Pedro García MacLean
Listening to my mother’s stories
Ever since I was a child, I remember feeling the strongest admiration for my mother. I remember wanting to be like her, so in touch with her artistic side, but at the same time so passionate about learning. I’ve always been the type of kid to love stories, and stare wide-eyed at the person narrating them, almost as if they were hypnotizing me. Aside from all the child stories, my mom would also tell me others. Since she’s an artist and an art teacher for elders, she’s always wanted to read all she could on different artists’ lives. To practice for her classes, well, I was the perfect lab rat.
My mother would explain to me the lives of great artists (which would become my favorite artists for that same rason), such as Monet, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe… But something that did strike as weird to me was the fact that there were way more famous male artists than female ones. So as a kid, I would constantly ask myself why there weren’t as many women artists and why they weren’t as good as their male counterparts.
As I grew older, I started to understand the reality of this situation. There have been so many women throughout history that created amazing art and changed the path of history; only they weren’t supposed to. They were expected to learn how to complete all domestic tasks, get married to a rich or successful man, and have babies to raise. As soon as a woman wouldn’t fit into this model, they would slowly become blurred out to either be forgotten or demonized by historians (most of which, even to this day, are men). When my mother told me about her favorite female artists (also mine), just like Tamara de Lempicka, Kahlo, O’Keeffe and many others, I could suddenly understand the depth of their unwillingness to let anyone other than them have control over their lives and narratives. They were strong, creative, but most importantly, they were themselves even when that went against society’s standards. And that, by itself, should always be remembered as part of their huge legacies.
But why was this like it was? Why were there so many difficulties for female artists? Why do we know so little about many of them? Why didn’t women have the same access to an artistic education as men? The list of questions goes on, doubting on things about this society that don’t really make sense. The answer, however, is actually the same for all of them. Ever since most of the primitive societies, up until this very moment (and with some exceptions), civilizations have been built up to not be equal. At some point, men decided, since women give birth to children (a moment of apparent vulnerability), that they were superior and had to take care of “manly” stuff. This evolved into the toxic masculinity still present in this society and the sexist and chauvinistic values engrained in the deepest part of our subconscious. A shorter version is, women couldn’t be artists because their society was a patriarchy, and men felt threatened by those who did, erasing their presence in history.
Many argue that this sexism that reigned ideologies in almost all cultures even up to last century is no longer present in our culture. I, however, don’t agree with them. In my opinion, all those centuries of discrediting a whole sector of the population (among many other sectors that didn’t fit into the molds) can’t be erased by establishing a more similar or equal legal treatment for both. It takes centuries for a change to be engrained in the conscience of the people, and it seems as if though we’ve only started.
Now, proof that sexism still exists, is the massive and unbelievable number of rape cases, sexual assault, domestic violence against women and pay inequality, among others. This got to a point that on this year’s International Women’s Day (8M) women went on strike all over 120 cities in Spain and demonstrations lasted the whole day, asking for a change in the system. This has made me realize, the issue women painters and artists faced, the fact that we know so little about many of them, it’s all part of the problem. It’s part of the whole system, engrained in it, corrupting its very core, and causing injustice even in our generations.
The system is easy to talk about without really knowing what we’re criticizing, the system is the politics, economy, society, and everything related to it. We are the system. And we are the ones with the power to change things. Something of particular interest to me is the Internet, and the massive role it plays in representing our society in a more organized and understandable way. Because of this, the representation of the female on this website is lacking. Therefore, changing this could also impact our society positively. By making the reflection advance in a shorter space of time, the reality being reflected could actually absorb the change as if it was inherent to itself.
To make this change, there’s actually a really interesting website called “Feminist Principles of the Internet”, that gives us 17 changes or principles a feminist Internet should have, in order to further represent everyone in our culture (whether that be women, racial or queer figures) and to do it appropriately. These principles are that of access, information, usage, resistance, movement building, governance, economy, open source, amplify, expression, pornography, consent, privacy and data, memory, anonymity, children and violence. All of those are aspects to improve or to develop in a more equal and appropriate way to our century and a less corrupted society. When reading the list, I couldn’t help but fall in love with one of the principles a little more than with the rest. This was the principle of “Memory”, which instantly brought me to those moments in my childhood (and even present day) of listening to my mother excitedly tell me stories about powerful women who weren’t regarded as such.
The principle of memory defends a right to exercise and retain control over our personal history and memory on the internet. The ability to access our information and personal data on the internet, and to know who has access to them and under what conditions are included in these principles, and so is the ability to delete it forever without any residual information being kept track of. This idea strikes as evident, but the truth is great companies such as Facebook or google have access to so much of our information that our presence in the net is perfectly accessible by third parties (this is how cookie policies, and advertisements of products we actually want reach us in such an effective way). We live a situation in which people are actually the product being sold by big tech companies, and a feminist internet would empower the users by giving them control over what others can know about them and over the information they no longer want available; a bit like Kim Kardashian on Instagram.
As people, we all need to be able to handle our narrative on the internet. Despite this, women are those who this principle would most affect. To put it this way. The same way a great majority of historians were male, a great majority of internet programmers, Wikipedia editors and basically people in top positions relating to the Internet are male. This all leads to the disappearance of female narratives, which become either invisible or interpreted from a white straight cis male stand point, on a privileged position in the Patriarchy.
Since we can only make a change little by little, not all of a sudden, and we each have to contribute a little bit to it; I’m going to give my little contribution as to some of the overlooked female history in relation to art. For this, I’m only going to focus on a few examples of known and unknown artists whose narratives don’t live up to who they really were.
The first example we have of Historians and Internet being male dominated is that of the first successful female artist (that we know of), Sofonisba Anguissola. She was a renaissance artist who received her training from an artist, while his wife ensured the traditions for girls were being still in her routine. She defied everything that had been established and actually succeeded doing what she loved. There’s even paintings by her in the Spanish Museum, “Museo del Prado”, which was the reason historians brought her back from being forgotten. Her portraits were said to belong to Juan Pantoja, but nobody really understood who was the author. After further investigation was proven to be hers, which would eventually make her be reincorporated into history of art as one of the first female successful artists. Some of her pieces include the portrait of “Felipe II”, “Isabel de Valois holding a portrait of Felipe II”, and “The Portrait of Queen Ana of Austria”. She started being strongly inspired by her master, Bernardino Campi, but would soon prove to be more skillful.
Another early artist to point out is the infamous Artemisia Gentileschi. This woman was a baroque artist known for the aggressiveness of her paintings and the incredible success she achieved from her art. She managed to free herself from the chains of the 16th century society and claimed that “you can find the spirit of Caesar in this soul of a woman” when talking about her resilience. One of the things she’s known for is the rape she suffered in hands of her teacher; Agostino Tassi; and the court case of rape against him that she won. Nowadays we regard her as a feminist icon, but her art had been forgotten until the 20th century. When rediscovered, everything regarding her craft would focus either on a hypersexualizing approach to her style or on the fact that she was raped, instead of her actual paintings. Luckily enough, her story has eventually resurfaced, and can possibly stay in our minds and in a feminist internet, that allows her legacy to reach us.
The next example, Camille Claudel, is one my mother and me both have felt particularly angered towards. When looking up her name on google, some of the first articles to appear focus on the fact she was in a relationship with sculptor Auguste Rodin, and that she was his apprentice. Other than that, they mention the sad last years of her life and that she was the reason Rodin cheated on his wife. Now, when we stop to analyze her story, we realize it couldn’t be more different than that. Auguste Rodin was a sculptor who would hire apprentices, generally young women, and who is said to have cheated several times on his wife. He fell in love with Camille, who, by the way, is nowadays rumored to have sculpted many of the pieces Rodin was credited as author of. They lived as lovers for a long time, but he never left his wife. We’re talking about a woman so talented she would create sculptures that she couldn’t sign because of being a woman, and whose lover took advantage of her and would eventually let her spend the last 30 years of her life in a psychiatric institution. And she was still lucky enough that we later on started crediting her for part of her artwork, unlike many female artists whose existence we may never even be aware of due to the impossibility of signing their work if they were women.
After these few “forgotten” women, I’d very much like to mention three known women who are a source of inspiration for both my mother and me, and who our society, in my opinion, doesn’t know the extent to which they fought to be themselves and should be seen as role models. These are Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’ Keeffe and Tamara de Lempicka.
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican Revolutionary artist and political activist, famous for her self-portraits and redefining beauty standards. She also included deep sensitivity and a connection with her indigenous roots and culture in her art. She started painting after a horrific bus accident that left her severely injured for the rest of her life. She fought the pain and expressed her deep intuition and sensitivity in famous paintings. My grandfather actually visited her blue house, now a museum, and bought a copy of her diary and many historians’ outlook on it for my mother, who would tell me things about her. She would put all her emotions into the paper by either writing or scribbling things. During her time alive, most people would know her better for either her political activism as communist or her unconventional marriage to Diego de Rivera. Some believe her to be part of the surrealist movement, having met Andre Bretón or Picasso in her lifetime.
Something shocking is the fact that her first solo exhibition was only a year before her death, and the fact she was bedridden at the time, and actually spent the exhibition on a bed in the gallery, greeting the people. She would attempt suicide several times, but decided not to kill herself because of her husband, to not let him suffer her death. Her last painting depicts a watermelon with really lively colors in which she wrote “Viva la Vida”, as a way to express the beauty in life and its ending. She has since become deservedly a feminist icon and one of the most important female artists.
The other two examples are more recent, which enables their memory to not be as manipulated by historians and a little more known. One of them is Georgia Totto O’ Keeffe, an American artist known for ending her days living in a desert, known for her love of loneliness and nature, who would eventually create her own clothes and always wear black. There seems to be a relation with some of her art and death. Something she’s widely known for is her paintings of flowers, which were seen as heavily sexualized, almost symbolizing female reproductive organs. Despite her not really confirming this, it seems obvious she was in tough with her sexuality as a woman and empowered enough to reflect this in her art, which would, in some cases, work against her.
It really amazes me to know she turned blind towards the last years of her life, and would still want to create, saying she envisioned what she wanted to paint despite not being able to see at all. She would even hire assistants to help her create art while blinded. Her paintings of landscape have always spoken to people and been similar to American modernists’ interest in nature and landscapes. She reportedly said that people called her one of the best woman painters, whereas she considered herself one of the best painters. This should speak to our generation as the very reason she defied the patriarchy and we should admire her for it.
Most people knew her at the time as lover of artist Stieglitz, and would often say she was only doing what he wanted her to do, regarding her as a gullible and brainless woman, as opposed to the powerful force of nature she would prove to be throughout her lifetime. Despite people pinning her success on the relationship she was in, Georgia O’ Keefe has been one of the most relevant painters of her time, who also was a woman and also was an empowered one.
Lastly, but not least importantly we have the case of another 20th century artist, Tamara de Lempicka, whose second exhibition in Madrid was held recently. She was a Polish-Russian artist who has only recently been credited as being one of the most important figures of Art deco and partially the one to start this whole genre. She has painted female nudes, cubist paintings and numerous portraits. She worked with Georgia O’ Keefe at a given point, and kept moving from Europe to the USA, achieving great success up until the world war was over, in which society switched its taste for a while, forgetting temporarily about her and her talent. This would eventually change. Society judged her for being openly bisexual and for owning her sexuality. She slept with whomever she desired, was a strong woman, and people would judge her because of it. Some never even took her art seriously just because of her not fitting into the stereotypical role of a woman of the time.
All in all, these were some examples of the thousands or millions of strong women who have shaped our society through art, and who are now forgotten, mistreated by history and by the patriarchy. We now have the power, thanks to internet, to make sure stories and narratives are being told; but we need to make sure the internet is feminist and allows for everyone in society to have their story be told, and to have control over their narrative and personal data. The issue is not if this will happen, since I have the feeling if we all work hard, it surely will; the issue lies in when will we make the change. When will more Frida’s, Georgia’s and Tamara’s be discovered? When will history treat everyone fairly?
Caso, Ángeles; (2006) Las Olvidadas, Editorial Planeta
Claridge, Laura; (2000), Tamara de Lempicka, Circe
Cordero, Debroise, Fuentes, Lowe…; (1995) Frida Kahlo Diario: Autorretrato Íntimo; La Vaca Independiente
Cosmic Cousins Podcast, Queen of the zodiac project; @cosmic.cousins on Instagram (understanding Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe, among many other women, from an astrological perspective), https://cosmiccousins.podbean.com/e/s4-e13-season-finale-queen-of-scorpio-honoring-of-bjork-and-georgia-okeeffe-scorpio-panel-w-jerico-mandybur-pavanjeet-and-alia-walston/ for O’Keeffe, and this one for Kahlo: https://cosmiccousins.podbean.com/e/season-3-episode-14-mercury-rx-meditation-frida-kahlos-birth-chart-princess-dianas-birth-chart-cancer-panel-queen-of-cancer/
Feminist Principles of the Internet, A Feminist Internet https://feministinternet.org/en
The Art Post Blog, (26 March 2018), Rodin and Camille Claudel: A Love and an Art Story, Accessed on April 2019, https://www.theartpostblog.com/en/rodin-camille-claudel/
García, Ángeles; (7 Nov 2007), Los Demonios de Camille Claudel; El País; Accessed April 2019, https://elpais.com/diario/2007/11/07/cultura/1194390001_850215.html
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: About Georgia O’Keeffe, Accessed April 2019 https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-georgia-okeeffe/
Gotthardt, Alexxa, (June 8 2018), Behind the Fierce, Assertive Paintings by Baroque Master Artemisia Gentileschi, Accessed April 2019; https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-baroque-master-artemisia-gentileschi
Museo Del Prado : Anguissola, Sofonisba; Accesed April 2019, https://www.museodelprado.es/aprende/enciclopedia/voz/anguissola-sofonisba/949e390c-13b0-429d-99c9-2b98f2e89a32