Griselda Pollock first became aware of the absence of women in art history while studying at university in the late 60s.
“I wasn’t being taught about women artists, or they were mentioning them only to belittle them,” she recalls.
“I decided to go to the National Gallery [London] and look for women artists, and there they were [but] in the basement, not on show … there were only nine of them in the whole of the National Gallery,” Pollock told Namila Benson on The Art Show.
This discovery sent Pollock on a journey into other basements and archives, to find women and write them back into history.
This year, her decades of work in this area was recognised when she became the first art historian to win the Holberg Prize, a 6 million Norwegian krone ($900,000) annual award for a scholar in the arts and humanities, social sciences, law or theology.
Despite the win, Pollock is humble, calling herself an “an impassioned art historian, working to save the women artists that I see around me from being delivered to the dustbin of history in their lifetimes — which is still happening”.
2019 research by art agency In Other Words and artnet News found that women artists represent just 2 per cent of the global art market, despite dominating tertiary art programs.
The Freelands Foundation, meanwhile, found that in 2018, London’s major galleries and auctions still heavily favoured male artists.
Locally, the Countess Report (a comprehensive report into gender representation in the Australian art sector) found that while gender parity had been achieved in the independent art sector, state art galleries were falling behind, with only 30 per cent female representation in their exhibitions (with no data available on non-binary artists).
How did we get here?
When Pollock and colleagues started writing about women in art history, they were not attempting to understand why women had been written out of the story, but how.
Pollock says they wanted to turn the spotlight on art history and ask: “How can you disinform the public that there is nothing that women have ever done that forms part of our cultural heritage?”
They discovered that the problem was “structural”.
Pollock says that while 19th-century artist compendiums included women, the recognition of women as artists came to a halt at the beginning of the 20th century.
“[It] became absolutely systematic, with the foundation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then followed through with the academic institutional art history that was being taught in the 20th century,” she says.
This erasure was happening in a period when women’s rights campaigns had resulted in improved access to education and work for women, which meant women were making art in the studios of Constructivism, Cubism, and Abstract Impressionism.
“Men and women were co-creating modern art. But the story of modern art was being produced as a great, heroic, masculine adventure, almost without women.”
Pollock traces this to the patriarchal privileging of the masculine.
“The feminine is … always being constantly produced as what is not masculine,” says Pollock.
“We see this also in the structures of racism … the production of whiteness, of white supremacy or European supremacy, is based on the constant iteration of a negative other.
She points out that artists who are not white men come with qualifiers, whether it’s “woman artist”, “black artist”, or “disabled artist”.
“In that qualifying, I have disqualified them from automatically being part of this neutral category: artist.”
“When we did the research about women artists, all we had to do was to look,” Pollock says.
But for Pollock, the erasure of women’s artistic contribution was not confined to the past.
“I was surrounded by women artists … and I realised that if I didn’t do something, they would be disappeared.”
So Pollock embarked on her life’s mission, writing the books Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology (1981, with Rozsika Parker) and Differencing the Canon: Feminist Desire and the Writing of Art’s Histories (1999), as well as monographs on artists including Charlotte Salomon (2018).
She says winning the Holberg Prize has given her the resources to support artists during COVID-19, and to support archives, including Turner Prize-winning artist Lubaina Himid’s archive of black visual art: Making Histories Visible.
“My big thing is co-creation: men and women, black and white women, queer and straight people have co-created a complex world,” says Pollock.
“We shouldn’t be allowing art history and its curators to police a story of art that is very narrow, teleological and selective.”
Jennifer Higgie, Australian art critic and editor-at-large of Frieze magazine, says her 80s university education was much like Pollock’s in the 60s, which meant she only learned about artists like Sofonisba Anguissola — “a superstar in Renaissance Italy” — later in life.
“In terms of Western art history, women have been essentially barred from the conversation,” says Higgie.
Higgie presents Bow Down, a Frieze podcast about forgotten women artists, which launched in November 2019 with an episode on the 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (with Turner Prize-shortlisted artist Helen Cammock as a guest).
“[Gentileschi is one] of the very few women from the past who have had a light cast on them. In recent times, Artemesia is definitely coming into her own,” Higgie says.
In 2018, the National Gallery (London) purchased Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17) and toured it nationally to schools, prisons and churches, to generate conversation about women and art history.
In another sign of hard-won progress, last year Madrid’s Prado Museum focused its 250th-anniversary exhibition on Sofonisba Anguissola and fellow Renaissance trailblazer Lavinia Fontana, the second time ever that the Prado dedicated an exhibition to a woman artist.
Next year, Higgie is releasing a book titled The Mirror and the Palette: 500 Years of Women’s Self Portraits.
She says that prior to the 20th century, women were blocked from art schools and academies.
“To make art, they would often turn to their own bodies. And if they had a mirror and a palette and a canvas … they could paint themselves in a way that they weren’t allowed to paint men or figure paintings or big history.”
In researching for the book, Higgie came upon a 1548 self-portrait by the Flemish painter Catharina van Hemessen.
Unlike the heroic, Christ-like, male self-portraits that had come before (by Titian, for example), van Hemessen’s portrait is the first of an artist at an easel.
Higgie interprets van Hemessen’s self-portrait as a declaration: “This is me, I’m a woman. And look, I’m an artist.”
Know My Name
There are movements happening around the world to address the issues that Pollock, Higgie and others have identified.
One of the best known is the #5WomenArtists campaign, an initiative of Washington DC’s National Museum of Women, that challenges members of the public to equip themselves to better answer the question: Can you name five women artists?
This year, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), in Canberra, launched their Know My Name initiative, which includes an exhibition of women artists from their collection, staged in two parts.
The first part, titled Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now, has just opened, after being delayed by COVID-19.
A 2019 audit revealed that only 25 per cent of works in NGA’s Australian collection were by women artists (their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection fares better, with 33 per cent of works by women artists).
“We really feel that it’s not only time, but it’s over time, that we really address this,” says curator Deborah Hart, NGA’s head of Australian art, while explaining that the problem relates to both acquisitions and exhibitions.
Hart co-curated the Know My Name exhibition with NGA Australian art curator Elspeth Pitt, working with colleagues in institutions and communities across Australia (including The Countess Report and the Sheila Foundation) to bring together the largest exhibition of women artists ever staged in this country.
Pitt says they had certain “breakthrough and key moments” in mind for the show, including Freda Robertshaw’s 1944 Standing nude (self-portrait) — one of the first female nude self-portraits made in Australia — and Making her Mark, Julie Dowling’s portrait of her great-grandmother.
One theme quickly emerged: Abstraction and Modernism.
“Abstraction and Modernism were largely pioneered by women artists in Australia, which is quite different from how these art forms emerged in Europe and North America,” says Pitt.
Hart says: “We’re trying to bring together people who wouldn’t normally be seen in the same context … inviting people to rethink our stories, to make this point that history isn’t something static.”
Colonisation, women and Western art
Know My Name includes a new commission by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers that tells the ancestral story of the Seven Sisters Dreaming.
“We really wanted to acknowledge the work of Aboriginal women artists,” says Hart.
Ahead of the exhibition, the NGA held a conference with keynote addresses from Pollock, Higgie, American artist Nan Goldin, and Genevieve Grieves, an Aboriginal (Worimi nation) educator, curator, oral historian, researcher and artist.
“Western history has written us completely out of the narrative; it’s excluded Indigenous people, prioritising one form of knowledge and one civilization over all others,” says Grieves.
She says the very notion of art is a “limiting framework”.
“For us, art is just one aspect of a completely holistic way of understanding the world and a way of being, so to fragment that system and just focus on one element is very Western and colonised,” Grieves says.
She says colonisation also disrupted First Nations notions of gender, sexuality and matriarchal systems of power.
The artist says there’s an ongoing fight to reclaim those structures within Indigenous communities, but sees Know My Name as “an opportunity for us to have deeper conversations about the different positions that we hold — we’re all women, but we’re diverse women”.
Grieves’ mentor is the Aboriginal historian and writer Tony Birch.
“During the History Wars, people were saying to him: ‘Where are all the Aboriginal historians?’ And he said: ‘They’re our artists, they’re the people who tell our stories’.”
Grieves wants Australians to know one such storyteller who is part of the Know My Name exhibition: artist, curator, activist, and academic r e a (Gamilaraay/Wailwan), who she describes as an “elder of the Australian black art scene”.
“If she wasn’t black and she wasn’t a woman, more people would know about her.”
The ongoing fight
In 1992, Pollock created the UK’s first masters course in feminist art history — but in 2004, the University of Leeds axed the course, citing financial reasons.
“It reminded me that it is a delusion to think you make any progress,” Pollock says.
“I think we ignore that this is a deep struggle with some of the most ingrained systems of power … Patriarchy is a real thing. It’s not just a fiction of the feminist imagination.”
“[And] these things are structural, somebody is benefiting persistently from this, and they will not give up easily.”
She says the pandemic is making the ongoing challenges that women face — including abuse and poverty — more pronounced.
But despite her frustrations, Pollock is still fighting.
“Because you have to be faithful to the vision. Once you’ve been touched by this sense of it, there’s no possibility of giving up.”
Pitt says NGA’s commitment to changing its institution is a “significant moment in time” and that she’s hopeful.
“I do feel like there is a shift occurring across the world at the moment, in terms of women’s rights, trans rights, [and] Black Lives Matter.”
Grieves says there’s been “huge inroads” in Australian society in terms of becoming aware of the work needed to address the impacts of colonisation.
She speaks of change measured in generations, rather than lifetimes.
“I think it’s about having that sort of broad perspective across time — what my ancestors dealt with nine generations ago, I’m worlds away from that,” says Grieves.
“But I understand the burden on women and on changemakers; shifting against institutions is incredibly hard work, and that’s why if we’re united and able to do it together, in all our complexity and diversity, we’re much more able to make those changes.”