Women artists in museums: the shadow on the board

Paris (AFP) – “Muse” or “woman”: long enigmatic silence of the Mona Lisa, female artists, still a very small minority in museums, are gradually taking revenge on the past.

How many were forgotten for the exhibition dedicated to Frida Kahlo or Louise Bourgeois? “We need to end this reluctance to want fair representation of them today,” American historian Maura Reilly wrote in the specialty magazine ArtNews.

proof? “87% of the works stored in the 18 largest museums in the United States were made by men, and 85% of them are white,” Katy Hessel told AFP. open access scientific publication.

This 28-year-old British art historian has just published A History of Art Without Men (ed. Michel Lafon; English by Hutchinson Heinemann), in French, devoted to women artists since the Renaissance.

“Today, all museums pay attention to equality, individual exhibitions of female artists are increasing, Tate (in London) dedicates its annual program to women, but in fact they are underrepresented in auction houses,” analyzes for AFP, an observer of market and contemporary art fairs.

“Records at historical sales at Christie’s or Sotheby’s are mostly held by men,” he adds, adding that even female artists under 40 are gaining momentum, as the Artprice 2022 report revealed in October.


Polly Staple, director of the British Art collection, told AFP that the Tate in the UK “has long been committed to improving the representation of women artists in its programs and permanent collections”.

For its part, the Royal Academy of Arts will in 2023 and for the first time dedicate its entire wall to a female artist: star performer Marina Abramović.

Serbian artist Marina Abramovic poses on July 22, 2022 in Palma, Balearic Islands, Spain. JAIME REINA AFP/Archive

“Overturning the male canon that dominates art history is a difficult task, but I think museums will rise to the challenge,” says the British curator, adding that “there is a lot of work to be done.”

In 2020, the Prado Museum in Madrid acknowledged this theme through an exhibition on women’s figures in art, revealing “ideology” and “state propaganda on the female figure”, witnessing “historical femininity” to AFP. the curator of this exhibition is Carlos Navarro.

The question of the place of women artists in the museum has not yet been resolved. Of the 35,572 works in the institution, 335 or 1% are by women artists. Even more surprising, of this number, only 84 are on public display, with the rest lying dormant in reserves.

The same observation in the great Parisian museums: of the 3,600 artists in the Louvre, only 25 are cited as women. A museum of very small proportions, explained to AFP, “with a historical period covered from ancient times to 1848”.

According to the information provided by the museum to AFP, only 76 of the works exhibited at the Musée d’Orsay, which dedicated a major exhibition to the impressionist painter Berthe Morisot in 2019, are works of female artists, while 2,311 are of their male counterparts.


French art historian Camille Morineau, convinced that “only fair archives can create a fair history,” founded the association “Aware” to gather as much information as possible about women artists around the world.

Art historian Camille Morineau on October 26, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California
Art historian Camille Morineau on October 26, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California LISA O’CONNOR AFP/Archive

Because, Katy Hessel, who uses the Aware database, reminds us – these artists, for example, the Italian Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, celebrated in London in 2020, were often “recognized in their lifetime, but erased over the centuries.”

Sculptor Camille Claudel, whose work has been overshadowed by Auguste Rodin for decades, has been erased or demoted to muse status.

“It has been an anthropological taboo for a very long time to imagine that a woman can invent something,” said Camille Morineau in an interview with AFP.

A taboo he broke in 2009: then curator of the Center Pompidou, he bet on exhibiting exclusively female artists for two years and two floors, attracting more than 2 million visitors.

Proof that there are “enough” works by women in the museum’s holdings to tell the whole story of 20th and 21st century art.

A work that Katy Hessel continues in her own way with her podcast, which gives voice to the great female stars of contemporary art, including South.

Because, she points out, while women artists have been left out of history, those from other cultures, such as Algeria’s Baya or Singapore’s Georgette Chen, “have never really been part of the story.”


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