Women, Art and Authority: The Language of Exclusion

Fede Galizia, 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes' (possible self-portrait). 1596.

Fede Galizia, ‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’ (possible self-portrait). 1596.

I recently watched Amanda Vickery’s series, ‘The Story of Women and Art,’ which you can catch on Iplayer (and catch it soon, before it goes).

I am a pretty obvious target for this series. The name I blog under, Jeanne de Montbaston, is the name of one of the few medieval women artists about whom we know a fair amount. I’m not an Art Historian, but I’m very interested in women artists, because in medieval England (and France, and Italy …), you often find that the people illuminating books –  or making tapestries and other works of art we’ve now lost – were women. I suspect that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were actually a reasonably good time to be a woman artist. Yet, ironically, I suspect that’s true for women like Jeanne de Montbaston simply because being an artist who illuminated medieval manuscripts did not carry the level of (masculine) prestige we now associate with the word ‘Art’. She was simply a woman working to support her family. And even then, few non-medievalists would know about medieval women artists, so her name is obscure.

Vickery’s first programme began with Renaissance Italy, so we didn’t really get to talk about what was going on in medieval England or France (maybe there could be another series?). But this was fine with me since I know much less about Renaissance and post-Renaissance art. The story that stood out for me was that of the nun, Suor Plautilla Nelli, who painted a huge seven-metre Last Supper. The theme, so the programme argued, was typically taken on by male artists, but Vickery points out that Nelli’s models were probably other women, and consequently, she created a strongly feminized Last Supper. This is not only artistically significant, but also theologically: nuns who used this painting to focus their meditations would have been able to identify closely with a Christ whose human form was visibly similar to their own female bodies. If you think about the implications of that, it’s revolutionary – yet this work was hidden away in a convent.

The pattern was repeated. Vickery demonstrated that, when she looked for women artists, she found their work hidden away in basements, or overshadowed by better-publicised male contemporaries. Women worked in media men chose to allow them to use – including, in one fascinating example, sculpting intricate designs on peach stones – and even if their work did become popular and well-known, after their deaths few women artists retained their reputations. As the series constantly stressed, women struggled to get – let alone to keep – recognition in a male-dominated and often hostile environment. Fede Galizia, the woman who painted the picture at the top of this page – a self-portrait in which she stands in for the ball-breaking Judith, calmly toting the severed head of vanquished general Holofernes – was the daughter of a celebrated painter, and yet her father’s colleague commented patronizingly “this girl dedicates herself to imitate our most extraordinary art”. He probably thought that was praise.

I wasn’t particularly planning to blog about this series. I reckoned I didn’t have anything to say. But then, browsing through twitter, I saw Vickery’s own tweet responding to a Telegraph review:

Am ‘the ever-voluble historian’ in Daily Telegraph. Garrulous girl not Professor. Thanks for making that clear.”

I know there’s plenty else to be angry about today, but that made me angry for her, because I recognised the pattern here. Generally, presenting TV programmes does involve a wee bit of talking, that being sort of the aim of the whole thing. But when women talk from a position of authority, there’s almost always someone around to claim it’s all just a bit uncomfortable.

I didn’t find the review in question. Instead, I found some pretty telling alternative perspectives.

One (male) Telegraph reviewer decided to go for the backhanded compliment. While the content and argument of the series (y’know, the stuff most of us mere mortals are interested in) was great, Vickery’s delivery was, apparently, ‘overbearing’. As if she knew her stuff or something, perhaps? Further googling brought me to another gem from The Arts Desk, where the (female) reviewer  decided Vickery was ‘breathlessly enthusiastic’.

Of course, reviewers aren’t obliged to read, let alone agree with, each other’s opinions. It is possible that breathless enthusiasm, with all of its connotations of girlishness and lack of gravitas, is the same thing as being overbearing, with all that word’s connotations of excessive authority. But it’d be quite tricky to pull off that effect, wouldn’t it? Almost as if what both reviewers are really objecting to is simply the fact that Vickery is a woman and that’s enough to strike a false note.

I read recently (in Everyday Sexism, if you’re interested) that only one in five professors in British universities in a woman. Do a google image search of the word itself, and this is what you find: mostly men, mostly old, mostly white. I scrolled down looking for women and found four blondes in glasses with the banner ‘Beauty Professor’ and, erm, a semi-clothed manga figure. No, I didn’t click to see what that has to do with being a ‘professor’. Delightfully, the first page of google search results for the word ‘professor’ came up with the old Spectator crap from Rod Liddle laying into Mary Beard by claiming it’s ‘not misogyny, Professor, it’s you’. So that’s the impression we have of the term: professors are mostly men, unless we’re busy putting them in their place with a little slap down. How nice.

If this rant has a purpose, it’s to underline the really quite staggering irony of the barbed little criticisms Vickery (and other female professionals) attract. Many people would prefer to believe that women are excluded from prestigious positions, such as a place in the History of Art or a career in academia, because they choose to opt out. If we believe this, we forget about the active opposition women face, that chips away at us with little, barbed, patronizing comments. This series recovers forgotten work by women artists and explains how and why women adapted their work to fit into a male-dominated environment.  As Vickery argues, the point is not that women simply did not make art – the point is that the art they made was sidelined, excluded, put away in the basement and forgotten about. Yet, the reviewers appear incapable of making a link between this pattern of female exclusion, and their own perpetuation of that exclusion.


There is now a hashtag for sharing art, especially folk art, by women: #artbywomen, which grew out of ideas by Bee Jones, Millie Slavidou, and this post. Please do feel free to join in and celebrate the women you know who make beautiful things!



91 thoughts on “Women, Art and Authority: The Language of Exclusion

  1. To be honest, it was very early on in my feminist education, so I was not really able to do them the justice they deserved (not sure I would do a much better job now to be honest!), but I was able to recognise the inequality not just of the quantity and quality of the available information but also of the teaching coverage.

  2. The fact that we’re in 2014 and we’ve made so little progress in relation to attitudes to women speaks volumes about our so called civilised, democratic society, and the misogyny of those with a platform, such as Rod Liddle, is worrying. I haven’t watched the Story of Women and Art, but I shall certainly try and catch it (hope I’m not too late). I’ll also recommend your blog to my daughter, who at almost 17, is proudly feminist…and so is her boyfriend! This gives me hope.,

    • I agree with you. 😦

      I have a horrible feeling you may have missed the programme, but I’m guessing it might get repeated? I certainly hope so.

      And hope your daughter likes the blog. She sounds awesome. 🙂

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