A Gaze at Women Artists in France
A selection of twenty-five projects curated by: AWARE: Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions
By inviting AWARE: Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions, the first idea was to provide an answer to the following question: why should we choose to give centre stage to certain artists in a contemporary art fair because of their gender? And the first answer is that it is a means of highlighting the existence of a gender bias in the art market, where in fact discrimination is even more prevalent than in the other channels where an artist’s value is recognised. According to statistics, the percentage of women artists in exhibitions at major institutions is between 15 % and 30 %1 and, in addition, “they still do not have the favour of the market2”. In other words, not only are women artists under-recognised by museums compared to their male counterparts, they are undervalued on the art market to an even greater extent. Apparently, the gap has been decreasing over the last few months, to the point that women artists are now apparently an investment opportunity according to the New York Times which headlined last September: “Want to Get Rich Buying Art? Invest in Women3".
The second reason for the invitation was the hope that putting women artists in the spotlight at a major event, and on such a scale, would have a positive effect. And indeed, the initiative has gained the support of many galleries, some of which were already committed to the cause and others that endeavour to increase the visibility of their artists irrespective of their gender. In addition to the selection that we have worked with the galleries to implement, other galleries have played ball by paying particular attention to the gender balance of their exhibit. This year, the number of women artists at the fair has increased by almost 50 % compared to the previous edition and 43 % of the solo shows feature women4. We’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to fair director Guillaume Piens for his determination to bring about change and thank him and his team for allowing us to be part of this paradigm shift, which we hope will continue in future editions.
The first objective of AWARE is to increase the visibility of women artists. The association was founded in 2014 following elles@centrepompidou, which for more than 2 years (from 2009 to 2011) showcased 300 women artists, with almost 1,000 works selected from the Musée national d’art moderne collection and presented in the rooms that house the permanent collection at the Centre Georges-Pompidou. This aggiornamento, which presented a more inclusive representation of the history of 20th century art by taking works from a collection whose female component was relatively unknown, was the starting point for a wider reflection, a reflection that was necessary and one that needed to be made accessible to both professionals and the general public. Every day for more than 2 years, AWARE has been adding content to a website that is entirely devoted to 20th century women artists5. This freely accessible bilingual site provides a rich source of information in French and English that is intended to constitute the archives of the future. It contains biographies, research articles and abstracts of university theses, recordings of events co-organised with universities and museums and a museum exhibition programme. The data available on this site contributes to securing a way to avoid oblivion – an oblivion that results from a gender biased system of promotion and approach to the writing of history – for hundreds and soon thousands of artists. Exhibition visits, symposiums, publications and prizes reserved for women artists complete these online editorial activities with the aim of further developing knowledge on women artists.
If the sphere of activity of AWARE extends beyond the borders of France, the focus at Art Paris centres on a French scene whose female representatives, let’s not forget, have been widely under-represented in every major institutional event presenting an overview of art in France6. Our selection of works by post-war artists has been divided into four themes: abstraction, the feminist avant-garde, image and theatricality.
In the field of abstract art, several women - for example Hilma Af Klint, Sonia Delaunay and Sophie Taeuber – are recognised today as having been active from the beginning of its development, however many more experimented with the language of abstraction over several generations. If “[…] between 1920 and 1940 abstraction developed following the rhetoric that it was a universal form of art that did away with gender differences7”, misogyny was latent and modernist theory, which developed notably around American gestural abstraction, went on to forge an archetype of the abstract painter as a virile, masculine figure. And yet there is another way of analysing the formal evolution that led to abstraction, as developed by the feminist artist Harmony Hammond8, who saw it as a reiteration of the motifs of traditional decorative arts often created by women over the centuries. Abstraction is a theoretical and visual territory, where the presence and the importance of women still needs to be reappraised. The selection presents an overview of some of the women who developed the theories of abstraction, whether in two and three dimensions, from the pioneers to those disciples of geometric, lyrical or more hybrid forms of abstraction who continue their research today.
A second chronological, themed section invites visitors to consider some of the protagonists of the “feminist avant-garde9”, whose work reveals the impact of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s on art. Today the history of this period is better known in France, notably thanks to the investigative efforts of Fabienne Dumont10.
The third section brings together artists who are part of a generation which, in the middle of the 1980s, noted the presence of a new and omnipresent image system in “the society of the spectacle”, which they endeavoured to de/reconstruct.
A final group of artists, who emerged from 2000 onwards, are brought together by their affinity with the theatre - borrowing from the history of the theatre, its structures and dramaturgy, they emphasise the role of the spectator and blur the boundaries between art and life.
These four themes suffice to show that the female art scene in France is not something specific, but rather a gateway to “another place”, one that for the main part remains to be explored, in other words the vast history of another gender. In this story of 20th century women artists that is being presented at Art Paris, political commitment is on a par with radicality of form and every medium is covered, including new technologies, in a remarkable example of a cross-disciplinary approach.
Camille Morineau, AWARE Chairwoman
Hanna Alkema, Head of AWARE research programmes
1. See the reports of the Observatoire de l’égalité entre femmes et hommes dans la culture et la communication, published every year on 8th March and which is available online (consulted on 07/01/2019)
2. To quote the sociologist Alain Quemin who continues: “Of the top 100 artists whose works fetched the highest amounts at auction in 2010-2011, a mere 8 % were women!” in Alain Quemin, Les stars de l’art contemporain, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2013, p. 356
3. Mary Gabriel, “Want to Get Rich Buying Art? Invest in Women”, The New York Times, 24th September 2018, available online (consulted on 07/01/2019)
4. The 2018 edition presented 20.3 % of women (of which 25 % in solo shows). In 2019, this figure has risen to 29.8 %
6. To give just two examples Douze ans d’art contemporain en France at the Grand Palais in 1972, with 3 women out of 106 artists and Force de l’art in 2009 with 7 women out of 42 artists
7. Élisabeth Lebovici and Catherine Gonnard, Femmes artistes, artistes femmes : Paris de 1880 à nos jours, Paris, Hazan, 2007, p. 139
8. “I want to reclaim abstract art for women and transform it on our own terms. It is interesting to note that much of women’s past creativity, as well as the art by women of non-western cultures, has been abstract. I’m thinking of the incredible baskets, pottery, quilts, afghans, lace and needlework women have created.” in Harmony Hammond, “Feminist Abstract Art-A Political Viewpoint”, Heresies, No 1, January 1977, p. 66-67
9. To quote Gabriele Schor in The feminist avant-garde. A radical revaluation of values, Feminist Avant-Garde. Art of the 1970s, The Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna, Munich, Prestel Verlag, 2016, p. 17-19
10. Fabienne Dumont, Des sorcières comme les autres. Artistes et féministes dans la France des années 1970, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2014
List of women artists selected by AWARE
Martine Aballéa (Dilecta), Malala Andrialavidrazana* (Caroline Smulders), Valérie Belin (Nathalie Obadia), Anna Eva Bergman (Jérome Poggi), Karina Bisch* (Thomas Bernard – Cortex Athletico), Bernadette Bour (Françoise Livinec), Ulla von Brandenburg* (Art : Concept), Marcelle Cahn (Lahumière), Béatrice Casadesus* (Dutko), Geneviève Claisse (Grimont, A&R Fleury, Wagner), Marinette Cueco* (Univer/Colette Cola), Esther Ferrer (Lara Vincy), Monique Frydman (Bogéna), Shirley Jaffe (Nathalie Obadia), Oda Jaune (Templon), Marie Orensanz (School Gallery/Olivier Castaing), ORLAN (Ceysson & Bénétière), Vera Pagava (Chauvy), Marta Pan (Chauvy), Laure Prouvost (Nathalie Obadia), Sophie Ristelhueber (Jérôme Poggi), Judit Reigl* (Kalmann Maklary), Teresa Tyszkiewic (Anne de Villepoix), Aurélie Nemours (Lahumière), Vera Molnár* (Oniris).
You will be able to find the biographies of the Art Paris selected artists for the A Gaze at Women Artists in France theme in the 2019 edition of the catalogue, available for sale during the fair.