women, against 2,311 by male authors, the institution told AFP.


Convinced that “a fair history cannot be made without a fair archive”, the French art historian, Camille Morineau, founded the association “Aware” to collect information on women artists in the world. As Katy Hessel, using the Aware database, recalls, these artists like the Italian Renaissance Artemisia Gentileschi, the subject of a London show in 2020, were mostly “known in life, but erased over the centuries.” “. Others were reduced to the role of muses, such as the sculptor Camille Claudel, whose work was relegated for decades in the shadow of Auguste Rodin’s. “Imagining that a woman could invent something was an anthropological taboo for a long time,” estimates Camille Morineau, questioned by AFP. She took it upon herself to end that taboo in 2009, when she was a curator at the Pompidou Center. For two years she made it her goal to exhibit only female artists on two floors, attracting more than 2 million visitors. She was proof that there were “enough” works by women “in the museum’s reserves to tell the entire history of 20th and 21st century art.” Katy Hessel tries to follow this work in her own way with a podcast that gives a voice to great female stars of contemporary art, some of whom come from the countries of the South. Because, as she points out, if women artists were left aside by history, those who emerged in other cultures such as Baya in Algeria or Georgette Chen in Singapore “never really formed part of history.”