The Missing Women of Art History: The Eternal Muse?

The Bucerius Kunst Forum Hamburg shows artists from the Renaissance to Classicism who have long been forgotten by the art world.

Excerpt from Giovanna Garzoni, “lap dog with biscuits and Chinese cup around 1648 Photo: Gallerie degli Uffizi, Galleria Palatina, Florence

A woman sits between two columns and sketches an antique torso on a pedestal in front of her. The image motif so clearly identifies the person portrayed as an artist that an explanation seems superfluous. In 1780, Angelika Kauffmann not only represented an entire professional group through a female personification, she also created a symbol for the talent and at the same time the limitations of female artists in modern times. With this work she subtly comments on the situation where female artists were denied access to drawing nude models and their only alternative was to study sculptures.

The painting “The Art of Drawing” is currently in “Geniale Frauen. Artists and their companions” can be seen in the Bucerius Art Forum. Similar to Kauffmann, the exhibition house wants to highlight the abilities and limitations of these artists and bring many of them out of oblivion.

It contrasts them with their fathers, brothers, husbands and fellow painters. A somewhat strange comparison, as it reduces the production of art to the category of gender.

This exhibition is not the first dedicated to modern women artists. The National Gallery in London honored Artemisia Gentileschi in 2020 and the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden recently honored the pastel painter Rosalba Carriera. Female artists, who have historically often been excluded from academies and guilds, should now be re-inscribed into the male-dominated art canon.

“Brilliant women. Artists and their companions”: Bucerius Kunst Forum Hamburg, until January 28th

What is hardly known today is that many of these artists were very successful during their lifetime and presented themselves with corresponding self-confidence in their works. Katharina van Hemessen, for example, presents herself confidently in her self-portrait, which is the first work to be introduced into the Hamburg exhibition: The Flemish artist sits in front of the easel, the brush in her hand lies unerringly on the canvas and she fixes the viewer with a fixed gaze. in. In the otherwise darkness of the painting, the face and canvas seem to glow. “I Katharina van Hemessen painted myself / 1548 / when she was 20,” says the inscription. A measure to avoid being forgotten?

The confident look

The Dutch painter Judith Leyster portrays herself just as confidently a hundred years later. She seems to look at you reproachfully from the screen, as if someone were interrupting her in the middle of her work. The artists’ many self-portraits are a visual highlight of the exhibition, but a more detailed historical classification would have helped.

Van Hemessen’s self-portrait is considered to be the first self-portrait of an artist, but why this change to self-portrayal by artists suddenly occurs is hardly explained. The perception of painting and sculpture as art instead of as craft in the 16th and 17th centuries also brought with it a staging of artists as intellectuals, because, as we learn from art history, but not in the exhibition, art is now seen as understood intellectual activity.

Individual comparisons with male family members or teachers clearly show their influence on the female artists. The dark shadows in the background of van Hemessen’s portraits also appear frequently in her father’s work. The show then shows how the women stood out with their own style and innovation, as Maria Sybilla Merian’s scientifically important depiction of insects and plants proves.

However, the influence is not presented as mutual. Couldn’t the female artists have also influenced their male companions? This will be highlighted in the Bucerius Art Forum with 30 artists just for Gesina ter Borch. Instead, the artists are portrayed here in a very passive role, one could say: ascribed to women.

Lavinia Fontana: Self-portrait at the spinet, 1577 Photo: Galleria dell’Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Rome © Accademia Nazionale di San Luca, Roma. Photo Mauro Coen

The British art historian Katy Hessel also asked in her column for the Guardian: “Why do we still define female artists as wives, girlfriends and muses?” Of course, the comparison or reference to male family members or teachers can make sense, as the Bucerius Art Forum also shows in some cases. However, an exhibition house would probably not take on this topic if the roles were reversed.

Nevertheless, the show makes it clear: a few centuries ago, women conquered their place in a variety of ways in an artistic community in which they were actually excluded because of their gender.

Nevertheless, the show makes it clear: a few centuries ago, women conquered their place in a variety of ways in an artistic community in which they were actually excluded because of their gender. The fact that they were able to outshine their male colleagues artistically is demonstrated by the haunting look of Bianca Ponzoni Anguissola in the portrait of the same name that her daughter Sofonisba Anguissola painted of her in 1557.

She looks at the visitors life-sized with sparkling eyes in which her shiny jewelry is reflected. Although Anguissola is said to have her teacher Bernardino Campi to thank for the detailed reproduction of materials, his portrait of Bianca Ponzoni on display appears crude and pale in comparison.

Hank Peter

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