Rare Ribs

spare rib
The spare rib. Bass relief on Orvieto cathedral

There is an exhibition at the British Museum,  Ice Age Art,  Arrival of the Modern Mind. The exhibits, mostly sculpture from the very dawn of art 40,000 years ago fall mainly into two groups:  realistic animals, and female figures. The former would appear to have been closely observed and carved by the hunters themselves; the latter, the females, are much more abstract, the hips disproportionally wide, the breasts overly pendulous.

Mature woman.World's oldest ceramic figure.
Mature woman. World’s oldest ceramic figure.

What intrigues me is, who created these abstracted female figures, men or women? They are not erotic like so much of subsequent art of the nude, the message seems more talismanic. The exhibition has placed works by Picasso, Matisse,  Moore, Mondrian (all men) alongside these ancient pieces, but this seems a red herring. The moderns were influenced stylistically by the stone age work they saw, but the message surely is completely different, as is possibly the sex of the authors – were some of the first artists women sitting in their caves and shelters waiting for their menfolk to return?
I ask this because female artists are not well represented in the arts of the last thousand years or so. I looked at the index of artists that have inspired me for the Belle, there is only one woman…… so far, Tamara Lempicka.
I did a straw poll yesterday in a café with the two men and two women sitting at the table next to me, complete strangers. With hardly any introduction, I said ‘please write down the names of as many painters as possible, you have a minute.’ They all had plenty of painters, but not one nominated a single woman. I gave them a further minute to come up with some female painters – a complete blank with all four.

I asked them to name writers; women did better, but were still in a minority. Composers as a category was a complete disaster for women.

Why is this? Could it be neurological? Hormonal? Has education been to blame? Men famously have their muses, do women? Well, Lempicka did,  but the muse was a woman and Lempicka was bi-sexual. I have my own ideas on why women are less creative almost across the board, but I would be interested in hearing other views before I commit myself.

There seems to be precious little space in the modern mind for female art.

3 thoughts on “Rare Ribs

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  1. I think we are a bit too Eurocentric in our musings here. Consider other parts of the world and the dawn of art.


    Have a look at Africa and Asia, for example.

    For a decidedly Eurocentric list of women artists, this might be helpful. And who is missing?


    For a short consideration of which questions to ask and try to answer, have a look at http://kmactavish.blogspot.it/2013/03/competitive-bastards.html

    Thanks for getting me going!


  2. The point is: why are there very few female artists? Or why, in 2013 are there still men like George Baselitz?
    George Baselitz is a German esteemed painter who said, in a recente interview at “Der Spiegel”, that women are not able to paint.
    At once, his statement raised a great deal of critics but that’s what everyone thinks in the artists world (among men).
    Reading at statistics, in 1989 on public buses in NYC there was a poster where a naked Ingres’ odalisque had the head of a gorilla and below was written:”must women undress to go into the Museum?” related to Metropolitan. Explanation followed:”less than 5% of the artworks are made by women and 85% of the artworks are female nudes”.
    Evidently, beauty is woman per antonomasia.
    After sex revolution and writers as Carla Lonzi or Valerie Solanas, it’s not necessary to be bisexual for female painters any more. Nowadays, for example, the digital artist Claudia McKinney (Phatpuppyart) depicts young girls in the most of her artworks. She is happy married, having children and a strong faith in God.
    During 90’s, a female group called “Guerrilla Girls” tried to turn over the percentage of the female artist presence at museums. The effort failed and the percentage of artworks in the Metropolitan dropped at 3% in 2005.
    On artists weighed and still weigh the cultural underdevelopment and family duties: children, husband and looking after the house. These duties are considered like sins in the art universe.
    In the last 10 years something has been changing. The change must be found among critics and collectors women.
    Valeria Napoleoni leads the art world in London and has made up a female collection only.
    In Milan since 2000, Francesca Kaufmann and her partner Chiara Repetto deal with female artists only.
    In Rome since 2006, Studio Miscetti only shows videos and movies made by female artists and then it brings the multimedia work around the Europe.
    Unfortunately, until men like Baselits exist, the life of female artists is very hard.

  3. Is positive discrimination a good way to get more female art up there with the greats? Only time will tell.

    I have just visited the Modigliani exhibition in Milan ‘Modigliani,Soutine e gli artisti maledetti’. Amongst his friends and fellow ‘accursed’ there were only 2 women,Thérèse Debains and Suzanne Valadon. The latter was lover of several artists as well as a talented painter, but she is probably more known as Utrillo’s mother …..and Utrillo really was accursed. One thing that struck me about the exhibition was that most of the artists were Jewish, Modì too of course.
    I don’t think anyone can possibly doubt that women can paint, it is more why they so rarely get to the top?

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