Most people cannot. The National Museum of Women in the Arts , running their 5 Women Artists campaign since 2016, shared with me, and all collaborators, a crossword, challenging us to name ten great women artists.
How did you do?
I’m quite ashamed to say that I only found one, Frida Kahlo. What’s worse, I had never even heard of the rest of the artists, even though I studied history of art, I work in the arts, I go to galleries all the time, and I have an art blog.
My dad does not know much about art. But he does know the basics. He knows of Da Vinci, Picasso, Dali etc. Without, of course, knowing anything of Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay he asked me recently, “There haven’t been any great women artists in history have they?
And the only name I could remember was again Frida Kahlo (who, let’s not forget was the wife of one of, if not the most established painters of the time in Mexico).
Because the thing is, there hasn’t been a female Da Vinci. The training or time women could devote to art was limited. As Nochlin writes, until the end of the 19th century women were not even allowed to life drawing classes.
“To be deprived of this ultimate state of training meant to be deprived of the possibility of creating major art—or simply, as with most of the few women aspiring to be painters, to be restricted to the “minor” and less highly regarded fields of portraiture, genre, landscape, or still-life.”Lisa Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, 1971
Thankfully, times have changed, and the skills needed to become a painter are not available only to white, middle-class men. YouTube is full of tutorials for beginners. Instagram is full of “self-taught” exceptional artists.
If you’ve read my previous posts you will know some of the artists featured this month already. I would go as far as to say that some of them have left a footprint on contemporary art. In any case, they have changed the way I see art.
So this International Women’s Day, I’m proud to present my selection of 5 Great Women Artists.
Everyone who knows me is aware of my obsession with Unskilled Worker, aka Helen Downie. I even included her collaboration with Gucci as a case study for influencers at my job.
Unskilled Worker started painting when she was 48 (same age Julia Margaret Cameron started taking photos!) A mother of four and a stay at home mum for years, she mentioned in an interview “I had always wanted to paint and become an artist, but life happened and I forgot about that side of me.”
Without any formal training, but with true commitment, she would paint for nine hours a day, three days a week. She was discovered two years later, in 2015, by fashion photographer Nick Knight. He commissioned her to create a series of portraits of Alexander McQueen’s most iconic looks. The exhibition of her drawings coincided with the opening of McQueen’s “Savage Beauty” at the V&A.
Later, further commissions, collaborations and features with names such as Gucci, Bazaar Art, the New York Times, Vogue etc. followed.
I’ve been following Unskilled Worker’s work for years on Instagram, and to my eyes her paintings have evolved greatly. Her earlier work is quite melancholic with dark colours, eyes melting and cheeks flushing. The clothes remind me of an elegant Victorian style, with tons of details, high necks, small buttons, and laces.
In current works the same big melting eyes and cheeks are there, but the works have changed a lot. Her characters do not exist in a void anymore, but a whole world full of exotic flowers and plants is created for them. The clothes and accessories are extremely detailed while there is an explosion of vivid colours that surprisingly do not create chaos but are beautifully combined.
Born in Rome to a German mother and a Serbian father, raised in Switzerland and currently living in Madrid, Nikoleta must be the most multicultural person I know of.
“Thanks to this diverse background that has enabled me to see the world from a broader standpoint I have come to the conclusion that – if you don’t have any roots, you can grow yourself a pair of wings”.Nikoleta Sekulovic, quote from her website
She is also probably the most minimalist artist I know of. Her current artwork is limited to black, white and grey tones, while with a few lines she forms her figures.
“I believe the figure needs to breath. It needs to reflect something of the human fabric, which is that we are both orderly as well as complex, angular as well as curved. I seek for that imperfect sketch like line, the type that a three year old succeeds at every stroke, because they are not seeking perfection.”
A lot of artists pay tribute to motherhood, once they become mothers, meaning the relationship between themselves and their child, but Nikoleta’s latest collection of work focuses on the mother herself.
“Becoming a mom, juggling work and family was not easy and initially my art took a backseat. My inspiration to pick up the brush again came from my friends – mothers – who manage a crazy life and yet find the time to build businesses, keep learning, and carve out time to socialize.”
These women are painted without her children. They pose naked, their body is stretched comfortably, confidently. They are not the stereotypical maternal portraits, radiating sweetness and devotion, but they are independent women, with a life outside their maternal role.
Mexican artist Monica Fernandez was my first discovery when I started this blog back in September and her work continues to amaze me ever since.
Monica paints portraits of girls, set in a surreal setting full of flowers, animals and exquisite clothing in 16th-17th century fashion with contrasting fabrics, embroidery and ruffs but also some Mexican influences.
Perhaps not surprising for an artist from the birthplace of magical realism, the settings have elements to remind us that this is not a real world. Flowers blend into the skin, candles grow into shoulders, locks grow into heads.
The girls themselves stare back at us with serious, smart and melancholic eyes. They are not the classic girls that expect you to tell them what to do. They hold the keys to their own magical kingdom.
Sofia is a self-taught artist from Argentina, creating female portraits using watercolours and gouache. A reminder of the abilities of this great medium! She grew up in an artistic environment, with both of her parents being artists.
What caught my attention were the patterns Sofia creates to surround her figures. From geometric structures, visual illusions and nature her paintings are very contemporary but also have nostalgic elements.
The faces of the women are almost colourless while their hairstyle brings to mind the roaring 20s. Their clothes have also a vintage look, with simple patterns that mimic the background of the paintings.
Sofia’s work has surreal elements, with clouds becoming the hair of her figures and the background blending into their bodies. Her women are very elegant and stylish as if they jumped out of a fashion magazine.
I am not sure why but I love finding out details about an artist’s creative process, it is almost like peaking behind the curtain to see how the magic happens. In an interview, Sofia says that sometimes she has the full image to mind but mostly she works on incomplete ideas.
“I’m always unsure about what colours to pick, so I tend to work digitally on the palette before moving to watercolours or gouache on the final piece.”Blog society
Sarah Stieber has created her own painting style that she calls “Electric Realism”, meaning that her figures are painted in a realistic way but the colours are saturated to expose her world of “wishful seeing” as she calls it.
Her paintings are what everyone living in London needs to get over the grey sky. Full optimism and joy, they look like a rainbow land.
Her process starts by taking photographs that she stylises herself – which is where the word “realism” comes from. She paints with exquisite detail while the clothing and accessories really stand out with their metallic sheen, fishnets and leopard print, or polka dot bikinis. I especially love her women with big afro hair.
And then explosion comes. As an example, in an interview she describes the way she would paint her hand, saying that her palm would be bright red and the top would be super bright magenta pink. I especially love her paintings with water, they give such a cool vibe and are full of energy!
Her figures, mostly women, are fierce and sassy, rocking their neon wigs, high heels and sunglasses with attitude. Just the sunglasses themselves are so carefully selected they would need their own exhibition.
I hope that enjoyed getting to know these 5 great women artists. Let me know who’s your favourite woman artist in the comments!
Blog post by National Museum of Women in the Arts on #5WomenArtists