Beyond the frame with Julie

To read, to watch, to listen, to follow: An introductory guide to intersectional feminist Art History

2nd March 2021

Reading time: 5mins

When I first started my History of Art undergraduate degree in Paris, it quickly became apparent that only a handful of women artists had been allowed to enter the Western European Canon. Of the few artists that appeared on my lecturers’ powerpoints, a few names stood out. Artemisia Gentileschi, Berthe Morisot, Georgia O'Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois appeared  regularly.  I remember a particularly well meaning lecturer in my second year of university who dedicated a two hour session to Northern American women artists during the 20th century. However, narrowing the impact of women artists in Art History to a handful individuals, regardless of their qualities and influence, diminishes the richness and variety of Western art. It implies that there was only one noteworthy female artist per artistic period, completely denying any of the nuance that artists have simultaneously brought  to the Canon. Most importantly, this resulted in a very white-centric interpretation of the place of women artists. In order to make it in to my lecturers’ powerpoints, it seemed that such artists had to be white, presumably cisgender and straight. 


Fast forward to a few years later and  multiple trips to the library, the quest to deconstruct my monolith interpretation of the Western European Canon remains unfinished. Even after reading Linda Nochlin, Griselda Pollock or Mary Garrard, even after learning about the male gaze and how to deconstruct it, I still often find myself blinking twice in disbelief almost every time I read a female sounding first name in an artwork label. It would be unfair to only blame my Art History lessons for such reactions and not 24 years of internalised misogyny, but I have often wished I had found helpful resources earlier during my university days. 


With this in mind, I have compiled easily digestible recommendations to start reframing your perception of what it is and what it takes to be an artist who also happens to identify as a woman. This is of course not an exhaustive list of the resources that are out there but a compilation of the ones I have enjoyed over the years. If you are far ahead in your feminist art historian journey, you may be familiar with these resources. If that is the case, think of this as a list of recommendations for a younger peer or someone who is eager to think beyond what is usually laid out to us. 


To Read - Common Threads Press zines.

Exploring themes such as activism, Queer and Feminist art as well as textiles history through beautifully crafted zines, Common Threads Press celebrates the richness of the art often overlooked by mainstream media. I own and have read the Made by Women series multiple times. I have enjoyed reading about artists I was already well familiar with whilst discovering others like Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941) and Tarsila Do Amaral (1886-19773). Common Threads Press zines are accessible to people that might not have a previous art historical background whilst remaining highly engaging. Written content aside, Common Threads Press zines are beautifully crafted objects and showcase the work of a talented illustrator in each issue. Laura Moseley, its creator, has released a new issue titled Radical Possibilities: Art and Queer Identity and just launched a monthly print and digital newsletter. To buy Common Threads Press zines, visit their online shop and follow them on instagram @commonthreadspress 



To listen - Sculpting Lives podcast

Sculpture is a medium rarely explored in the Art History curriculum. As someone specialised in European painting, I have everything to learn about the craft of sculpture. In addition, as someone with the attention span of a toddler, I often find academic books impossible to finish. In Sculpting Lives, Jo Baring (Director of the Ingram Collection of British and Contemporary art) and Sarah Turner (Deputy Director for Research at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art,  London) explore the life and career of five major British sculptors. Each episode is around 45 minutes long and focuses on one particular artist. Barbara Hepworth, Elizabeth Frink, Kim Lim, Phyllida Barlow and Rana Begum are in turn praised and celebrated, their work analysed and questioned. Jo’s and Sarah’s enthusiasm is contagious and the addition of interviews of specialists and sometimes the artists themselves makes Sculpting Lives stand out of the many art podcasts out there. 

Sculpting Lives is accessible through many streaming platforms, Spotify, Apple Podcast


To watch - Ways of Seeing, Episode 2 

Despite some obvious flaws, notably the lack of any discussion on race and classical European art, I still think that the second episode of John Berger’s documentary series Ways of Seeing (1972) is an incredibly useful tool for any undergraduate eager to specialise in Classical Western European art. Anyone who is familiar with any classical collection like the National Gallery or The Wallace Collection is aware of the abundance of the white naked body, an element of classical painting so embedded in the tradition it is rarely questioned. Ways of Seeing brought some much needed nuance in my understanding of the representation of the white female body. It is not about condemning the art of Rubens or Ingres, it is about understanding and questioning the representation of the white female body in the arts. Like any motifs, nudity and most importantly female nudity was a way to display and convey a variety of things such as wealth, power or submission. All four episodes of Ways of Seeing are available on youtube


To follow - A Black History of Art 


Created and run by Alayo Akinkugbe, an art history undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge. A Black History of Art highlights black artists, curators and models in succinct and engaging Instagram posts. Last October, Alayo did a takeover on the National Portrait Gallery’s Instagram page, shining light on some stunning portraits of black artists and writers in the collection such as Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portrait of Zadie Smith. 


Check it out on Instagram here: @ablackhistoryofart