Sunday, November 1, 2020

Prepare yourself... for my INKTOBER!

 I finally finished the month-long Inktober challenge! I've been posting the results on my Instagram account (@st.rhinoceros) but I'm going to post them here in the upcoming days with more supplemental info and better quality pics than on IG. 

So... what is Inktober? It's a recurring yearly challenge to complete one drawing every day through October, in ink, and then post it on the social media of your choice with the hashtag #inktober. It's meant to help you practice, to motivate you, and to find some community in an normally solitary pursuit. There's an official (though optional) list of prompt words like "poison" or "crawl" that are meant to help stimulate creativity (and it's fun to see what everyone else came up with along the theme), as well as unofficial fan prompt lists with themes like witches or Marvel. There's no entry, judges or prize. No rules either, but the "traditional" way is to hand-ink (using brush, pen, whatever) in black and white. It is acceptable to plan and sketch in pencil beforehand (the prompt list is released a month ahead of time). Some people add one color or many, some use another medium entirely, some work digitally. Some choose their own theme or project (like illustrating a book), others complete one single complex drawing by adding bits to it daily. Whatever helps you progress in your own goals. Many people discuss the process further on YouTube, from professional illustrators to middle schoolers making Naruto fan-art. I recommend their videos.

This is my third year doing Inktober, and my first to forego the prompt list. The previous years were exercises in soul-searching and pushing the intuitive surrealist process of trying to express real feelings with integrity, but this year I wanted to go back to basics, which for me is portraiture. I decided instead to draw a daily portrait of a lesser-known female artist and include a short bio to place them in historical context. But I quickly found there were way, way too many artists to include. So I came up with these parameters:

1. Must not be too contemporary. My cut-off is the 1920s-30s for the artist's heyday. My reasoning is that there's a myth that until the 20th century women were at home not participating in society, so I wanted to address that misconception by focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries. I'm tired of reading the phrase, "she was the only woman in the Impressionist circle," over and over about many different women. At some point you realize... the Impressionist circle was filled with women, each written about as if they were the only one. Rinse and repeat with Dadaism, Surrealism and so on.

2. Must have spent a personally significant time in Paris. Could be lifelong, could be that they just studied there and returned home, could be that they fled there briefly as a refugee. But I narrowed the focus to Paris because a) I like reading about Paris and b) it's fun to gradually discover who knew whom and what they thought of each other. I already knew a bit about Parisian social circles of the 19th and 20th century so I could build on that. 

Unfortunately because Paris didn't become a destination for artists until the 1800s, I'm missing the Baroque and Renaissance women (and they are legion!). The artistic and cultural mecca for the 16th and 17th centuries was Rome and greater Italy, followed by Madrid and Amsterdam in the 1600s. Paris was just a cultural backwater until King Louis XIV (The Sun King) initiated a campaign to make Paris synonymous with luxury craftsmen and style. The reputation gradually caught on, and with the nobility concentrated at Versailles many French painters clustered around them in the 1700s for sponsorship. Foreign artists began traveling to Paris to study or relocate in the mid 1800s.

Another significant group that this leaves out is the entire non-Western art world. This is on purpose because a) that is way too many people and I need to narrow my focus and b) I don't know nearly as much about the art of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America. I don't know where to go digging for research on obscure women artists or how to gauge the impact they may have had on movements I've never heard of, or how to compare them to their peers who I've also never heard of. When non-Western artists traveled to Paris to study and combined Western practice and ideas with their cultural artistic background, then I'm confident enough to include them, and I have. 

Finally, of course, the focus on Paris excludes all those who either couldn't afford to travel and study there, and those who simply didn't want to (I'm looking at YOU, Scandinavia! You smug homebodies).

3. Must have left behind lots of work that is available for online perusing. What's the fun of introducing people to a new artist if they can't immediately turn around and google their artwork?Unfortunately many female artists left a scanty legacy because we're not really sure which work was theirs. It was misattributed to their husbands, teachers or the nearest available male artist. Because female artists were considered unimportant or unserious, little effort by historians was dedicated to keeping track of their artistic output or where it was sold or kept, and little money was spent to preserve art by these no-names. Still more art went unsigned (for instance some output by nuns). This also, sadly, excludes many talented artists who "made it" but who left little behind because they died young in childbirth.

4. I must genuinely like their work. Yeah, it's subjective, so what. I'm not about to introduce y'all to second rate stuff when there are so many good female artists out there. Keep in mind, though, that you're missing out on genres that simply don't interest me, still life and flower painting being the most notable. 

Since women were forbidden from studying the nude figure and anatomy, that closed of many genres like history and genre painting. Add to that the stigma around anything too "unfitting for women," and there goes anything remotely sexual or violent, anything with a daring or bold composition, anything involving too much facetime with men, poor people and strangers (such as socially relevant genre painting), anything intellectual or socially daring (such as satire, social commentary or anything gritty). That left flowers, still life, portraits (mostly of women and children), interiors, mild religious stuff, and historical allegory that colored well inside the moralistic lines. Later landscape opened up as an option as well. 

Some women, of course, simply broke the rules anyway, but the consequences were not to be taken lightly. Work could not be sold, for one, if the public and monied class disapproved. The woman's security was seriously jeopardized, for another, if her moral reputation was tarnished. Without a husband and secure place in society, she had no fallback. And then there were the guilds and academies, the gatekeepers of the business of art, who wouldn't let them in if they didn't abide by the rules (and often didn't let them in at all). 

So excluding the painters of still life and similar decorative arts is Very Unfeminist of me because not only was the genre filled with women artists, but women actually dominated. They forged new styles that shaped the genre and attracted imitators. Same for women who created sentimental bourgeois genre paintings, but I just can't get past the genre's noxious blend of self-congratulatory materialism, prurience and cloying moralism. I can't deal with it in male painters either (I can never forgive Fragonard for painting The Swing, nor can I physically stop my eyes from rolling at the sight of Bouguereau's barely legal Greek nymphs, which I guess might technically be history paintings, which somehow makes it worse, but I classify them with the pretty adolescent shepherdesses and milk maids which populate the rest of his work), so I don't feel right about pretending to admire it just because the artist is female. It merits an historical mention, though, that female artists were garnering solid reputations and earnings from these genres. I will admit that just because I don't like the genre, that doesn't mean it's objectively bad.

5. Fine art only. Meaning no handcrafts, no commercial design or illustration, no cartooning and the like. I excluded photography and filmmaking too; while fitting under fine art, it opened a whole can of worms with too many names and too contemporary a timeline. Not only do I have tremendous respect for all these disciplines, I am a fan! I like them! The quilts of Gee's Bend, Nell Brinkley's comics, Beatrix Potter's children's illustrations, Coco Chanel's fashion design, it's all stellar stuff. Crafts in particular are a sphere where women creatives have traditionally dominated and the exclusion of crafts from "fine art" is an entire sexist and classist issue in itself (see Bauhaus weavers and industrial designers). 

But I needed to narrow my focus. I'm also conscious of the misconception that if you want to find female fine artists, you'd have to really reach to outside traditional disciplines. But that's just not true. You could easily fill an art history book with female names, fully covering all the "isms" and genres, without compromising on quality or venturing outside the traditional bounds of fine art. Seriously. When it comes down to it, that's what I want to convey with this Inktober project. 

6. Incorporate something of the artist's style into my own portraits. I don't want to create a faux version or pastiche of their work, I just want to take some element of their work and put it to use.

7. Write their bios like we'd write about male artists. This proved to be way more difficult than it appears at face value. When I say "bio," by the way, I mean the flashcard version, the blurb, the quick overview that a normal person might know off the top of their head. All these things I say are "unmentioned" in bios are of course covered in more meticulous lengthy books about these artists, sometimes even in their Wikipedia entries.

I didn't dwell on the hardships they faced as women, even though all these artists have them in spades. Pioneering Dadaist Hannah Höch was regarded by her male peers solely the chick who brought them snacks, while Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller's husband pressured her to stop sculpting so she could become a homemaker in the middle America ("you never should have left Paris," wrote her colleague in a forlorn letter). Nearly all were barred from proper education and then barred from the crucial tools they needed to run a business. Then came the critics and historians who either wrote about them as if they were precocious children or pets that were taught to perform a neat trick, or most frequently, erased their existence completely. The most effective condemnation of the female artist is simply not to mention her at all, or any women involved in the lives of artists, to distill the figurative beer of art history into a clean potent jigger of prominent male artists by boiling away all the teachers, wives, mothers, daughters, colleagues, lovers, writers, workers and students who watered down their lives. The hurdles faced by these female artists deserve attention, but I wanted to focus on their artistic achievement, contribution and influence, just as I would if writing a short bio of Monet or Ingres. 

I also tried to steer the focus away from the artist's personal lives and romantic attachments, unless obviously relevant to their art or the appreciation of it. Do I know anything about Ingres's personal life? David's? Courbet's? No. Maybe I should read up, but I know what each name means to the history of art without knowing anything about them because that is what historians and writers tend to present. 

Do I know about Goya's personal life, Chagall's, Picasso's, Michaelangelo's? Yeah, a bit. Goya's frustration with his royal appointment is relevant to his royal portraiture, and his lived wartime trauma is relevant to his more macabre work. Chagall's persecution as a Jew and flight from Russia is very present in his art, and so is it when his beloved wife died. Picasso's love life and epic promiscuity is, again, relevant to both the work and his legend--his legend IS part of what his name means to art history. I think most can see why Michaelangelo's sexuality is relevant to his work, and his personal gripes with authority figures show up readily in the Sistine Chapel. 

The general disregard for male artist's personal lives is partially a function of the modernist idea of art being able to stand independently (thanks, Clement Greenberg), but it has also prevented many male artists from being judged poorly or "cancelled" because of repugnant behavior. Did Gauguin abandon his wife and kids, run away to Tahiti, transmit STD's to a string of 12 and 13 year old Tahitian "wives" whom he then also abandoned and then promote a patronizing view of Tahitians as innocent savages? Yes! But his art isn't going anywhere, nor his legacy (and for good reason). The lives of the Great Masters were chock full of some really terrible stuff that won't ever affect their legacy, like abandoning their families, impregnating a string of underage mistresses then abandoning them to a life of who knows what, virulent antisemitism or racism, slaveholding, murder, rape, abuse, supporting fascism, it goes on and on. If we were to scrap everyone problematic, there wouldn't be much art left to study. Yet I see this tendency with female artists. First there were the writers of centuries past who dismissed them all as "drunken prostitutes" because they were lesbian, or unmarried or unchaperoned, they traveled, they did modeling on the side, or they met up with their colleagues at (gasp!) cafes. And then there are their modern would-be fans. Why do the work of unearthing and publicizing the work of a female racist or child abuser? We're looking for heroes! Role models! But at some point I think we need to admit that we artists just don't have our shit together and we never have. Face it, the art world is the last place to go looking for role models. It's only fair to judge women artists by the same lax standards.

So, do I need to know that Suzanne Valadon was not a very good mother in order to understand how her postimpressionism fits into art history? Do I need to know who gave Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven syphilis to understand her dadaist poetry (well, assuming anyone could understand it)? Do I need to know if Eva Gonzalès's teacher (Manet) was in love with her in order to understand her later work? No, I do not. However I do need to know that Toyen was genderfluid (or something similar, it's unclear by modern standards) because Toyen's art was about gender and sexuality. Likewise I need to know that Zinaida Serebriakova pined after her children and family home after forced exile from Russia, and that Sophie Taeuber-Arp knew everyone who was worth knowing in avant-garde circles, because they all shared ideas. 

Then there's the question of marriage and family. Quick-- who was Monet's wife? I don't know. Art historians have usually treated the wife as no more relevant to the artist's legacy as the family pet. If a wife or auntie earned money to support the artist so he could paint full time, as was very often the case even withe "the great Masters", it goes unmentioned (this is not true in the case of fathers, brothers, patrons or dealers who supported the artist, for example Vincent van Gogh's art dealer brother Theo assisting him being mentioned so frequently I didn't even have to look up Theo's name on Wikipedia). If she networked or used her social connections, hosted salons, ran his business, managed his students, typed and copied his writing, prepared his canvases, it likewise goes unmentioned. But when a female artist was supported by her husband that is usually fact #1 in her bio. If she was supported by family or used her brother's connections, it is well established. These things are genuinely relevant to a biography, and I'm not annoyed to see them mentioned for female artists, rather displeased that they go unmentioned for male artists because they are intentionally erased. There's nothing wrong with describing the assistance male artists received or describing their daily lives.

If the wife physically assisted and painted parts of the work, it goes unmentioned (it was common and perfectly acceptable for wives and other assistants to paint draperies and backgrounds). Yet the extent to which female artists painted and sculpted their own work has been extensively dissected, which is a practical measure because the first accusation against great female artists has often been, "she obviously didn't do it herself." 

Then there is the issue of "it runs in the family." Countless great artists were taught by their mothers and sisters (often going on to study under other teachers when they were older). Yet you seldom see bios that declare, "he took after her." It's rare to see, for example, that Mozart became a musician because he wanted to be just like his big sister, who toured as a child prodigy and composer, who made up secret languages to speak with him, who played musical games with him. You read only that there was a gifted little boy, so gifted he made up languages and played musical games for fun. Does it take away from Mozart to know this? No, not at all! It's relatable and inspiring. We should all be talking more about awesome sibling relationships. 

However if a female artist were taught by her father it is fact #1 in the bio, followed by "until recently many of her pieces were misattributed to him." This is extremely relevant to a biography because being the daughter of a professional artist was the only way for centuries that many women could enter the business of art or receive training. One must understand that until the industrial advancements of the late 1800s, one didn't just set up an easel in the corner, buy some paints and order business cards. Painting was so costly and labor intensive that in terms of people power, capital and effort, it was more akin to opening a restaurant nowadays than to taking up a side hustle or hobby. That's why they were often combined school-studios which trained apprentices and gave lessons. So being able to assist or even inherit a father's or husband's studio was a very big deal. 

So how, then, did so many male artists learn from moms and sisters, if women didn't run studios? Women, if they were middle or upper class, were expected to know how to draw and play music, enough to appear cultured and to entertain a parlor full of bored nobility-- but no more. So they were trained by governesses and private tutors, taking lessons at home if they could afford it, and attending the classes "suitable for ladies" which many schools and studios offered. Inevitably some of these girls became far more expert than was considered suitable (and ended up as the subjects of this Inktober series). By the 1800s a respectable lady might reasonably travel to Paris, study intensively under the best artists of her time and dedicate her life to art-- but not consider herself a professional or a serious artist (how vulgar and mannish!). To earn a living was beyond the pale. She would instead be considered "an accomplished lady." Such accomplished ladies often put their talents and education to use, then, by educating their own children, families and friends. She might even teach lessons, take portrait commissions or sell her work, so long as it was seen as "on the side." Even if a family member was an established professional artist who then taught the male artist to paint or draw, it has gone unmentioned (Jackson Pollock, for instance). 

Then, most commonly, there were the husband-wife duos (or serious romantic partnerships) where both were artists. Common practice when writing about such men is not to mention the female artist at all. One might learn about Pollock, Picasso, Hans Arp or Robert Delaunay in this manner, one independent name standing alone. When the female artist is discussed she is an extension of her husband, her art is derivative of his, and so on, although that is beginning to change in recent decades. Indeed some couples did exist in which the wife's art was derivative of the husband's, for instance if he offered her training, or if she worked as a part of his artistic brand, a "two for the price of one" kind of business. In many other cases they met while studying under the same teacher and naturally made work that appeared similar. More common still was some sort of collaboration, where they developed an idea or founded a movement together, or where they combined efforts. Such collaborations are often unacknowledged as such; for instance, the late artist Christo, who famously wrapped the Reichstag in fabric, was only one half of a duo with his artist wife. Can you name her? (Jeanne-Claude, and she died in 2009 without any media mentions that I recall. When Christo died last year it was all over the news-- as it should have been). Such collaborative marriages make sense, particularly in centuries past. 

So to write about artist-wives the same way as artist-husbands would be to let the husband go unmentioned, and in many of the bios I have. However if there was a significant collaboration I consider it relevant to the art and wouldn't want an artist to go uncredited. Not to mention such marriages are pleasant to read about. To be fair there do exist some couples where the male name is frequently attached to the female name in art history; for example it's rare to read about Diego Rivera without a mention of Frida Kahlo, or Alfred Stieglitz without Georgia O'Keefe. Robert Delaunay's name is gradually becoming more frequently attached to Sonia's. But another reason it's tough to gender-swap is that the husband is usually much more famous than the wife, or at least as famous. And his career, life and social circle usually affect the wife in a way that is difficult to explain without mentioning him. If I were writing about Michelle Obama, for example, there are plenty of her own accomplishments to fill a bio but how exactly could I explain why she lived in the White House if I don't mention this guy named Barack? 

Similarly I let kids pass by unmentioned unless they were relevant to the art or if they were necessary to explain events in an artist's life. That was a tougher choice, as parenting was a significant part of many artist's lives. On one hand, for example, I'd like to tip my hat to Baya for raising 6 kids in a war zone, but on the other hand I'd like to keep the focus on her art. It's true that you rarely see mention of children in overviews of male artist's work (unless the child became or married someone famous), but it also wasn't usually a significant part of his daily responsibility, nor did it physically compromise him, so it makes more sense that it goes unmentioned. Still, when artists were impacted by struggles to manage large blended families (like Monet) you don't often read about it. 

I'm happy to say that a lot of this "bad art history" is inherited from centuries past and that recent art historical writing and research has been top notch. Most writers make at least a solid effort to include women, and if they don't many commenters and reviewers will point it out. Most also write about women in a reasonable way, if occasionally overcompensatory with deference. The thing is, there is a major difference between writing a more conscientious version of the flawed art history we've inherited, versus overhauling what we've known and radically rethinking things. For the latter we have the feminists and other progressive researchers of the 1970s to thank. They began the herculean task of unearthing and re-researching forgotten female artists, going back to primary sources in order to question everything that had been written. The effort poured into the 1980s and 90s, and very significant artists are still being rediscovered. Most of the museum shows, books and movies that seek to cover this new ground are building on what those researchers did. Of course, the old narratives still stick to art history and are something to contend with.

So to sum up, I tried to keep the bios on point-- what kind of art they made, where their art fits into the world around them, any particularly fun facts, and roughly how and when they lived.

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