How Feminist Art History Changed the Story of Art
One of my favourite things about art history is when something or someone comes along that completely alters my perspective. Old habits of looking are upturned and the values I took for granted are reappraised.
Feminist art history does that. It reveals that what an artist might represent is not only shaped by their identity and character, but also by the values imposed on them and the opportunities granted by society.
It also addresses why most of the well-known artists have been men. How many female artists from history can you spontaneously recall? Try it. If you can name more than a handful, then you’re doing well and it’s likely because of the contributions made by these feminist art historians.
A powerful example comes from the art historian Griselda Pollock — one of the most significant thinkers in the field. In her book Vision and Difference (1988), she discusses the public and private spaces inhabited by artists, specifically the urban settings of 19th-century Paris that were captured so arrestingly by the French Impressionist painters.
You can see it everywhere in the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and their cohort: luncheon parties speckled with sunlight, boating trips on rivers, streets buzzing with people.
As Pollock puts it, what these paintings represent is “the socially fluid public world of streets, popular entertainment and commercial or casual sexual exchange.”
These paintings also, silently, assume a masculine point of view.
Pollock asserts that in Paris at the time, men enjoyed public freedoms that simply weren’t available to women. Women were there of course, as Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party shows us, but the freedom to arrange a painting like this — to be the maker behind it — was the preserve of men.
Yet we tend to forget this when we look at the Impressionist images, thinking of them as a revolution in art, and thereby…