Art books get awards, but most of us have never heard of them. Even the most popular art titles are niche; they are sold primarily in arcades, arrogant boutiques and, as art historian Katy Hessel puts it, “on the third floor of the bookstore.”
So it’s a very big deal that recently his own title, The History of Art Without Men, won the massively popular Waterstones Book of the Year – automatically claiming pride of place in half of Grande’s main streets. -Brittany. Previous winners include Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet and Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust.
Hessel is, of course, delighted. “It’s a testament to all those people who fought and fought for their place in art history,” she says.
Its job is to celebrate those who are usually excluded from the canon; prior to the book, she was known for the Instagram account she started in 2015, @thegreatwomenartists (it has over 300,000 followers), and a related podcast.
The Story of Art Without Men, which was published in September, is loosely based on EH Gombrich’s highly respected The Story of Art, first published in 1950.
Hessel admires Gombrich’s work, but points out that “its first edition did not include any female artists, and the 16th edition only included one”. To balance, her version does not include men.
Hessel is 28 years old and grew up in London. She has a BA in Art History from UCL, but says she has hardly studied women. When it finally dawned on her at the age of 21, it was because she had walked into an art fair and suddenly noticed that all the artists were male. “I hadn’t even thought about the gender disparity in the art world before, and it was completely shocking,” she says. “That’s half the world’s population.”
Even today, according to the works exhibited in the great galleries, one might think that art is created only by men. Women artists make up just one percent of the National Gallery’s collection, and 2023 will mark the first time the Royal Academy of Arts will host a solo exhibition in the main space by a woman (Marina AbramoviÄ‡). “Women have always made art,” says Hessel, “and not only that – they had to work double, triply, 10 times harder than their male counterparts.”
If you are skeptical about this, I invite you to get his book, which is an extraordinary and very readable revelation. Guiding us from the early 16th century to the present day, it reveals hundreds of astonishingly talented artists – most of whom will be new to you – working in everything from woodcarving to oil painting. by photography. Hessel’s clever account explains the obstacles they had to overcome to do this work: women weren’t allowed to study the naked body or enroll in art academies until the late 1800s , and did not have the freedom to walk around without a chaperon in search of inspiring landscapes. or churches. Many of these women who succeeded in making art were born lucky – they had artistic fathers.
Hessel cites a comment by 20th-century artist Roland Penrose, husband of famed photographer Lee Miller, which in this context seems particularly silly. “Of course, women were important,” he said in the 1980s, “but that was because they were our muses. They weren’t artists.
It is because of this crippling lie, which has been so prevalent, that we sorely need books like Hessel’s.
You won’t read about women as muses in its pages. “When people talk about Dora Maar, Picasso is often mentioned because they dated for a short time,” she says.
“I’m not going to mention Picasso, because it’s not relevant to his work.
“Why do we always have to mention Jackson Pollock when we talk about Lee Krasner? When we talk about him, we never talk about her. So what I really wanted to do by rooting them in their social and political history is to forget about this whole “wife of”, “muse of”, “daughter of” thing. These people should be there in their own right. They were pioneering and revolutionary artists.
Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) is one of these figures. She had the very unusual opportunity to apprentice with a local painter and became an artist at the Spanish court, admired by Michelangelo. His works are playfully subversive. Self-Portrait with Bernardino Campi shows her teacher, Campi, painting a portrait of her. An attentive viewer, however, will notice that she is the dominant figure, not the teacher; in the 1990s, it was discovered that Anguissola had originally painted his own hand guiding Campi.
Elsewhere in the book is a 1612 still life by Clara Peeters (1594-c.1657). At first glance, it’s just two goblets and a vase of flowers; upon closer inspection, the reflection of Peeters is painted in all facets of one of the goblets. “So what might look like a still life actually hides 11 self-portraits,” Hessel explains. “It’s almost like, let’s demand to be seen and make sure our work won’t be misattributed to male artists.”
Hessel particularly reveled in the work of Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943), who painted Life? Or Theatre?, an autobiography in 784 gouaches. “I think it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces in the history of art,” says Hessel.
“It’s basically a graphic novel about growing up in Berlin as a young Jewish girl, falling in love, discovering music – and then, when the Nazis come to power, everything changes. She died aged 26 , five months pregnant, in Auschwitz. Somehow this work survived.
It’s disappointing that an artist like Salomon isn’t better known. “I think arts education in general is a huge problem in the UK, because our government doesn’t pay enough attention to it,” says Hessel. “Obviously every school subject is important, but so is art. It gives people agency, because they feel they can do things. Whatever activity we engage in, we have everyone needs this freedom.”
Her conversations with the students give her hope. “What is amazing is that young people are driving change. They don’t want to learn a “definitive” art history—they understand that the canon is permanent and global. We need to see history from a broad perspective.
By writing the book, she is perhaps playing her own role in shaping the past and future story. She hopes other scholars will do more research on the artists she studied; The Courtauld Institute of Art has included The History of Art Without Men in its curriculum. To mark its publication, Hessel also organized an exhibition at the Victoria Miro Gallery on post-2000 women’s art, which attracted long lines of visitors.
She wants to show the world, not just women, that art history is the history of all of us. “There’s so much work to do,” she says. “Everyone should feel welcome to enjoy and make art. If we don’t see the art of a wide range of people, we don’t see society as a whole.
“My dream for this book is for a 13-year-old to stumble across it in the school library and actually think I see myself in it.”