Women’s Voices: Feminism & Art in The Women’s Art Collection

Essay by Dr Genevieve Guetemme (2016)

The Women’s Art Collection started in 1992 with a call for donations. It is now a growing body of approximately 420 works, spanning more than 50 years. It is the biggest of its kind in Europe and comes as an interesting supplement to the Women’s Art Library (WAL) [1] that began to collect slides in 1976, in order to allow artists to establish a record of their work. Set in one of Cambridge’s “new” colleges, dedicated to women’s education, The Women’s Art Collection offers a contemporary resource for students, scholars and curators interested in highlighting the choices that many women – artists or otherwise – face, now that they are seemingly free of the constraints imposed by gender definition.

Women indeed, now have access to all professional sectors. Art colleges no longer bar them from studying the nude model. Female artists are at the forefront of experimentation, but sadly, they are still often overshadowed by their male peers who enjoy more critical and commercial success. The Guerrilla Girls’ statistics[2] or Tracey Emin’s documentary What Price Art? (2006) are just two of many works highlighting the strong disparities that remain between men and women artists in terms of price, exhibition history or critical acclaim. Emin was shocked that a survey, listing the 30 most powerful people in the art world, cited only one woman – not an artist but a collector. So she conducted her own experiment outside Tate Britain. She asked people to name three artists. Toulouse-Lautrec was the most popular and not a single female artist came to anyone’s mind. For Tracey Emin: “It just goes to show that female artists don’t have proper representation in so many ways and the next question is, why?”[3]

The Women’s Art Collection takes into account the under-representation and under-compensation of women within the long-standing practices and institutions of the art world. It is a unique window on to female experience and creative vision. It also provides an educational programme in a college dedicated to women’s achievement. The idea is to challenge the status quo and, hopefully, to contribute to the gradual achievement of equality. As the authors of After the Revolution put it: “The battles may not all have been won…but barricades are gradually coming down, and work proceeds on all fronts in glorious profusion.”[4]

But the collection that gives equal space to politics and hormones goes also beyond feminist issues. It looks at women as beings that are strong, ill, loving, prejudiced, creative and above all, human.

Women’s lives

The collection offers students an insight into many artists’ views as to the way in which, for women, art and everyday life work together. For Tracey Emin, female art “is slow-burning and has greater longevity”.[5] Looking at the collection, it seems that this quality arises from a focus on materiality and ordinariness – as shown in Gwen Raverat’s Cambridge landscapes for example. Raverat was one of the first woman in England to go to art college and belonged to the fashionable Bloomsbury set, but her prints present an uneventful stream of life filled with silent memories. She was, as her biographer France Spalding put it: a “no-nonsense kind of a person, slightly gruff”[6] and the four pieces held in the collection show this directness. They are simple pictures of the place where the artist grew-up, small landscapes and scenes de genre, not at all radical, but reflecting her observation skills and proving that art does not need to be backed by strong theories.

As for Marlene Rolfe’s more recent Family (1991) and Mum with red cup (1997), the works rely on personal experience and family history rather than overtly critical and didactic attitude. Far from taking on the strong feminist rejection of the mother and the housewife, the Jewish artist expresses a personal uneasiness at being both daughter and mother. She places gender, ethnicity and religion at the very heart of her artistic identity while also repeatedly referring to her mother’s and her aunt’s past: both women were politically active German Jews who were interned for a time before emigrating to England and New York. Rolfe’s painting does not make any aggressive statement. It highlights the reassuring power of the home, of the family, of the kitchen. For Monica Bohm-Duchen, it is definitively a “private”, “adventitious” and “female” approach, close to that of the women of Ravensbrück that Rolfe discovered while researching her mother’s story:

I found some clues on a tiny scale, such as miniature subversive leaflets in false covers, or illicit embroideries and playthings made by the women. There is an alternative approach to the public, heroic struggle with past and present of some male artists. […] It might be small in scale. It could aim at simplicity, function expressed through decoration, and modesty of scale and intention: all features of women’s work through the ages.[7]

Rolfe goes for a subtle and modest approach aimed at understanding the complexity of female identity. The menial “domestic” settings show her reality as a daughter whose energy and skills are concentrated in transmitting the strength and fragility of her own mother. It questions the social, familial and professional role of women and becomes an address to many women going through household, children and memory.

Marlene Rolfe – Mum with Red Cup [1997]

Emily Patrick – The Artist with her Daughter Beatrice [1990]

Margaret Thomas – Nativity Scene [1960]               

Mary Cassat – Denise holding her child [1905]

And Rolfe is not the only artist to focus on ‘family time’ and women’s immemorial condition with, at its centre, childbearing and transmission. This subject matter is also present in other works such as Marie Cassatt’s Denise holding her child (1905), Emile Patrick’s The artist with her daughter Beatrice (1990) or Margaret Thomas’s Nativity Scene (1960). Cassatt was never a mother herself, often using professional models while the other two paint their own experience. But all three refer to the ancient Madonna and child subject. Margaret Thomas links her work to this pictorial tradition through the title and Emily Patrick in using oil and tempera with very detailed brush-work. In Thomas’s painting we see just a glimpse of the baby in a mirror, while in Cassat’s and Patrick’s scenes, the infant faces the viewer. But the mother and child are always in the centre, always in the way, raising an unmistakable question over art and babies.

The tendency for these women to make art central to their lives confronts Cyril Connolly’s famous assertion about creativity and parenthood, as he states: “There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. It may also suggest that, given the constraints of motherhood, art has never been more important for them. The still life overwhelming the nativity scene in Thomas’ painting, and the rope around Patrick’s painting keeping together the art, the figures (and the sanity) are both examples. Being artist-mothers allows them to present a new world of things. It brings to mind an editor’s word quoted by the novelist Maggie O’Farrell:

The books written by women after children seemed “tougher and better, not because of some foolish notion of ‘fulfilment’ but because it is such a huge business that it may supply a stringency that the unpressured life of a purely adult household lacks. Perhaps one needs that to get going.[8]

This approach challenges the rejection, fundamental to first-wave feminism, of traditionally female familial and conjugal duties. However, feminist attitudes have evolved. These women do not set children and art against one another. Like Amanda Craig, they take on the domestic domain of ordinary women.

When you become a mother, you are given a free pass into some of modern life’s most hidden aspects. I am able to write about the lives of the poor, and the dispossessed, because I have been allowed into them as a person and this is a privilege I have both sought and been given.[9].

When Maud Sulter photographed Alice Walker in Phalia (1989), she was challenging the viewer’s perceptions and prejudices about race, gender, and history of photography. Her black female subject, framed in a portrait representing Urania, the muse of comedy and the bringer of flowers, was an homage to the first feminist movement embodied by the sitter. Alice Walker is indeed a famous author and feminist campaigner, winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel The Color Purple. Sulter made her a muse: a woman who became an inspiration for many black female artists. But as a radical feminist who considered motherhood as a form of servitude, Walker’s attitude is now questioned. She refused to accept that her own daughter – also a writer – decided to have a child, prompting the latter to stand against her. Indeed, Rebecca Walker wrote: “It’s time to puncture the myth and to reveal what life was really like to grow up as a child of the feminist revolution”.[10]

Rebecca, like her mother and many other creative women, wishes to share the anger, frustration, information, and knowledge of her gender. But contrary to the previous generation of feminists, she does not reject motherhood. As an artist interested in the human condition, she considers it inspirational and insists that the best works are not produced by the most unencumbered men and women.

Women’s Work

The Women’s Art Collection reveals an interest in the ordinary while presenting divided attitudes towards the weight and strength of family. It also brings into question the day to day “work” in a woman’s life. Alexis Hunter’s Approach to Fear XI – Effeminacy Productive Action (1977) is typical of early feminist understanding of the topic. The narrative sequence within the six photographs shows a male hand cleaning a powerful bike. The male object is set against the “cleaning” – as an activity instead traditionally regarded as ‘women’s work’. This piece possesses a pendant featuring the artist’s own (female) hands caressing (masculine) motorbike engines. At the time, it was considered provocative: all about identity crisis; effeminacy; sexual warfare – these themes being explored by the artist from the 1970s onwards. Hunter was a feminist pioneer who used symbolism to allow a complex and emotional relationship with the viewer. Like her contemporary Martha Rosler, she saw in the crass commercialisation of the “universal housewife” a problematic cultural zeal aimed at limiting women’s lives and excluding them from power. Rosler’s famous six minute, black and white video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) used the domestic space to reflect upon the function and impact of the daily operation and routine of kitchen and housework. She also used photography and video to subvert a mainstream media culture dominated by men.

Alexis Hunter’s Approach to Fear XI – Effeminacy Productive Action [1977]

This generation of feminists were not the first to reflect on the relationship between their artistic practice and daily house chores. Barbara Hepworth, for example, is known as a fiercely ambitious and talented woman, but she also married twice and became the mother four children. In her memoirs, she argued that:

A woman artist, is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate) – one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one’s mind.[11]

For her, “the dictates of work are as compelling for a woman as for a man”. A firm belief that probably encouraged her decision to focus on direct carving, physical and dusty – even when she started to work with metal, adding thick layers of plaster on the armature and cutting into the hard surface. Ascending form (1958) is such a piece and its subtitle “Gloria” coincides perfectly with Murray Edwards College’s purpose as a place dedicated to women’s achievement. It was inspired by the music of the female composer and passionate botanist Ivy Priaulx Rainier, who planted Hepworth’s Trewyns studio’s garden. According to Matthew and Stephens,[12] the piece relates to Hepworth’s spiritual fight against the shock of her son’s death in 1953. It also stands against the odds of her definite separation from Ben Nicholson in 1957 as well as other very public crises. The significance of the rising forms of the sculpture is explained by Hepworth herself:

My sculpture has often seemed to me like offering a prayer at moments of great unhappiness. When there has been threat to life – like the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima… – my reaction has been to swallow despair, to make something that rises up, something that will win. In another age…I would simply have carved cathedrals[13].

If feminists chose to put the kitchen at the centre of their art, Hepworth made a direct reference to the ancient skills of – all men – medieval stonemasons. She revealed herself as a “craftswoman”, a “worker-artist” whose vision was in her hands and for whom sculpture was hard work based on the daily routine of tending materials. It places her in a different type of kitchen and with a different type of man – far from the “great bears”, as she nicknamed her husbands, John Skeaping and Ben Nicholson, who would, as she put it “breath down [her] neck”. As Tracey Emin concedes in an interview:

Hepworth’s work sold for relatively little during her lifetime, while her husband, the sculptor Ben Nicholson, sold for a great deal more. “I know why,” Hepworth allegedly said: “I’m young, I’m beautiful and I’m a mother.” She spent the last 25 years of her life alone, smoking cigars, drinking whisky and wearing men’s clothes and died in bed, holding a cigarette. “Pure diva,” says Tracey appreciatively. “She was the Dame.”[14]

It is interesting to note that the sculptor Mary Spencer-Watson did refer to the same medieval tradition – without the whisky and the cigar. She did work with many different materials from wood to terracotta, but is most remembered for her use of the limestone that came from the quarries near her Dorset home in the Purbeck Hills. The story holds that she was given the use of a banker, mallet and chisel in the 1920s by Titus Lander, a quarry manager, to experiment… Later, her Symbols of the four evangelists (1992) standing outside Wells Cathedral became her most famous challenge to and affirmation of the vitality of medieval craftsmanship. This interest in the traditional making of things is not restricted to sculptors. The Small piece of advice (1992) that Jeannie Morrisson-Low gave to the collection shows indeed a focus on the making of art “rather than selling art, or being known to the art world, or any of those career activities expected of artists”,[15] as she declares in her statement.

For other artists such as Cornelia Parker, the making of things has to go through the skillful unmaking of other – often familiar – things: the wreckage of an exploded garden shed hug out in fragments, a church destroyed by lightning moulded into a cube, a sculpture by Rodin wrapped up with a mile of string, etc. For Parker, burning, shooting, squashing, stretching, exploding, cutting, dropping off cliffs etc. become a constructive craftsmanship that question the nature of matter itself or the “origin” of things. According to her:

They might be ‘preempted’ objects that have not yet achieved a fully formed identity, having been plucked prematurely from the production line like Embryo Firearms 1995. They may not even be classified as objects: things like cracks, creases, shadows, dust or dirt The Negative of Whispers 1997[…]. Or they might be those territories you want to avoid psychologically, such as the backs, underbellies or tarnished surfaces of things.[16]

In her own way, Cornelia Parker put the artistic material to the test before rediscovering it. Her Spoon that Excavated Itself (1992) that she gave to the college’s collection after taking part in the Cambridge exhibition called Excavating the Present, is again an object whose identity is transformed through physical and cultural process: archeology and photography. The silver spoon was engraved with “buried 31-3-1992” and left in one of the Iron Age pits in the Fens for future archaeologists to discover. This spoon relates to food and is photographed just before being paradoxically ingested itself, together with the art it produced: both buried until their use, place, body and value is questioned and rearticulated. This to-be-buried spoon leaves the culture of the kitchen, the beauty of a precious silvery object and the work of a female artist to be rediscovered in a future that is, hopefully, more open to social and artistic change.

It is an openness that Parker’s Folkestone version of Copenhagen’s “Little Mermaid”[17] is trying to foresee as a life-size, life-cast, un-idealised local and mature 38 year old mother-of-two, far from Andersen’s fairytale. This work is dismantling the famous 1909 sculpture by Edward Eriksen’s and the myth of a girl sacrificing everything for love. Its unassuming figure of a local woman is also standing against both Antony Gormley’s monumental works and Marc Quinn’s provocative statues of disabled people. It may be the reason why Folkestone residents have been somewhat unappreciative of the bronze, deriding it as unappealing and unoriginal. In her call for model candidates, the artist said clearly: “This is not a beauty contest […] I am not looking for a look-alike of the idealised Copenhagen Mermaid, but for a real person, a free spirit, so any shape or size welcome.”[18] Staring out to the horizon, the figure is completely uninterested in her viewers and emancipated from social pressure.

Women’s Bodies

The Folkestone Mermaid brings to mind another object and stereotype that female artists are inevitably drawn to consider, if not to dismantle: the female body and its long imprisonment within the constraints imposed by patriarchal rules. As a central motif in art history and to feminist historical analysis, the body is also central to The Women’s Art Collection.

Judy Chicago’s donation, for example, is a set of prints based upon Marcia Falk’s translation of the Biblical Song of Songs, exploring mutuality of desire and shared enjoyment of sexual pleasure. These helioreliefs (a photomechanical process for creating a wood block) indeed focus on the physicality of love with a sexual freedom that was unthinkable before the 1970s. They present the body as a sexual entity altogether complicit, nonchalant and powerful. Far from the passive and silent nude, awaiting male approval, these bodies emphasise a mutuality. The piece, which mixes imagery and text (in diptych format, each image is paired with an ornamented excerpt from the Song of Songs in both Hebrew and English), is also based on a translation combining both female and male voices. It insists on an indeterminacy between human and vegetal, woodcut and photography, abstraction and figuration with no discernable hierarchy. This allows Chicago to explore the gender binaries inherent in the use of language. In fact, she definitively recognises the essential differences between men and women, but considers that only the non-stabilisation of the objects and subjects of desire is able to achieve any “genuine equality”.

Other artists such as Mary Kelly, in a piece called Extase (1986) focus instead on the essential physical and psychological aspects of the female body. The six panels refers to hysteria: the psychological disorder studied by nineteenth-century psychiatrist Jean-Martin Charcot. This neurotic state was thought to be exclusively female, linked to the ovaries and causing particular physical symptoms. The artist emphasises the strong interaction between body and mind by inserting the piece into a bigger ensemble called Corpus that is itself part of a larger narrative entitled Interim (1984-89): all works that are dedicated to middle aged women.

Mary Kelly – Extase [1986]

Extase establishes an association between a woman’s story and a hospital gown. The piece consists of three diptychs, each featuring a gown folded in a different way. In referring to middle-aged women – rarely celebrated in popular culture and high art – they explore the discomfort of the menopause within a society that only ever values ageless celebrity women. The gowns, like the second skin of Charcot’s hysterical subjects, represent both desire and fear. They become the ghosts of powerless women turned into medical (or at present artistic) specimens. The works also draw a connection between hysteria and contemporary medicine, as Asti Hustvedt perceives in her analysis of the “Salpetrière phenomenon”.

In many ways we live in a culture that’s far less sexist than Charcot’s was, […] but when it comes to the idea that the female body is, say, more vulnerable to hormones than the male body – that absolutely continues.”[19]

It brings to mind more ‘modern’ female disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation or chronic fatigue syndrome. At the same time, it gives a voice to a strange and unknowable body – following Charcot who was manipulating the hysterics while being the first to take them seriously.[20] As Asti Hustvedt put it, “the celebrity hysterics were indeed exploited but they also exploited the system, participating in a hospital culture that was in many ways less oppressive than the world beyond it.”[21] Does this mean that Kelly’s art, like the nineteenth century hospital, is helping women through a discursive emphasis on the personal and social body?

In her analysis of the work, Liza Buzytsky seems to consider that Kelly’s approach is indeed all about language: a language formed by associating almost abstract images with multiple texts. This language, according to Buzytsky, is preventing Kelly – and her viewer – from being trapped into the structures of visual dominance, which have characterised the representation of women throughout history. It introduces a discursive body or, in Buzytsky’s words, “a space for a ‘heteroclite collection’ as something beyond abnormal and irregular, but rather non-singular, counter-central.”[22]

This necessity to present the female body as a language neither within nor out of the norm, seems also prevalent in Tracey Emin’s work: Two Pigment Prints: Tattoos (2014). It is a set of rough Polaroid snapshots accompanied with a handwritten narrative that transforms Emin’s body into intimate almost-fictions. Her denuded body is still given the place of honour of an art subject, but cut in pieces, it does not fit visually with any traditional image of the nude as the highest form of aesthetic experience. The self-made pictures and vaguely neurotic comments have nothing to do with the usual male fantasy made by, for, and about men, but show Emin’s unashamed thoughts, all together insecure, obsessive and authoritatively impulsive. It shows a female body that is at the same time beautiful and uninteresting, naked and dressed, but permanently marked by language. It brings together the physical and the emotional and makes space for instability and freedom.

Tracy Emin – Tattoos [2014]

This shows how the female body brings many artists to express openly their experiences as women while breaking the syntactic mould that holds them captive into recognised descriptions. Eileen Cooper’s figures in Seasick (1989) for example, show an allegorical figure of her not-so-easy journey through life as “a firmly outlined, naked, universalised Eve […] a goddess or heroine of myth. But these are images made in south London in the 1990s – a myth-free zone, you might well think” [23] says Martin Gayford. This picture is like a parody of traditional representations – with their layers of culture, lies and idealisation – and therefore a move beyond them. Lucy Jones, on the other hand, uses the vulnerability of her disabled body to create an image of everyday ambiguous awkwardness: “seen or unseen, happy or sad”, she writes on her own website.

I use myself to find out about the funny and surprising, the awkwardness and ambivalence of looking and moving differently. I look at the hidden parts, which cannot be seen by the outside gaze. I work the ‘space’ of a canvas with its defined boundaries where marks and colours can carry my expression as in ‘Still finding a way out’.[24]

In her own way, with her own body, she continues with the feminist battle that has been addressing the image of the body as a place where social and political issues are raised, debated, and often ignored. She transforms her corpo-reality in a banner of the day-to-day cultural stigmatisation of not only herself, but of every woman dealing with the ever so subtle stereotype of the unobtainable ideal body of beauty magazines.

Then, Elisabeth Frink’s bald strong Easter Head (1989) is bringing female vulnerability and strength together in a figure that is not especially of a woman. Influenced by images of fighter pilots in the Second World War, the horrific reports from Belsen concentration camp and photographs from the Algerian war, she continuously questioned the characteristics of the male psyche. Her sculpture, made at Easter time – therefore the title – is not a portrait but an image of determination. She writes:

What I have tried to make clear in my sculpture is the way in which feelings, expression, even force and energy, should be below the surface.  The outer skin may define more or less conventional features, but a second look should indicate the complex strains of nerve endings and the anticipatory reflexes of something that is about to happen.[25]

Her insistence in eliminating detail allows her to engage with the whole human condition: away from specification of age, class, races, gender and far from any scrutiny of her own human body. As Martin Gayford stated in her obituary, “She was wholly unsentimental as an artist, and her manner and way of talking was laconic, impulsive, full of humour, but also very decisive and rigorously practical.”[26] Like Giacometti, she used the body to present a commitment to mankind and to analyse the universality of man’s humanity and inhumanity. The female body in itself did not interest her.

Dame Elizabeth Frink – Easter Head I [1989]        

Cynthia Pell – Cat Vomiting [1976]

The same approach can be found in very different pieces of the collection and paradoxically, it seems, in Cynthia Pell’s emotional and subjective drawings or paintings. Pell spent many years in Bexley psychiatric hospital and committed suicide in 1977. Every day, she recorded her painful human experience – “like someone reporting in a hurry from a battle field” said Britta von Zweigbergk, her therapist. The bodies and faces she drew were hers and not hers: male, female or animal, and all desperately engaging with life.

Such a general approach seems to inhabit many abstract works. Light on the Edge (1994) by Mali Morris, for example, shows a tactile and sensual surface that recreates the materiality of skin itself. The choice of colour, the fluid texture and the brushstrokes bring the viewer to feel the skin-like substance instead of looking at it. The close-up on touch and gesture creates a face-to-face encounter with a soft and porous body: closed and welcoming, a “persona” that ultimately defines the painting and therefore creates a sense of image. Finally, the subtle air of faciality, “on the edge” of portrait and still-life, acts as a potential vehicle expressing the incommunicable. In this case, abstraction becomes a means to engage with any unsaid bodily experience. It also indirectly engages with a long tradition of pictorial practices currently resumed, according to David Ryan, on Morris’ studio walls with “reproductions of portraits, women in ruffs and head dresses, single figure frescoes, close ups of Velasquez’s heads, and still life paintings by Manet and Morandi, amongst other items.”[27] These references and their strong “human dimension” present an essential human body that is not specifically female but resonates, in its abstraction, with the flesh and emotions of many women. It transforms Morris’ work into an image of the untold, often irrational, subjective and surreal relationship to the self and to the other, to the inside and the outside, to home, family, security and to art. And far from any sensuous feminisation of male abstract art that is often – especially the drippy and painterly product of abstract expressionism – seen as an image of the male sexual drive, it tells the story of what makes women’s art.

Women Art Narratives

As an analysis of history, labour and self-representation, female art has been part of a formidable effort to push for a history of women dealing with identity, the kitchen, children, memories, obsessions, fears, race, body, writing etc. in the visual arts. Within this perspective, most of the works in the collection seem to offer their understanding on who and what is at work in women’s art. Judith Cowan’s sculptural pieces, for example, suggest a special relation to the past with objects that are like a stage, activating stories about very ancient and more personal times. Shani Rhys-James on the other hand, seems to put forward, according to Michael Glover, a feeling of “bewilderment” and “self-apology”, as she inserts self-portraits into her colourful still-lives and domestic scenes.

The face, often quite small, often peeks out, just off-centre, from behind the jungle of flowers, as if it’s not quite worthy, or as if it’s not quite up to speed.[28]

This face – part-child part-adult, almost fictitious – transforms each painting into ambiguous images of herself as a woman and as an artist.

Then Paula Rego’s Inês de Castro’s sinister story uses a famous historical and literary figure as a starting point for a critical exploration of women confronted with power, history and art.

Rego is a storyteller and Inês de Castro is her kind of story – although chosen by the college’s members (she offered to do a piece on a given subject after being elected Honorary Fellow for the college’s 60th anniversary). This story resonates with the artist’s Portuguese heritage. It also tells how women have long been the victims of male politics, i.e. the rivalry between the Portuguese rulers and the royal house of Castile. Inês was indeed a real woman whose sexual transgression was repressed and whose life was ultimately and violently ended by powerful men (Alfonso IV, king of Portugal and three of his councillors). Finally, the story linked to Romeo and Juliet recalls a long tradition of male artistic interest for faithful and lost women with tragic death. Rego also conceived her historically – and artistically – based picture as a sister piece to Maggi Hambling’s Gulf Women Prepare for War (1986), also based on real events. Hambling’s piece shows indeed the Iran-Iraq war photographed by The Times. It also refers to the famous Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, 1867, painted by Manet from a newspaper account. In doing so, Rego reveals her debt to another female painter. She also presents a story of artistic filiation and revenge: of art against politically-controlled media coverage, and of women against male-controlled cultural diktats. The woman forced into a purdah is, in a way, blowing off the desert-like skin that makes the background of Hambling’s painting. Inês’ skeleton on the other hand, has the power to bring the new king to terms with his father’s rule. The legend holds indeed “that after his coronation Pedro had Inês’s body exhumed and enthroned, forcing the court to file past her corpse and kiss her hand”.[29]

Dame Paula Rego – Inês de Castro [2014]      

Maggi Hambling – Gulf Women Prepare for War [1986]

As for the choice of pastel – an often so-called ‘feminine’ technique[30] – it seems to highlight how female art has been reshaping the revered genre of history painting and the entire artistic hierarchy. The ephemeral medium creates a picture charged with intimations of both tenderness and cruelty. The muddy backdrop contains an unsettling ambiguity and the whole reinforces the imagery and symbolism of fairy tale romance turned nightmare. According to Germaine Greer, writing on Rego’s work, the idea is to tell stories that “have no narrative sequence; they defy and undo history, explanation and theory”.[31] This seems to be one of the aims of The Women’s Art Collection: to represent something fundamental in our culture that is most certainly conscious, committed and female.

When people ask why there is still a need for female colleges, a necessity for prizes for women and collections of female art, it might be said that, as Julia Peyton-Jones, director of the Serpentine Gallery states in Emin’s documentary, it ghettoises and marginalises women.[32] It also reminds us on the other hand that gender inequality in the art world is not just a subjective impression. The collection shows a path to women in recognising their strengths, and bringing these qualities to the forefront. Then, in going beyond the “agit-prop” approach, beyond the “community-art” niche with a wide range of media and subjects, it tends to show no innate femininity or traditional female culture. It suggests that being a women does not offer the key to artistic identity. In a way, what dominates the works is a constant effort of the artists to take themselves outside the box and to examine the awkwardness of being human. It shows an image of diversity and ensures that this diversity gets a voice.


[1] Women Art Library – Goldsmiths Library, University of London.
[3] Tracey Emin, What Price Art? Channel 4, (2006)
[4] Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, Sue Scott, After the Revolution, women who transformed contemporary art, London, Prestel revised edition, 2013, p.340.
[5] Tracey Emin, What Price Art? Channel 4, 2006 – she says: “It’s like a light bulb, women burn and burn and burn, with men it’s just one big flash. At about 40, a male artist has this massive ejaculation and then the work – though not the prices – goes down. It goes back to the sex thing: women keep coming and coming, men just do it once. It’s a metaphor for life.”
[6] France Spalding, Gwen Raverat: friends, family and affections, London, Pimlico, 2004.
[7] Monica Bohm-Duchen, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/artists-contemporary-anglo / First published in 1996 by Lund Humphries Publishers, London. In: Rubies and Rebels: Jewish Female Identity in Contemporary British Art.
[8] Maggie O’Farrell, Is the pram in the hallway the enemy of good art? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/mar/17/gender.uk
[9] Amanda Craig,  The work-life balance for women writers, https://www.amandacraig.com/
[11] Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, London 1970, rev. ed. 1978, Tate Publishing (1985).
[12] Matthew, G. & Stephens, C. Barbara Hepworth – Works in the Tate Gallery and the Barbara Hepworth Museum St Ives. London, Tate, 1999.p.181.
[13] Quoted by Chris van Rhyn , O Hidden Face! – An Analysis and Contextualisation of Priaulx Rainier’s Requiem, Stellenbosch University, 2010, p.28.
[16] Barbara Hepworth: A Pictorial Autobiography, London 1970, rev. ed. 1978, Tate Publishing (1985).
[17] Created for the Folkestone Triennial (2011)
[19] Asti Hustvedt – Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011
[20] “Charcot was highly authoritarian and patronising, but categorically deplored ovariectomy as a treatment for women with hysteria and he energetically rejected the idea that the disorder was solely restricted to women.” In Asti Hustvedt, op. cit.
[21] Asti Hustvedt, op. cit.
[22] Liza Buzytsky, In Between Representation & Speech: Mary Kelly’s Interim, http://www.academia.edu/8571321/Interim_Selected_Work_of_Mary_Kelly
[23] Martin Gayford, Eileen Cooper; Open Secrets, catalogue, Art First Contemporary Art, London, 1998.
[25] Antonia Boström, The Fran and Ray Stark Collection of 20th-century Sculpture at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Getty publication, 2008, p.76.
[26] Bryan Robertson, “Dame Elisabeth Frink”, The Independent, 19 April 1993
[27] David Ryan, ‘The Singular and the Painterly: Mali Morris’s Recent Work’, in Talking Painting: Dialogues with Twelve Contemporary Abstract Painters, Oxford, Routledge, 2002.
[28] Michael Glover, Shani Rys James, Connaught Brown, London, mad dashes and flying colours, The Independent, 17 June 2009. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/shani-rhys-james-connaught-brown-london-1706796.html
[29] Professor Maria Manuel Lisboa, Paula Rego, Inês de Castro, https://womensart.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/uploads/resources/documents/zCrttVpjfd.pdf
[30]See the pastels’ descriptions in 19th century Parisian salons revealing a longstanding belief that the ephemeral medium of pastel was uniquely suited to the assumedly more delicate sensibilities of women artists.
[31] Germaine Greer, 2004, ‘Untamed by Age’, The Guardian, 20 November, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2004/nov/20/art