Women artists must be valued for their work – not their relationships

Recent exhibitions explore the work of Dora Maar, Lee Krasner and Dorothea Tanning without centring the men they married, but the media response shows the battle is far from won.

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When Frida Kahlo died in 1954, her New York Times obituary was given the following headline: “Frida Kahlo, Artist, Diego Rivera’s Wife.” In the copy, Rivera was described as “the noted painter”, while Kahlo’s work was almost an aside. Thanks to the efforts of feminist art historians in the 1980s, Kahlo is usually respected as the great artist she was, while Rivera’s name is less well known. The same can now be said of the artist Artemisia Gentileschi, today recognised as the great “master” of painting that she always was (the language, alas, remains inescapably gendered), quite rightly surpassing her father, the gifted but hardly revolutionary mannerist Orazio.

Women artists are beginning to get their due, but the battle is far from won. The publication of Celia Paul’s memoir Self Portrait has seen much commentary about what it means to be a woman artist, especially how, as writer Rachel Cusk puts it, a relationship with a more famous male artist can see her “demoted to the roles of helpmate or muse”. Paul – who was pursued at 18 by her then-55-year-old tutor Lucian Freud, and had a decade-long relationship and a child with him – experienced his death as a sort of liberation. But her work remains side-lined by her relationship with him, as it was at Tate Britain’s exhibition “All Too Human”. Paul’s autobiography is an attempt to rebalance the dynamic. Here, Freud is “made part of my story rather than, as is usually the case, me being portrayed as part of his,” she writes. She does not pretend that Freud was not an important part of her life, but she can assert her own subjectivity as distinct from gendered assumptions of “the muse” that sadly persist.

In galleries, curators are working hard to view women artists on their own terms. In the past year I have seen exhibitions of the work of Dorothea Tanning and Lee Krasner, with both shows refusing to centre the men they married (Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock respectively). That is not to pretend that these male artists did not exist, but simply represents an effort to shift the emphasis to offer a more nuanced exploration of how creative relationships can be mutually influential and collaborative, and to provide a space in which these women’s work can be discussed without their husbands’ constant presence in the conversation.

Most recently, I attended the new Tate Modern exhibition of the work of Dora Maar: here we are treated to several rooms of Maar’s excellent photography before her relationship with Pablo Picasso is mentioned – when he does appear, it is within the context of how she instructed him in the art of cliché verre. Their relationship is presented as a dialogue between artists. She ceases to be the mere “weeping woman” of his portrait, and becomes an artist in her own right. Maar’s self-portrait with Marie-Thérèse Walter, The Conversation, also helps to convey the artist’s discomfort with the way Picasso treated the women in his life (it also influenced, she said, his use of the bare lightbulb in Guernica). It was refreshing to see an exhibition that was so mindful of the way women artists are consistently erased and minimised.

“I could have really downplayed and glossed over that period of her life,” curator Emma Lewis told me of her decision to include references to Picasso in the exhibition. “But if we do that, then the same stories keep circulating. It almost allows these mysteries to be reified and what I was much more interested in doing was using the exhibition to examine very, very closely and specifically what was going on in their lives when they met, and how they influenced one another and worked together, which hopefully helps shift the narrative.”

The same is true with Maar’s surrealist work. “Women artists were never going to hold the same positions as men within the Surrealist movement,” says Lewis. “The women are associated as muses. So I’ve hopefully shifted the narrative. I’ve chosen to include some works by other artists, including Nusch Eluard, and there are photographs by women who were involved in surrealist circles.”

Yet how did newspapers cover the Dora Maar exhibition? With inevitable reference to Picasso, of course. As with coverage of Lee Krasner – where some stories included a reference to Pollock in practically every paragraph – I found media response disheartening. “Dora Maar steps out of Picasso’s shadow in first UK retrospective” was the Guardian’s print headline, a slight improvement on the online effort: “Painting of Picasso’s two lovers together on show at Tate Modern.” In print, Maar’s painting didn’t even feature, instead we were treated to a photograph of Maar taken by the male photographer Man Ray. I sensed a touch of rebellion from the sub-editor of the piece, who described Maar as “the acclaimed surrealist”, but it isn’t good enough. And the Guardian was by no means alone among the UK press.

It could be argued that linking a woman artist to her more famous lover in headlines will at least get punters through the doors, and raise interest in women artists who were hitherto not well known – but, to my mind, the damage far outstrips any benefit. We are faced now with a new generation of art lovers who are more comfortable with shifting narratives around gender and identity, and the success of online curators and commentators who seek to disrupt the canon – The Great Women Artists and The White Pube being just two examples – shows that there is an appetite for a more feminist approach to art history. And yet there continue to be too many men reviewing and commentating on shows, their male gaze an inescapable fact of their socialisation. That is not to say that men don’t produce great criticism, but I am sick of their view continuingly being foregrounded as the default.

When I first started writing for newspapers, I would not have dreamed of having the confidence to venture my opinion on art, and that was despite holding a degree in it. Art criticism, I thought, was not for people like me. But then I read more and more art criticism in the mainstream press by writers such as Zadie Smith, Rachel Cusk, Jeanette Winterson, and Olivia Laing. These are all writers who aim to situate women artists (not to mention artists of colour, gay and non-binary artists, and disabled artists) within a new context, and they have proved influential on my generation of women writers and those younger than us. As Smith writes in her essay on Celia Paul, misogyny “is a form of distortion, a way of not seeing, of assuming both too much and too little.” I hope that one day the coverage of Dora Maar is met with the same scorn with which we now view Frida Kahlo’s 1954 obituary. The New York Times gifted her a new one in 2016. “Frida Kahlo,” it read. “Whose Self-Portraits Spoke to the Soul.”

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog. Her novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, is published by Sandstone Press.