The National Gallery recently announced its summer 2023 exhibition, After Impressionism, saying the exhibition will celebrate the “mighty achievements of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin and Rodin”, among others. The social media response to that announcement was largely, “where are the women?”
Some on Twitter offered suggestions of women who should be included in the exhibit, including Suzanne Valadon, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gabriele Münter and Sonia Delaunay, to name a few. National Gallery tweeted the same text to several of these responses: “We have announced a small number of confirmed loans at the exhibition. This includes Camille Claudel’s Imploration. We’ll be sharing more loans, including major works by female artists, closer to opening.
Although it remains to be seen what these works will be, it is clear that they are not considered an integral part of the exhibition, or of significant public appeal, by the gallery. If they were, they would have been mentioned prominently in the press release.
This was accompanied by an image of Cézanne’s Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), which depicts a group of naked women. Clearly in 2022, the easiest way for a woman to climb the walls of the National Gallery is still to be naked.
The National Gallery is something of an exception among world museums in its continued failure to expand the stories it tells through its collection and exhibitions. But her focus on extremely well-known white male artists demonstrates what she sees as innovative and important – and therefore what she doesn’t.
When women have been blockbusters
The expectation that “hit” shows are about big name artists is a vicious cycle – artists can’t become household names if they aren’t included in big shows. The lack of women in historical studies of traditional art has led to the belief that there were simply not many, if any, significant female artists working in Europe at this time, which is entirely untrue – as the ‘ pointed out the backlash on Twitter. Yet museums still seem unable to get them back into the canon.
The idea that only known names sell tickets has also been debunked many times over the past decade. The best example is the 2018 exhibition of works by Swedish artist Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the first major retrospective of the artist’s works in the United States – and the first time that most people attending at the exhibition have seen her or heard of her. The exhibit became the museum’s most-visited exhibit.
The National Portrait Gallery’s 2019-2020 exhibition Pre-Raphelite Sisters and the Museo del Prado de Madrid‘s 2020-21 exhibition Uninvited Guests: Episodes on Women, Ideology and the Visual Arts in Spain (1833-1931) have both highlighted women in traditionally male artistic movements and periods.
Both have faced some criticism, largely arguing that the Conservatives have not gone far enough to center the work actually done by women, rather than simply representing them. Both exhibits, however, represent steps toward imagining new methods for disrupting traditional narratives of art history.
Still terribly under-represented in permanent collections
In the fall and winter of 2020, the National Gallery hosted its first exhibition featuring a female artist. It was a retrospective of the works of the remarkable Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women whose work is held in the gallery’s permanent collection.
Women artists are woefully underrepresented in the permanent collections of major museums around the world – these are the works of art that belong to museums and hang on walls all year round, not just in special exhibitions.
The National Gallery, which has a collection of over 2,000 works, has only 24 works by women, representing only eight female artists. Although this ratio is remarkably bad, the National Gallery is not alone in having a profound imbalance.
Arts publications Artnet and the arts podcast In Other Words teamed up in 2019 to analyze the representation of women in US museum collections. They found that between 2008 and 2018, only 14% of works in museum exhibitions were made by women and only 11% of museum acquisitions were works by women. These acquisitions and exhibitions are strongly oriented towards modern and contemporary art.
Women artists working before 1900 are much less represented in museum collections. In some cases, their works are in smaller museums or in private collections, and in others they are untraceable or lost. This makes it harder to include their work in exhibitions as it can be harder to find.
Yet despite the fact that women’s labor has been less reliably preserved throughout history, much of it still exists. The museums that hide behind the excuse of the “lack” of women’s work perpetuate a lie that has been denied by countless feminist art historians since Linda Nochlin’s famous 1971 essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?
Writing in 2015, art historian Griselda Pollock explained that women artists are “there in black and white” in the records of exhibitions and sales in the 19th century. “This is the first evidence. It cannot be contradicted. But it has always been ignored by 20th century art historians and 21st century museum curators.
The National Gallery’s continued reliance on outdated art history is a failure in its duty as guardian of the British public’s art collection. Museums, especially those like the National Gallery that receive significant public funding, have a responsibility to accurately communicate the history and relevance of the objects they hold. They must also continue to innovate and respond to cultural changes.
A museum whose collection is less than 1% female is hardly representative of a country whose population is 50% female. Nor is it representative of a history of art which, while not yet offering equal opportunities to men and women, has certainly fostered an abundance of pioneering artists.