Why have there been no great women artists?

// 23 September 2009


Another interesting screening by Club des Femmes is in the works this week, under the provocative title “Why have there been no great women artists?” It’s a chance to see two feminist shorts from the 1970s and one more recent piece from 1997.

There’s a screening in Liverpool on Friday then another screening in London on Monday Tuesday (full details below).

“Why have there been no great women artists?” This is how the critic Linda Nochlin famously opened the debate about the way canonical thinking defined and still defines Western art history. For Nochlin, in 1971, in a line of art A-listers that stretched from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol, women artists were notable by their absence.

Nearly forty years on in our post-feminist age, Club des Femmes considers the role of the woman artist and wonders if the debate has ever gone away? Come with us and revisit the seventies, the debate is just starting: it’s time to engage.



Director: Lis Rhodes. UK, 1978, 20 mins, 16mm

LIGHT READING begins in darkness as a woman’s voice is heard over a blank

screen. She speaks of her search for a voice: of presence and absence, of

experience and history. Her voice continues until the images appear on the

screen and then it is silent. In the final section of the film she begins

again – reading the images as these are moved and re-placed, describing the

piecing together of the film as she tries to piece together the strands of

her story. ‘She watched herself being looked at She looked at herself being

watched but she could not perceive herself as the subject of the sentence

…’ (Lis Rhodes).


Director: Martha Rosler. USA, 1975, 6 mins, video

Martha Rosler is an important contemporary artist and feminist who uses

photography, performance, writing and video to deconstruct cultural reality.

Avoiding a pedantic stance, Rosler characteristically lays out visual and

verbal information in a manner that allows the contradictions to gradually

emerge, so that the audience can discern these disjunctions for themselves.


Director: Elisabeth Subrin. USA, 1997, 36 mins, video

A cinematic doppelganger without precedent, Elisabeth Subrin’s Shulie

uncannily and systematically bends time and cinematic code alike, projecting

the viewer 30 years into the past to rediscover a woman out of time and time

out of joint- and in Subrin’s words, ‘to investigate the mythos and residue

of the late 1960s.’ Staging an extended act of homage as well as a playful,

provocative confounding of filmic propriety, Subrin and her creative

collaborator Kim Soss resurrect a little-known 1967 documentary portrait of

a young Chicago art student who a few years later would become a notable

figure in Second Wave feminism and the author of the radical 1970 manifesto,

The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. Reflecting on her

life and times, Shulie functions as a prism for refracting questions of

gender, race and class that resonate in our era as in hers, while through

painstaking mediation, Subrin makes manifest the eternal return of film. –

Mark MacElhatten and Gavin Smith, curators, Views from the Avant Garde. 35th

New York Film Festival


LIVERPOOL: Friday 25 September, 2pm

AND Festival, The Box, Fact, 88 Wood St, L1 4DQ, Liverpool


LONDON: Monday 28 September, 6.30pm Tuesday 29 September, 6.30pm

Goldsmiths, University of London

Small Hall Cinema, Richard Hoggart Building (main building)



On the same subject, Feminist Peace Network has a post about a documentary on the Heresies Collective, which produced the feminist art magazine Heresies from 1977-1992. Excitingly, the directors have posted the entire archive of Heresies, which you can download in PDF form…


Comments From You

HarpyMarx // Posted 23 September 2009 at 10:11 pm

That should be interesting.

Nochlin’s 1970s article was groundbreaking.

She argued that the reason for the lack of ‘great women artists’ was due to patronage, social/political structures and also because of class dynamics and the power relationships in society.

Nochlin, in early 2001, wrote a follow-up essay questioning whether the structures had opened up for women and whether her arguments had remained valid in discussing and challenging the discourse of art.

tomhulley // Posted 24 September 2009 at 9:23 am

Just of few of the artists that I happen to like. There are many more. (Get googling!)

Mary Cassatt, Artemisia Gentileschi, Vanessa Bell, Gwen John, Angelica Kauffman, Mona Hatoum, Charlotte Cornish, Halima Cassell, Tamara de Lempicka, Cornelia Parker, Gillian Ayres, Lucy Jones, Vieira da Silva, Dod Proctor, Elizabeth Forbes, Michelle Wright, Barbara Rae, Anita Klein,Mary Stork.

and, for me, the greatest artist of all time: Suzanne Valadon.

She was unprivileged, an artist’s model, mother and community worker. Her time was not her own. She cared for a trying mother and an alcoholic son as well as looking out for the fractious and ageing Degas.Yet she made more openings for women artists than anyone. Though familiar with ‘great’ artists of her day, her work was original and often better. Untaught, overlooked, overshadowed… she stands above them all.

Then, of course, there have been quite a number of privileged, show-offs but that is another story …his story!

Evy // Posted 24 September 2009 at 2:19 pm

Sorry but I am one of the organisers of the event at Goldsmiths and it is actually on on the 29th not the 28th! Same time as above 6.30pm in Small Hall Cinema.

Please let me know if you have any other questions on email above and could someone edit the above? The details have been changed on club des femmes website – http://clubdesfemmes.blogspot.com/

sorry about this! and hope to see people coming along, it should be a great evening.

Ann // Posted 27 September 2009 at 8:25 pm

Actually, there have been plenty of famous women artists. I was raised a feminist and educated at a women’s college and feminism drives me nuts when feminists make non-sense claims like this. It just makes women look like victims instead of empowered citizens.

Jess McCabe // Posted 27 September 2009 at 9:19 pm

@Ann I’ve not read the original essay, but I assume it’s a rhetorical question, meant to provoke debate, rather than a real argument that there have been no ‘great’ or famous women artists.

However, I think it is worth exploring why there are less women in the male-constructed Canon than there are men; being an artist (at least the kind with access to an audience) has historically just not been an option in the same way it has for women.

Also, women’s work has been devalued and erased, accidentally and purposefully kept out of the Canon, which was never constructed looking in the places where women’s art would have been found. Acknowledging that isn’t about painting women as victims.

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 27 September 2009 at 11:40 pm

Dear Ann,

In many ways I greatly admire your attitude. It can sometimes be only too easy for us feminists to play the victim card and put the blame for our failures or shortcomings on perceived prejudice or some obscure concept of patriarchy.

As you say there have been a lot of famous women artists, as there have been lots of famous women in almost any walk of life. These are the kind of women who knew that sometimes they would have to work harder than men to get their deserved recognition. Instead of giving up they just rolled their sleeves and did it just the same.

These are the people who we need to look up to as role models and inspiration.

The feminist movement is correct in bringing to attention cases where women have been unjustly ignored or underestimated. However as individuals it is much more helpful to focus on doing your very best and overcoming any obstacles.

I will always campaign for equal employment opportunities but when my daughter goes to her first job interview my message will be not to worry about any possible discrimination, but to persuade the panel that she is the best person for the job in spite of any real or imagined prejudice they might have.

Anne Onne // Posted 28 September 2009 at 12:25 am

@ Ann: I personally disagree with the title, as well. There have certainly been female artists with great talent, insight and potential. In my (albeit not particularly knowledgeable) view there have been great female artists, just judging by the artworks I have seen.

But I see the title as focusing on why female artists have not been considered ‘great’. It’s not that there have been no great female artists, it’s that they’ve been hidden away, discouraged and erased, that they’ve been paid little attention.

I could agree that personally, I would have preferred a clearer title, something like ‘Why have no women artists been considered great?’.

Kate L // Posted 28 September 2009 at 12:26 pm

My vote would go to Cindy Sherman. I also like Frieda Kahlo, Eileen Agar, Barbara Hepworth. And of course, let’s not forget Judy Chicago, who has been mention on this site before.

Is Tracey Emin too controversial to be called ‘great’? I think she has tons of talent in varying media (and I don’t think found object art is especially fraudulent, but then the arguments have been made for that many-a-time).

Jess McCabe // Posted 28 September 2009 at 12:31 pm

@Kate L I think the whole notion of “great” artists is a difficult one. Great according to whom? On what criteria?

sianmarie // Posted 28 September 2009 at 3:17 pm

“great according to whom”

exactly. this is the problem of the “great women” argument. for so long, greatness has been defined by being a member of a very white rich male dominated canon.

literature is my field and although great women writers are more recognised in the public eye than artists, problems persist. i remember being furious when i was at uni that we had a lecture on “women modernists”. can you imagine having a lecture on “male modernists”!!?? of course not, because male writers are individuals, women writers are a group.

the problem is not that there are no great women artists, but that those who define greatness often tend to only recognise greatness that reflects their cultural mores. this is why it is so important when people apologise for missing out women from “best of” lists, as was reported on this blog recently in regards to fantasy writers.

Kate L // Posted 28 September 2009 at 3:55 pm

@sianmarie – I completely agree. Literature is also more my field too and perhaps the ‘women modernists’ lecture is a bit odd, but then we have feminism and not (as an historical movement) masculinism. I suspect the organisers of that lecture were part of the aspect of academia that were trying for a new canon – or a wider one. And perhaps also because modernism was male dominated (I can name one female modernist writer off the top of my head and many more males) so it tried to redress the balance?

That’s a really good point – all male writers are individualists, women writers are a group. I suspect that might be why a lot of female authors I admire (of a certain generation too) distance themselves from the term ‘feminist’ – I’m thinking particularly of my pet (thesis) topic, A.S. Byatt – she has good reasoning, though. And I think it’s more to do with the problems of academic discourse and what is seen as authentic within them (and often dogmatic). And I suspect another reason is pigeon-holing, which is exactly what you’re referring to here – women writers are a group purely by a function of (presumed) biological sex. Byatt, to give her credit, writes well on the lives of women, the changes of feminism and feminism within academia. She is suspect of all discourse, when it becomes a set of tick boxes to recognise it by and unreflexive.

We did women’s studies in history at school, which seemed largely irrelevant (in an all female grammar school, where femal learning was, naturally, championed) but despite my thoughts at the time, it has come in handy since.

Taking up your point on fantasy and taking it a little further, what about female sci-fi writers? I’ve only heard of Ursula Le Guin (and shamefully haven’t read any). AND – even better from the canonical point of view – I took a comparative lit course as an undergrad on sci-fi (one of the few in the country, or so it was heralded at the time) – there were no female writers on the term that covered 20th C, not even Ursula Le Guin. How odd, I hadn’t thought of that before.

Jess McCabe // Posted 28 September 2009 at 4:04 pm

@Kate L In terms of female SF writers, I posted recently about a list of mindblowing speculative fiction by women and people of colour, which is a good place to start. I recently got really into Octavia Butler and read all her books, I definitely recommend her.

Kate L // Posted 28 September 2009 at 4:31 pm

@Jess – that’s awesome, I will be checking that out on my next lunch break :) Also, by the way, I’m gimcrackgirl, who follows you on Twitter. Great work with this entry too, I shall be passing it on to my female artist friends, thanks.

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