Women’s Painting and Sculpture

Maria Elena Morató

Journalist and art critic, Spain

Just Art? This article should have been a piece about women’s production in the contemporary field of art and a reading of the different realities that can be seen in their creative production. However, at the time of compiling data I found a concurrent and pressing interest in confirming and rectifying an anomaly: women’s visibility does not correspond to their real presence in the phases of production. Therefore, I have redirected the objective of this article to question our vision of “the other half”, to verify the limiting dual bias (of gender and proportion) that the supposedly egalitarian society imposes on itself.

Fifty years later, the women’s liberation movement that shook western life in the 1960s (embraced by other movements that advocated the elimination of all kinds of discrimination within society) has turned out to be a half-way achievement. Now that sufficient time has passed to make a reliable assessment, over the last five years there have been several voices that from the most diverse countries and spheres have shown that the movement is far from finished. On the contrary, proof of the failure has to some extent forced the need to take corrective actions and measures, both at an official level and in independent associations.

Belied Normality

In the world of art we believed that, leaving exceptionality to one side, during the 20th century we women had changed from being observed to being observers, from exercising the passive role of muses to that of activists and creators, from being women artists to simply being artists. But this does not seem to be so. There is still a somewhat veiled burden of what is feminine being considered as “lesser”, backed up by some excruciating statistics, especially based on the (certainly naive) assumption that the world of culture is one of the most liberal and open within society. A world in which we have repeatedly ended up discussing, as the main subject of debate and in the spirit of vindication, something that should be assumed logically: proportionality as a faithful reflection of realities.

The statistics offer us an x-ray to be analysed in detail. Let us look at some of the data that, although from very specific geographical areas, can be applied to adjacent zones with which we share parallel historical-social paths. The countries of the south, distinct in their realities and experiences, will be examined later.

First we will focus on France and Spain to see how this far from solid castle built around equality needs to be constantly propped up: from above, with legislation, and from below, through association membership.

We will begin by referring to the study carried out by Sophie Faÿ in 20081 in which she examines the difficult birth of democracy in art and wonders if objective criteria are possible in the notion of equality given the perpetuation of white man’s hegemony over female and non-white artists, in which the presence and recognition of some women at the highest level can make us forget the unjust absence of all others by concealing the reality of the root problem: the persistence of inequality because of gender. The author agrees that one of the ways of knowing the real state of visibility of female work is to consult the ranking lists provided by the art market. Following the general data extracted from some of them, the Kunstmarkt Kompass, published annually by the German economic journal Capital,2 noted in 2006 only 9 women among the 100 most influential artists on the international scene (in 2012 the number rises to 20), while the artprice Top 500 in 2008 placed 16 women, none of them from the Mediterranean area. The role of the market as an index of knowledge is as real as it is questionable, albeit only in certain aspects, as it confers value on a work or an artist from the financial and economic point of view without taking into account intrinsic aesthetic values. However, these are present, as in one way or another they affect their final assessment. On the other hand, the market does offer us interesting data about the movements generated by the economic-political power centres, whose slow strategic changes, observed over a sufficiently long period of years, have their equivalence in the art market, making it vary. This can be verified by comparing any of the indexes, it being significant that in the last artprice Top 5003 the presence of artists from the Middle and Far East stands out. In general terms, we can note limitations in their specific assessments and successes in general trends.

Analysing the French model, Faÿ looks at the differences between official art and independent art, primarily due to the different possibilities of promoting them for budgetary reasons. There are two artistic recognition circuits which function differently and mark a distinction between official art and independent art: the institutional network subject to the Ministry of Culture selects artists using the Contemporary Art National Funds and Regional Funds and makes them visible through its network of cultural centres and museums;4 the independent market, in contrast, outside the institutions and their hitherto powerful budgets, is subject to other much more eclectic laws and therefore can allow itself transgressions and experiments outside the official guidelines.

If we look at the figures compiled by this author, women account for 60% of students at art schools and 40% of those registered at the Maison des Artistes (the body that in France bestows the official status of artist), but only 10% of their works are exhibited publicly. We understand the real scope of these figures upon learning that “the presence of women in the Salons de l’Académie before the French Revolution was 5%,” the same figure as in 2000 at the Centre Pompidou (11.5% in 2007).

The data concerning women’s presence in museums, exhibitions and diverse collections in Spain is similar. The report on the sessions organised in 2011 by the Ministry of Culture under the title “Excellence and Equality in the Art System”,5 coordinated by the MAV Association,6 helps us to reflect on the causes of the limited inclusion of female artists in the exhibition circuit and their works in the collections of public museums and centres. Since the coming into force of the Law of Equality in 20077 they have had to apply balanced representation measures as well as to rectify situations of inequality in the field of creation through specific promotional actions, as provided for in article 26.

The document tells us that, in the Museo del Prado, of 26,012 works only 82 are by women. But this minimum representation is not only found in this historic collection, given that there are also only between 5% and 10% of works by women artists in contemporary art galleries and centres. The report provides other data: between 1999 and 2009, the proportion of women present in the Spanish Pavilion of the Venice Biennale is 2 for every 10 men; and in the 30 years from 1980 to 2010, only 6 women received the National Visual Arts Award.

The report notes that today between 60% and 70% of fine arts students are women, but at the top of the pyramid there is an almost total absence of them in high offices. This contrasts with the large number of women in intermediate executive positions, which shows that proportionality (which to achieve parity would be between 40% and 60%) is not a criterion of competence.

In the resulting work document we read: “The objective of artistic excellence is impossible to achieve in Spain while our system of art as a whole is beset by sexist discrimination and lack of equal opportunities.” This is a worrying assertion not only for the world of art and culture but for society as a whole.

Excellence against Parity. Where is the Problem?

This is the question that women working in the field of art are trying to answer on a daily basis. In accordance with the assertions noted earlier and the reality of the slow process of liberation and promotion of the artistic work of women in society (which should be understood not as an anomaly but as an example of the failure of the social system which is supposed to be democratic but is not) the need to carry out protocols and actions to balance the scales has become increasingly clearer: firstly, for the recovery of artists of the past through retrospective exhibitions; secondly, to counter the inequality of opportunities with the application of positive actions that guarantee “the suitability, competence and independence of the juries in the national awards and in the aid for cultural action and promotion;”8 which leads to the third point, greater parity in management posts to facilitate equality in assessment and corrective positive actions in terms of percentages and discriminatory proportions.

If the laws are clear, what is impeding the objective achievement of the non-discriminatory proportion based on excellence? Why instead of talking about art do we have to go on discussing visibility and quotas? The problem is not with art but with society. And the solutions will only come with the change of model perpetuating this discrimination in fields such as education and through the application of protocols for approaching cultural contents that ensure quality and equity in the media, favouring discourses and analytical practices of a critical nature.9 But one of the main pitfalls for implementing the changes required is precisely the lack of political will to undertake them, supported by the accommodating inertia of idleness and power, resistant to ceding quotas of influence.

And the South, with its Own Specificities

We must make a differentiating reference to women’s presence in the art of the South. Its background and history follows characteristic pathways marked by various circumstances of historical contexts which must be taken into consideration.

The lineal development of the visual arts followed in northern Mediterranean countries in the last few centuries has looked only to itself, but in the South this development has been marked since colonial times by a particular mirror syndrome, a constant positioning “in reference to,” whether to imitate, follow the current or take up an opposing stance. Only very recently does it seem that attitudes have been abandoned that we could consider to be of a certain cultural vassalage, of seized liberty, once the old metropolitan hegemonies are called into question and one’s own vision and time are recovered. This is what we would call the territorial factor, specific to artists from the South of both sexes. A second differential factor is the key role given to women in the promotion of culture as a driver of industry and development of local economies, something which is envisaged (from the gender point of view) only very residually.

To complete the view of women’s real participation in the evolution of contemporary societies we must not forget that in the critical moments of national emancipation they played a highly important role at all levels; a role that, once independence had been achieved, was never properly recognised, if not actually silenced. In the same way, distinct voices call our attention to the so-called “state feminism”, a kind of showcase for the elites in power (which is criticised as false progressivism) but can mean on certain occasions the introduction of social measures that have repercussions on the invigoration of a whole group.10

Women, in these circumstances, have had to follow multiple paths of conquest: personal, social, territorial and communitarian and the purely artistic, bearing a much heavier burden than their colleagues in the North.

In terms of statistics, the Tunisian art critic Rachida Triki11 mentions the low percentage of women registered in the Union des Plasticiens Tunisiens before the 1980s, from which date the number of enrolments in the fine arts grew until reaching a third of students. This change was due to the evolution of the status of women (socio-legal and cultural factors), the history of painting in the country and the conditions of training and access to exhibition venues. This was similar to what happened in the other Northern African and the Middle Eastern countries, in which the distinct consideration of women within society facilitated to a greater or lesser extent their integration into artistic media and their public presence.12

Mobilizations for Visibility

Since the old times of the Academies there have always been exhibitions focused on women’s contributions. However, the real objective (or at least the result) was to mark the distances with the creations of men and identify and establish the distinction between masculine painting and feminine painting, chipping away at society’s subconscious belief that women’s work was good to the extent that it got closer to the supposedly and officially masculine universe,13 which many critics (with the overly-distorted and well-used concept of “feminine sensibility”) have helped perpetuate until this very day.

The later feminist ascendancy of the 1970s, in which women began to group together to escape their invisibility, brought with it a certain lack of moderation and “well-intentioned clumsiness”14 of presenting exhibitions of women without quality criteria, which led to the disparagement of gender exhibitions and their consideration (both by the public and the professional artists themselves) as something obsolete to avoid whenever possible.

Given the data we have just seen we observe a unanimous current that confirms the illogical singularity of a history of art in which the presence of women is a rather rare exception. Therefore, the challenge of this early 21st century has been to try to change this discriminatory perception, the impression that the history of art is written in masculine. And, in a wider context, to revise the very concept of contemporaneity linked to a determined geographical space.

We will finish by referring to one of the exhibitions that best illustrates these changes of positioning:

In 2009 the Centre Pompidou-Musée National d’Art Moderne inaugurated “elles@centrepompidou”,15 a large-scale exhibition for the first time wholly dedicated to showing works created by women, a total of 500 exhibited pieces by 200 artists from diverse origins. Although, to avoid misunderstandings, the promotion warned that “they are not necessarily feminist or necessarily gendered in their artistic practices,” the exhibition in itself constituted a manifesto, as Camille Morineau, curator at the Centre, would say. An accrochage or confrontation that sought, thanks to the magnitude and quality of the works displayed, to show that you can be a woman and an artist 100%, something which society still doubts. And, mainly, to re-launch the debate about these unresolved issues.

Restoring the Real Value. Constructing the Future by Recovering History

The fact that the debate is still raging is shown by the large number of partial exhibitions, seminars and roundtables that have taken place everywhere over the last few years,16 underlining the interregional cooperation and exchanges both at theoretical and experimental levels.

For their part, the exhibitions, critical currents and new legislation are laying a path of action that attaches great importance to the recovery of artistic prestige (its visibility, in short) to the artists of previous generations, as well as fostering research to recover legacies, the creation of specific archives and, more importantly (despite the constant ups and downs of all kinds), to clear the incipient path to what should be real democratic equality.


[1] Faÿ, “La place des femmes dans les arts visuels contemporains : invisibilité de l’invisibilité. L’exemple du département de Loire Atlantique”, D.I.U., Egalité des chances entre les femmes et les hommes, Paris III/Paris VI, 2008.

[2] www.capital.de (Die top 100 der Kunst).

[3] “Le rapport annuel artprice 2011-2012” (http://imgpublic.artprice.com/pdf/artprice-contemporary-2011-2012-en.pdf).

[4] www.videomuseum.fr (Videomuseum, a network of museums with a large database).

[5] “Excelencia e igualdad en el sistema del arte”, Ministerio de Cultura, May 2011.

[6] MAV (Mujeres en las Artes Visuales), www.mav.org.es

[7] Ley de Igualdad de la legislación española: LEY ORGÁNICA 3/2007, de 22 de marzo, para la igualdad efectiva de mujeres y hombres.

[8] MAV, “Documento de trabajo 2012. Propuestas de actuación”.

[9] Ibid.

[10] S. Dayan-Herzbrun at the “I Jornada Internacional Mujeres del Mediterráneo”. Taula Cívica del Sur del Mediterráneo, December 2011,

[11] R.Triki, “Les femmes peintres dans la Tunisie modern”, 2006, www.tunisiartgalleries.com

[12] To assess this visibility, see also: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Arabs-Women-Artists, http://babelfan.ma, www.artistes-maroc.com and www.art-
tunis.com, http://artdz.info

[13] See D. Noël, “Les femmes peintres dans la seconde moitié du XIXè siècle”, CLIO, No. 19, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2004.

[14] Report “Mujeres y cultura. Políticas de igualdad”, Ministerio de Cultura, December 2011.

[15] www.ina.fr/fresques/elles-centrepompidou and http://elles.centrepompidou.fr/blog

[16] See also: Foro Casablanca (http://casablancaartweek.com); V. Ibiza, “Dona i Art. Pintores i escultores al Museu d’Art Contemporani d’Elx”, La Rella, No. 16, IECBV, 2003 (www.iecbv.com); Patrimonio español en femenino (www.mcu.es/museos/MC/PatrimonioFemenino/); Donna e arte (www.ilsitodelledonne.it/donna-arte); collection “L’altra mettà dell’arte”, Selene Edizioni, Milan; dossier “Femmes artistes” (www.ombres-blanches.fr); http://mujerespintoras.blogspot.com.es