Before the twentieth century, women artists struggled to participate in the male-dominated art world. Male domination forbade female learning in general. Women had minimal access to courses in art history, philosophy, and anatomy of the human body. Not gaining any perspective of the human anatomy hindered the women artists from creating realistic portraits or accurate majestic scenes. Along with the educational limitations, female artists were forbidden to sketch from live models because it compromised their integrity. Proper social protocol would suggest that self-expression of a female was limited to bearing children, conforming to proper social etiquette and lace making. Some women artists rejected social protocol of marriage to pursue freedom within their artistic expressions. These female artists laid the foundation for equality of artistic freedom despite the harsh regulations placed on their paintings.
These pioneering female artists would discreetly incorporate feminist meanings into their work and wanted to remove the gender label from their artworks. The purpose of de-gendering their art was to compete and find recognition of their talents within the art society. By de-gendering their paintings, female artists started to gain recognition of their talents. During the early nineteenth century, female artists’ reputations affirmed their talents and they slowly achieved success. The twentieth century marked a major social and cultural movement for them. Female artists insisted equality within society by protesting the gender biases and limited opportunities within the art community. Their disapproval provided a foundation for women artists to fight for equality and justice within museums and art galleries. Along with verbally fighting for equality, these women designed their art to cross gender, sexual, and social norms. Early generation feminist artists inspired future generations of female artists to break the stereotypes of art. Pioneering female artists had the courage to create artistic masterpieces, expose the gender biases within the art community, and shatter creative boundaries within society.
This path for women’s equality in art was received with criticism and objectification. Noticeable separation of male to female artists is illustrated in Johann Zoffany’s group portrait of the newly founded Royal Academy in 1772. Female artists Kaufmann and Moser are not included among the male artists but their portraits hung on the academy’s walls (Chadwick 7). Their artistic talents were comparable to the gentlemen within the academy, yet, Zoffany treated these women as objects, not equals. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, women were barred from the study of the nude models that formed the basis for academic training.
The lack of academic training provided to these women did not stifle them from succeeding within the art community. Sofonisba Anguissola illustrated in fifteenth century that women could challenge the male artist, even with the limitations placed on their artistic boundaries. Women were confined to paint only self-portraits or respectable landscapes. Sofonisba Self-Portraits exemplifies her techniques in painting by the contrast, lights, and colors used in her portraits. These portraits incorporate her place within society, culture, and her own virtuoso. Sofonisba’s father stifled her paintings when she became of age to marry. She refused to stop painting and defied society by continuing to paint when she was married and was bearing children (Chave). Her portraits still astound the art community with her brush techniques.
Artemisia Gentileschi challenged society with her portrait of Susanna and the Elders created after the conviction of Artemisia’s rapist. She lived a horrible life of torture, rape, and deception. Her father was a great artist and ran his own studio for inspiring male artist. Her father taught her how to paint within the boundaries of properly raised females. During one of her father’s sessions a young student lured Artemisia to an outside room and raped her at the age of twelve. The charge of rape was unheard of and the case was taken to the high courts. At the trial, her thumbs were bound and tightened with each question asked by the court. This torture was to ensure the court that she was telling the truth under pain. The young gentleman was convicted, which embarrassed her father’s reputation. Artemisia’s father disowned her for many years over the judge’s ruling. She was able to transform her passion and personal pain over the years to create artistic masterpieces. With her success, she opened a school for women artist at the young age of 14 (Mieke).
Women’s liberation was still considered absurd through the 1800’s, but one woman artist took the world by surprise. Rosa Bonheur was an extraordinary woman that was restricted to drawing and painting wildlife portraits and landscapes. Rosa incorporated messages of empowerment and rebellion in The Horse Fair, which illustrates horses being pulled and shoved by the male handlers. The message of The Horse Fair was translated over the years as the horses represented the women’s struggle for equality and freedom. In her personal life, she broke the mold by dressing as a man, having a female companion, and controlled her own money (Madden). Rosa’s conviction to be a woman artist and self reliant demonstrated early ambitions of women’s liberations.
The women’s liberation movement started to gain momentum in the early 1900’s with the Women’s Suffrage Movement. This movement involved women uniting for equality within the social and political organizations. These rebellious women uprooted themselves from the daily tasks of cooking and cleaning to picket the White House for equality. The feminist movement for equality did not gain much political ground and many of these organizations disbanded over the inequality frustrations. This movement influenced many women to start exploring their own freedoms within society. This female exploration developed into various feminist organizations that promoted carefree attitudes of dancing, smoking, and enjoying life. Enjoying life was short lived for the early feminist groups due to the Great Depression in the 1930’s. During WWII, feminist started to pull out of the depression and began performing masculine rolls within society. “Rosie the Riveter” was an image of the powerful women supporting their family and the country while at war. The image of Rosie fueled the sense of independence and freedom within women lives. Unfortunately, the war ended and men returning home from war wanted their positions back as the family provider. Women returning to the role of homemaker did not sit well with the feminist organizations because they started to gain social and political freedoms (Nguyen). The early 1900’s laid a foundation for women rights and freedom of self-expression and liberation. However, it took another twenty years for the feminist movement to gain any ground within society or the art community.
Through the 1960’s and 1970’s, America was facing the Vietnam War and social changes within the largest social structure, the Catholic Church. Women realized their lack of representation within society and the art community. They began to organize themselves into support groups in order to raise awareness of equal opportunities. A new wave of feminism gained momentum by actively questioning gender norms and tackling stereotypes. The Women’s Liberation Movement in the Sixties started with the fight for Civil Rights among blacks, the left-wing political student revolution of 1968, and the demonstrations against the Vietnam War (Humm 132). In addition, these protests included the struggle for abortion-rights, sexual freedom, social, and economical equality.
The Women’s Liberation and female artists became intimately joined forces in fighting for visualizing the injustices of society. The inequality of women expanded into the artistic community that escorted the first protest on the American art world. These protests focused on racism and sexism within the art community that enraged many feminist. The progress for equality was beginning to become organized and powerful, which allowed for all injustices to be fair game. One of the organizations was the Art Workers Coalition that was formed by artist George Takis. He removed one of his sculptures from the Museum of Modern Art or MoMA in 1969, which drew attention to his disapproval of the treatment of various artists (Gross). However, his protest for women artists’ equality was not as important to him as other causes. This infuriated the women artists within the group to strike out on their own.
The Women Artists in Revolution or WAR was an established as a fragment organization to protest the male dominated Art Worker Coalition. Cindy Nemser is an art historian and critic, who published numerous journals in the 1970’s about the liberation of women artists. She attended one of the first meetings of WAR. They gained recognition as artists and not as objects within the art community (Russell and Spencer 112). One of the crucial topics during the first meeting was the debate whether to have an all women’s artist exhibition. A few women felt fearful that they would be stigmatized by exhibiting their artwork with only women. Within moments the debate resolved to the resolution to have a exhibit featuring twelve women artists, which they would call X12:X. The intention of this exhibit was to illustrate the power and talents of women artists and it became a milestone for equal artistic rights. These twelve women artists conducted their exhibition on the roof in the East Village, NYC in 1970. Artists were: Iris Crump, Lois DiCosola, Maryann Gillies, Silvianna Goldsmith, Helene Gross, Doloris Holmes, Arline Lederman, Inverna Lockpez, Carolyn Mazzello, Vernita Nemec, Doris O’Kane, and Alida Walsh (Bock DiCosola).
That same year of the X12:X exhibition the A.W.C. and W.A.R. collaborated to protest the actions of the Whitney Museum. The Whitney Museum’s Annual opening in 1970 featured “143 artists and only 8 of the artist were women” (Gross). This lack of women artists’ representation in the museum piloted demonstrations by the Women Artist in Revolution and the Art Workers Coalition. These organizations advocated equal opportunities by direct open letters, demonstrations, and media interviews. The purpose of these demonstrations was to insist that all the art institutions reorganize the museum’s exhibition agenda. These demands included topics of feminism, anti-racism, and anti-war movements that needed to be incorporated into the museums exhibitions. In addition, these demands included the participation of the art institutions to exhibit and place minorities and women’s artists within society. Due to the intensive fight for equality of female representation at the museums the “Whitney Museum raised from 5% in 1970 to 22% in 1971.” These protests opened many avenues for social and artistic equality within society (Tobias).
Another organization fighting for women artist’s rights was AIR or Artists in Residence. The AIR Gallery open in 1972 and is the first non-profit gallery that exhibits women artists in America. These female artists would determine what programs and exhibits would be illustrated in the gallery. Also, each female artist would have the opportunity to demonstrate their works by designing and installing their own show. Some of these exhibits would attract some commercial venues but the majority of the exhibits would challenge the view against the stereotypes of women in society (Chave).
This artistic evolution opened numerous opportunities for writers to focus on the history of women’s equality within the artistic society. Moreover, these writers wanted to expose the tainted past with the historical perception of women artist. Linda Nochlin published an essay in 1971 called, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” This essay inspired women artists to reject art history of women because of the injustices within the educational and cultural opportunities. These rejections offered women the authority to reject the customary artistic education, which was held in reserve for male artists. She communicates that the fault for the lack of women artist did not lie within their stars or hormones. Linda explains that women artists do not have the golden nugget of genius and continues to state that women artists were not born with the genes to be a great artist because of the lack of a penis (Nochlin). Linda’s publication encouraged many women artist to reject the past and reach within their soul to find new inspirations within female art.
Judy Chicago read Nochlin’s essay and began to re-educate herself in art history by rejecting the tilted observations of male art history. Judy’s earlier exhibitions of her work at the Jewish Museum included paintings as the “Rainbow Pickets” and “Primary Structures”. These earlier artworks utilized the Minimalists approach (Chave). However, this approach to art was abandoned with the awareness of the fight for women’s equality within the artistic community. Nochlin’s essay inspired women like Judy to move toward the feminist art faction and to usher in aspirations of artistic creativity. The female artists of the revolution went beyond gender bias to create a new generation of stirring and proactive art. This evolution of women’s expressionism facilitated the new wave of liberating topics that was incorporated into paintings, sculptures, and education (Lucie-Smith 196).
Miriam Schapiro embraced the female experience of crafts and developed a new median of art. She was inspired by this feminist movement to demonstrate and elevate the status of crafts to a fine art through sewing, collage, and painting. The use of embroidery and cross-stitching within art has come to be known as “femmage.” “Femmage” was a word that stood for hand sewn art that incorporated different fabrics and textures. This unique use of crafts elevated her work to the “high-art” of collages, which is seen in the “Doll’s House” at the Womanhouse project (Bock DiCosola). Schapiro wanted to encourage the ordinary housewives to be inspired and made aware that their daily tasks could be turned into beautiful art. Her popularity within the women’s community allowed her to challenge the establishments of injustices and encouraged women to emerge from the isolation of the housewife’s persona. Schapiro’s enthusiasm for liberating the housewife included educational projects with Judy Chicago.
Judy and Miriam became acquainted by their recognition of each other’s earlier artistic challenges in the male dominated art society. They first met at a dinner held in the home of Allan Kaprow, where they discussed the possibility of Schapiro lecturing at the university where Judy resided. Both of these women embraced the emancipation of women and women artists. The first advancement of educational programs for women in art was created by Judy at California State University. Judy and Schapiro integrated their talents to design the first Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of Arts (Lucie-Smith 194). It was the intention of this school to create a new generation of artists, who had an expanded knowledge of the feminist self awareness. These challenges and recognition of each other’s work encouraged Judy and Miriam to have an exhibit that allowed the women artists to express their new femininity.
In 1972, Womanhouse project was a brainstorm of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro and integrated the Feminist Art Program at the California Institute of the Arts. This exhibition encouraged students of the Feminist Art Program to participate. The intention of the Womanhouse is to showcase women’s performances and art outside of the school environment. Projecting the students into the social community gave a new purpose for their art and a chance to open the minds of the public to liberating women’s artistic abilities. This exhibition joined forces with all the students to prepare a dilapidated house in a suburban area of Hollywood. Students that worked several jobs had to prioritize their lives to create new pieces for the exhibit. Beyond their own works of art, the students became laborers in repairing windows, rewiring electric and other carpentry related tasks. Unfortunately, the undertaking of this project became overwhelming for the students and staff. Numerous students were pushed to their limits and suffered sleep deprivation and exhaustion in preparation. Judy became the general of this project by yelling, poking, and pushing students to their limits (Sider). The students and staff managed to convert this house into a month long art exhibition for the public. Each woman was given a room to create whatever they wanted, providing it followed the parameters of the female’s experiences.
The Womanhouse exhibition was received with mixed reactions by the critics. These participating artists were less concerned with the critics and more concerned with raising the conscious awareness in femininity. Each night of the show, the media and spectators filled the exhibition rooms to interact with many talented artists. The general, or Judy, created the Menstruation Bathroom that included a waste basket overflowing with dirty, bloody pads. She also scattered around the bathroom various feminine hygiene projects. Another inventive use of household items is the Linen Closet designed by Sandra Orgel. The Linen Closet illustrates a women trapped inside the closet or incorporated into the closet next to the folded towels. The head of the females appears to have been chopped off and placed on the self. The one leg appears to be outside but also attached to the body, it seems to be that she was stuck inside the boundaries of traditional women’s duties. The traditional women’s duty was challenged by a room called Waiting at Womanhouse. Waiting at Womanhouse was performed by Faith Wilding, which involves her sitting in a room with her hands folded while she rocks back and forth reciting words that stereotyped women. Faith would mutter words like, waiting for someone to feed me, put me on the toilet, or waiting for menopause. The message provided by this piece demonstrates the outdated suppression of females but also provides a powerful voice to break the cycle of oppression. Nurturant Kitchen was a combined insulation by Susan Frazier, Robin Weltsch and Vicki Hodgetts. The Womanhouse exhibit provided a creative outlet for the artist to explore the feminist view of unequal opportunities in society. Moreover, it illustrates the talents that women possess when they are not muffled by the male dominated society (Sider).
During the Womanhouse exhibit, another organization for women’s equal rights was beginning to assemble. In 1971, the Women in Arts Foundation or WIA became a structured foundation that addressed the discriminations against women artists. This foundation challenged the unfair practices of jurying female artists for shows. Also, they provided educational and professional information to these artists, so that they could govern their careers with knowledge. A majority of these educational programs tackled topics dealing with various law practices, grants, art dealers, and coping with critics (Morgan). The WIA organization also contributed in protests that took to the streets of New York. They would have television interviews, speeches, and even picketed events that were unjust to the female artist.
WIA conducted a protest in front of MoMA, which included numerous open letter campaigns to the New York museums to reorganize their ignorance toward women artists. The result of this protest led to the “Women Choose Women” exhibition that opened in 1973. This show included only 109 of nearly 500 WIA members (Tobias). Although the percentage of women was low, it still set a precedent for future women’s exhibitions. “Women Choose Women” was essential not only because it was the first women’s museum exhibition but it gained recognition by the art community. It was important because it demonstrated that women artists were no longer under the control of the male influences and these males could no longer determine what works of the females would be exhibited. Also these women artists would decide how these exhibitions would be interpreted. Inverna Lockpez was one of the artists featured in this exhibition with an untitled painting. Lockpez was always involved with the women’s movement since the early sixties and felt that this show was overdue. Buffie Johnson, Betty Parsons, and Mary Frank were among some of the diverse artists that were featured in this exhibit. This show illustrated various women’s artistic abilities and was hosted by the New York Cultural Center (Jolly). The “Women Choose Women” show set precedence for other women artists to unify and take control of their artwork.
The “Women Choose Women” and the sexual revolution aided in the liberation of homosexual and bisexual female artists. However, the fight for women’s freedom was still ongoing and to tackle another issue for female homosexual equality would be challenging. The League for the Advancement of Lesbianism in the Arts was founded in Los Angeles. This foundation provided a safe environment for their members to explore the freedom of sexuality through their art. In New York City lesbian artists protested the lack of support within the art community. Ellen Turner, Maxine Fine, Flavia Rando, Ellen Turner and Fran Winant would target high traffic populated areas and saturate them with copies of their artworks. These artwork flyers would have the female artist’s drawings, which was stamped with the word “lesbian art” across the flyer. In 1974, the Lesbian Herstory Archives was founded in New York City by Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel. The undertaking of this foundation was to gather and preserve records of lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will have access to the material. Moreover, lesbian artists’ were gaining some recognition in 1978 with “A Lesbian Show” exhibition (Jolly).
Harmony Hammond created the “A Lesbian Show” which was an exhibition that featured lesbian artists. In the early 1970’s, she exhibited art pieces that resembled the feminist attitudes of the times. Beyond the confronting of the current feminist agenda, Harmony came out as a lesbian and became a strong voice for future generations of lesbian artists. She is an accomplished artist that incorporates lesbian feminism into her paintings, sculptures, and writings. Her artistic works incorporates the female stereotypical household materials into her sculptures and paintings. Some of these materials included the use of blankets, curtains, and any recycled cloths that were transformed into crocheted painted rugs. Harmony also experimented with latex and rubber materials in her sculptures which are illustrated in her bag collection. Today, this pioneer of women’s art is still an accomplished artist, writer, curator, and publisher on the topic of lesbian art (Russell and Spencer 220-221).
In the 1970’s there were many foundations that supported the feminist fight. However, let’s go beyond the organizations or exhibitions and explore a few of these pioneering feminist artists. These women used their artistic creativity to express unique insights within feminist art. It is important to recognize each of these following women as courageous and bold women within their own convictions to broaden the artists’ awareness to female art and equality.
Cindy Sherman established her reputation as an artist by using Untitled Film Stills to provide a different prospective on photography. In the late 1970s, she created a series of black-and-white photographs which the artist depicted herself dressed in the guises of clichéd B-movie heroines. Another artist that used film within the artistic community was Joyce Wieland. She was a painter, writer, and director of her own movies, which include “The Far Shore”. Joyce is called the pioneer of the idea of women working together to create art. She was the first artist to hire outside individual quilters to quilt various pieces for her “Reason Over Passion”(Chadwick 383). Joyce was considered one of the most important artist figures with the U.S. and Canada.
Judy Chicago used other female artists to aid her creation of the 1979 piece called “The Dinner Party”. She had taken the idea of getting other women to help her from Joyce Wieland, but unlike Wieland, Judy Chicago never paid the people who worked for her. “This Dinner Party” took five years to complete and she has since received a bad reputation for exploiting the work of other artists by taking the credit for herself (Chadwick 229). Judy’s efforts and drive helped the feminist movement toward a positive direction but after this show her past accomplishments were over shadowed by her greed.
Benglis is the next feminist artist that rocked the artistic community. Her creations are very unusual concepts of the use of latex. During the feminist movement, she poured latex and foam to create sculptures. Benglis angrily created these works of art to represent the male dominated fusion of paintings and sculptures that had taken place within Process Art and Minimalism. Movement of the material was the purpose for creating these sculptures with the foam and latex. Benglis’ work was met with controversy over the critical awareness of the abstraction of content and the gesture of the mass (Tobias). Her creations of sculptures were very formal but used unique materials that captured the audience imagine.
The sculptures during the feminist movement varied from latex to fiberglass. Hesse’s preferred material was fiberglass, which incorporated organic geometric elements into the sculptures. Most of her sculptures were rigid and contained mechanical shapes and forms. Unfortunately, during her peak of artistic genius, Hesse discovered that she had a brain tumor. It has been said that her unique situation gave her the inspiration to boldly use materials like latex, rubber, and cheesecloth’s to define movement within the sculptures (Chadwick 340).
The last feminist artist that inspired this research for the liberating art movement was Betye Saar. She began creating artworks that incorporated the social injustices arranged within boxes with windows. Saar used mixed media collages, assemblages, and installations to illustrate her message of freedom. Saar’s work had a methodic element of passage of life, death, and rebirth. Each of her artworks conveyed stories of equalities, her own mixed culture, and the fight for civil liberties. The majority of her art work deals with issues of race and gender equality. The Liberation of Aunt Jemima forces the audience to see the injustices within the social boundaries of life(Barko).
In closure, the evolution of the artistic freedom illustrates the level of bias within the education and opportunities offered to the early pioneer women artists. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, female artists began to organize and fight for equal artistic and personal freedoms. These early struggles for equal exhibitions led many female artists to conduct protests and boycotts of various museums to gain recognition. Various female artists that had the opportunity to exhibit their works opened new avenues for future feminist artists. These artistic pioneers illustrated that females are just as talented, bold, and provocative as male artists. The golden egg theory that males had a gift from God to be great artists was trampled by the feminist artistic movement. Moreover, these feminist artists demonstrated that their artworks were just as marketable as the male artists’ works. The organizations formed by these women were used to provide support and advancement within the artistic community. Many of these feminists’ artistic organizations still exist today. They still continue to fight for equality and equal exposure for the female artist and their artworks. Nowadays, women artists are able to benefit from these pioneers of liberation; however, to benefit from the past is to maintain the level of artistic freedom in the future.
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