What would an art gallery look like... if we took down all the art made by men?

<i>You Are Here </i> by Grace Cossington Smith.

You Are Here by Grace Cossington Smith.

If you had an overseas visitor and wanted to display to her the women artists of our country, where would you take her? Perhaps the 20th - 21st century Australian collection at the Art Gallery of NSW.

 And what would you see?

At the beginning, a room bursting with Grace Cossington Smiths and Margaret Prestons, including meditations on domesticity and early 20th century mass consumerism like The Lacquer Room and Implement Blue. You might marvel with your foreigner at The Prince and Reinforcement: Troops Marching, where the female gaze, banished from sharing in the prizes and accolades of public life, watches the sinister events of the period pass at a distance like clouds or stars.

Elles: Community Night Out  at the Seattle Art Museum in October. (Joshua Trujillo)

Elles: Community Night Out at the Seattle Art Museum in October. (Joshua Trujillo)

And then what would happen?

Well, you would become increasingly embarrassed. Walking onwards through the roughly nine rooms that comprise the collection, the female gaze seems to diminish until it all but vanishes. After a couple of Olleys, mid century abstraction sees Grace Crowley swamped by Passmores and Balsons. The next room celebrates men: the muddy palette of Nolan, Williams, Boyd, and Tucker, alongside more men, Brack, Tuckson, Fairwether and Klippel.

The final two rooms, dedicated to the last thirty years of art in this country, contain 44 works. Two are authored by women.

Too late you would realise that women’s work is about as prominent at the Art Gallery of NSW as at a Silicon Valley hackathon or the dumbbell room of the Manly Sea Eagles.

This trend is not unique to our country, and has seen the birth of the Elles movement – exhibitions in which a public gallery re-hangs its permanent collection with work exclusively by women. Launched this October at the Seattle Art Museum, Elles: SAM—Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists has seen the gallery box its Pollocks, Warhols, Johns and Kiefers, replacing them with works by Pollock’s far smarter wife Lee Krasner, and Georgia O’Keeffe. The SAM show is a copycat of the 2010 Elles exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and indeed, part of the Pompidou’s exhibit is showing at SAM during the same period.

A knee jerk reaction to the Elles phenomenon might be to recoil at the perpetuation of politically correct error, to discard the idea as curation grounded by sex rather than by skill or theme or theory. This would be to ignore all of the historic effects of repression on women artists: everything from the lack of money for materials, the improvisation of technique due to limited access to practical institutions, and restrictions on subject matter caused by incarceration in the domestic sphere.

The Tate Britain’s retrospective of brother and sister artists Augustus and Gwen John from a few years ago demonstrated this contrast perfectly. The Johns, having identical beginnings, offer a near perfect ethnography of how sex affects artistic output. Where Augustus’ portraits were on epic canvases, Gwen’s work had far humbler dimensions. Where Augustus drew himself as a satyr and also as the lover a harem of fecund gypsy wives, Gwen stuck to chairs and interiors. Where Augustus was wealthy, lauded on the cover of Time and elected to the Royal Academy, Gwen ended up living a relatively meager existence in the suburbs of Paris, and had to support her early career through nude modelling.

As a reviewer said of the 2004 retrospective: “He was bigger, she was deeper. He drew himself as a faun, she drew herself as a nun. He drank, ate and rollicked on an epic scale, she sometimes starved alone in her room.”

But the Elles exhibits reveal not only these themes. They have also been used – at least in France – as a moment of national amnesty. The Centre Pompidou bravely refused to include in its exhibit any art it did not own. It aired its dirty laundry, revealing just how pauce its collection of women artists was. Indeed, in the five years preceding the Elles show the museum dedicated 40 per cent of its acquisition budget (why not 50 per cent?) to buy works made by women, just so that it would have enough art to hang. Works by women now comprise 17 per cent of the Pompidou’s permanent collection, still scandalous when you consider the museum only collects art produced after 1905.

SAM has not had the courage (or money) to follow suit, and has included under the banner of its Elles exhibit a number of works borrowed from the Gagosian Gallery and private collections.

But done properly the Elles phenomenon can be a moment for reflection, revealing the true history of bias in large public galleries and presenting alternative art histories.

So, what would it look like if the Art Gallery of NSW followed suit? Currently, if you removed all the art by men from the 20th – 21st century Australian galleries I suspect you’d be lucky to fill two of the roughly nine rooms. Two of ten if you count the peculiar Lowy, Gonski Gallery – with its one mammoth Janet Laurence sitting like an awkward apology in a room full of male authored landscapes. If Grace Cossington Smith had become a schoolteacher you might fill only one of ten rooms.

There is, however, plenty hiding in storage. I wonder what it might look like if the Art Gallery of NSW decided to air its dirty laundry? With the 2012 Dundas Memorial Lecture picking up on this theme this month, perhaps it is time to find out.

19 comments

  • Surely art is one area we can refrain from gender-isation. I have never, nor will I ever see art as feminine or masculine. Where does it stop?? Deleting music from playlists based on gender of the artist, boycott of a movie due to gender of the lead role??
    The analogy of Augustus and Gwen John could possibly point to the fact that one had higher ambitions, worked harder or took greater risks..........or heaven forbid.........one was a better artist. Greater and lesser talents exist in every human pursuit. I see no good reason to draw parallels to gender. Heaven knows sexism abounds in this day and age, let`s keep art uni-sex.

    Commenter
    lumpy
    Date and time
    November 05, 2012, 9:23AM
    • In case you didn't realise Lumpy, art has been a political tool and has been influenced by politics for some time now - like oh, forever. Completely ignoring major political shifts in the role of women in both society and in the art world is simply ostrich behaviour.

      Commenter
      Cher
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 11:35AM
    • One of the points highlighted by the contrast between the two artists were the conditions under which they were allowed to develop their talent. This is one of the great misunderstandings that feminism seeks to highlight. In art, in science, in literature, in all of history you see the same pattern emerge - centuries of great males making advances and being masters of their field, with astonishingly rare standouts of females. For every great woman that is recognised there are dozens of great men.

      This is not because in every case, across history "one had higher ambitions, worked harder or took greater risks..........or heaven forbid.........one was a better artist." - not unless you're willing to consign all women to inferiority. Which is actually what has been done throughout history. Women were denied so many basic rights that were given to men that there was no comparison of like for like. It'd be like building your own ship and sailing the world when you'd been denied any apprenticeship as a shipwright or membership to any professional groups, couldn't join the navy, couldn't get any permits or loans to start a business, and endured derision for your pursuits. You're starting on such a back foot it's amazing your talent had the opportunity to flourish.

      This is where the argument for meritocracy falls down. Modern works may take a different view, but gender-isation serves a very important point in every aspect of human culture, because it's easy to forget how much of it was actually just male culture.

      Commenter
      Lucid Fugue
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 5:07PM
  • Actually as far as the Johns go, Augustus' reputation has suffered since his death, while Gwen's has grown. Some of that is to do with Gwen's reclusiveness in life, but it takes some pretty creative thinking to totally dismiss sex as a factor in her reception by critics and the public.

    Commenter
    DanielStacey
    Date and time
    November 05, 2012, 10:04AM
    • Gee, for all the noise from feminists over the years about men only anythings (of which there are now pretty much none left, not even boy scouts), there seems to be women only everythings popping up all over the place. Hypocrisy much.

      Commenter
      Bryce
      Location
      Melb
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 10:31AM
      • It's not really that simplistic Bryce. Many female artists over the years have missed out on recognition and audiences because of the patriarchal art establishment of the past.
        The reason there were so few female artists included in exhibitions of the past, is vastly different from the reasons why there are no male artists included here. Female artists don't consider male artists to be sub-par or not worthy of inclusion as legitimate artists - the art establishment (made up of mostly men) of the past could not say the same of their attitude to female artists. This is about female artists having their day in the sun and being appreciated for their work - I see nothing wrong with that. It is a theme, not a systematic exclusion over hundreds of years. If you're going to try to make a political statement against feminism, at least compare apples with apples eh?

        Commenter
        Cher
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        November 05, 2012, 11:26AM
      • Actually Cher it is.

        On one hand women campaign to disolve men's only clubs and assert their right to be equal.

        On the other they're campaigning to have women only clubs so they don't have to put up with those pesky men.

        It's hypocrisy at it's finest.

        Commenter
        Ailie
        Date and time
        November 05, 2012, 6:39PM
      • The distinction is that both acts advance gender equality. Women's only spaces can be a method of affirmative action -- such as Emily's List, an organisation which supports pro-choice female politicians. I also think that part of the retention of women's only organisations is that while it is alright for a woman to want to be manly, the reverse does not apply. Thus why boy scouts admits girls while girl guides has yet to adapt -- it's because the greatest insult is to call a man or boy a girl.

        In terms of art, there's a famous quote somewhere that all the women in the national gallery are nudes. The deliberate exclusion of women from art galleries continued until at least the turn of the last century, and this is one of the first movements to push for greater recognition of women artists. That the Pompidou spends only 40% of it's budget on art by women seems to be a fairly significant indicator.*

        *One question I took away from the article relates to that fact. I wonder, whether the Pompidou might actually be acquiring equal number of works by men and women, but men's artworks may be more highly priced. It would be interesting to see more figures on this.

        Commenter
        AnnieD
        Date and time
        November 05, 2012, 9:30PM
      • @Allie, Bryce,

        The idea of creating female only spaces is essentially about trying to get the opportunities equal again. The reality is that the scales have become so heavily weighted on the men's side that it takes this kind of 'girls only' approach to give women what seems like any chance at all.

        If you are the kind of person that gets bent out of shape when things seem unfair then I think that makes you quintessentially Aussie. I think it also means you'll feel just how how unfair it is that far too many women by virtue of their gender simply don't get a go...which is just ridiculous. Art is art right?

        So this isn't about saying...you're a man...you're not the same sex so can't come in. It's more about saying...you're a woman and you deserve to at least start your 100m race from the same line as the other humans in it...when previously and constantly they've been starting from the street outside the stadium.

        Commenter
        MattG
        Date and time
        November 05, 2012, 10:45PM
    • Impossible to keep art uni-sex as the history of art has been subject to as much gender bias and exclusion as other fields.Gender representation is an important issue if we want to see and hear from a broad range of voices and experiences. It is a sad fact that the history we inherit excluded people who were not white and women because their contributions were considered of less worth. This is then illustrated in the collections and history books. What better way to counteract this history by consciously making clear this inequity. It doesn't have to be forever, just for now.

      Commenter
      KellyDolly
      Date and time
      November 05, 2012, 11:01AM

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