Where are Women in the Whole Picture?

  •  May 22, 2019

In 1971, art researcher Linda Nochlin wrote her manifesto, which posed one of the most emblematic questions about the history of art and its place in the struggle for gender equality: “Why has there never been a great woman artist?” We continue to reflect on this issue today, more than 45 years later. 

Despite the encouraging steps that are being taken and the activism of feminist groups around the world, there are still systematic problems in the mechanism of the entire cultural apparatus. It is optimistic that women’s access to the educational system, which has long been denied, is already a fact, and globally and locally we can find that an increasing number of students in specialized schools and university art departments are women who intend to develop in the world of art. The positions of power in the institutions that determine the cultural rhythm are changing and are occupied by more and more women. We have the opportunity to visit more and more exhibitions of women artists working with a variety of media and materials, as well as those who go a step further and question whether we need “women’s exhibitions” and “women’s topics” at all. 

But inequality persists and Nohlin’s question remains. Where are the women “geniuses”? Where are their retrospective exhibitions, biographies and painfully familiar and replicated works? Apart from several symbolic names such as Yayoi Kusama, Marina Abramovich, Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, where are the great women artists? 

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in the United States – the only museum in the world dedicated to supporting women in the arts – launched a campaign in March 2016, adding another question – can you list 5 women artists? The campaign highlights the fact that women are systematically treated unequally in the world of art and to this day remain drastically underrepresented in museums, galleries and the art market. Campaigns such as the one that in 2019 marked more than 22,000 posts with #5WomenArtists on Instagram and Twitter, engage the public’s attention to an issue that needs to be considered beyond counting the fingers of one hand. And meanwhile, how many of the artists you can list are Bulgarians?  

In order to get a clear idea of ​​the state of equality in the world of art internationally and here, in Bulgaria, we must pay attention to the art collections of state galleries, the representation of artists in group and solo exhibitions. We need to explore the way we understand the course of history and why women often do not appear in it. By identifying the problems of the past, we will be able to answer the questions that concern the present. Sexism is deeply embedded in our way of communicating, in language, and in the visual environment, so it is worth it for us to look more closely, this time – at the whole picture. 

  • Women and Memory 

Women have always played an important role in creating collections and art institutions. Peggy Guggenheim collected one of the most impressive and large collections in the world dedicated to modern and contemporary art, and in 1943 was the first person to organize an exhibition featuring works only by women artists in the field of modern art. In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) was founded by three women – Lillie P. Bliss, Mary Quinn Sullivan and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and the position of the first professionally qualified curator and consultant was again occupied by a woman – Dorothy Canning Miller. Unfortunately, the museum’s collection does not exhibit a large or even approximately equal number of women and men artists, and except for the memorial exhibition dedicated to the institution’s founders, MoMA did not organize a solo exhibition of a woman artist until 1967. Even the part of the museum’s website that tells the story of its creation mentions its founders through the names of their husbands. 

What is the situation in Bulgaria? In some respects, the rights and representation of women artists are evolving similarly to those of women in the West. We have information about the works of women artists from the beginning of the 20th century, but they are single exceptions. The end of the First World War also marked growth in the number of women artists who chose the arts as their main professional path. The theme of “women’s art” and “women’s issues” began to enter the cultural field. In 1927 the Society of Women with Higher Education was established, and a year later the Section of Women Artists was established. In the same 1928, the first Bulgarian exhibition of women artists was organized. The existence and hard work of the Society and its adjacent section speak for the desire to begin a dialogue on the specific women’s experience and the importance of it being well presented to the public. In her dissertation “Women Artists in Bulgarian Art in the 30s of the 20th century” Dr Milena Dimitrova Balcheva – Bozhkova points out that “[in] the era of serious social transformations, the activities of the Section of Women Artists can be considered both a key element of the efforts for the emancipation of women in Bulgaria, as well as an indicator for the inclusion of Bulgarian society in one of the problems of modern times – women’s equality.” 

After 1944, the number of women who entered and completed higher art education continued to grow, but their visibility remained disproportionate to their fellow men artists. The years of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria carry the ideas of a totalitarian society, which should put men and women in equal roles. However, this idea of ​​balancing public roles is illusory. Public contracts for monumental arts were almost entirely won by men, and the presence of women’s names, such as Vaska Emanouilova, was rather an exception. Women artists did not participate in decision-making in juries and public procurement committees, they were not among the chairmen of the Association of Bulgarian Artists. “Women’s perspective in artistic life”, notes Prof. Irina Genova in her lecture on “Introduction to Contemporary Art”, “is not equal, but a “minority” one”. 

The state of artistic life over the last 30 years has been gradually changing. In 1997, Adelina Popnedeleva and Alla Georgieva initiated the exhibition “The Version of Erato” with curators Maria Vasileva and Yara Bubnova, in response to the exhibition “Erotic Art”, in which only men were invited to participate. “The Erato Version” is a gesture that unequivocally shows that women artists are directly involved in the causes of feminism. In the following years, the “March 8” group acts as an open platform for women artists using different techniques, which gives them the opportunity to express their position and present their own experiences and views on the social role of women in Bulgaria and the world. 

The years of lack of representation in the shared public space have led to the emergence of projects such as “Memorable Women”, which aims to draw public attention to the fact that in the capital city of Sofia there is not a single monument dedicated to a woman. In an artistic action as part of the project, in 2018, the artist and designer Irina Tomova / Erka, made a series of sculptures, her portraits, painted in bright colours, which were placed in central locations in the capital. The question of the one-sided nature of historical narrative has been becoming an increasingly central issue. 

Despite the set foundation for reflection on the “female” and the significant increase in the number of women in leadership positions in art institutions, the issue of representation remains without significant development. First of all, it is difficult to make an adequate assessment of the environment, because there is a lack of collected and catalogued data on the development of public and private collections, exhibitions and artistic actions. Women artists who managed to make a breakthrough in the last century are still waiting for their story to be described. 

In 2019, Bulgarian Fund for Women established a “Women Artists Fund”, which aims to combat the under-representation of women in the professional arts and cultural sector, give visibility to the work of women artists / painters and increase their access to financial resources. As part of this project, in 2018, Bulgarian Fund for Women sent an inquiry to 10 galleries in the country, including the National Art Gallery, Sofia City Art Gallery, Varna City Art Gallery and others. Replies were received from 6 of them. 

The basic questions concerning the visibility of women artists in Bulgaria were asked – How many women and men artists are represented in the permanent exhibition of the gallery and what are the names of the women artists? How many in total are the works (of men and women) exhibited in the permanent exhibition? How many collective exhibitions are organized and with which participants? How many are the solo exhibitions of men and women? However, the answers to the questions are inconsistent and direct us to another major problem in the history of art in Bulgaria – the incomplete and unprofessional storage of information and the lack of a common template for recording data on collections and exhibitions of state art institutions. 

The data provided by the National Art Gallery shows that 1,068 works are included in the permanent representative exhibition. 47 women artists participate with 82 works, and 433 men artists with 986 works. This means that 91% of the permanent exhibition of our National Gallery is created by men artists. Almost the entire visual history of our country turns out to be a dialogue in which the woman is speechless. Everyone can visit Kvadrat 500 and try to find these 9% women artists, and while wandering the halls you can pay attention to how the woman is present in the works. She is a muse, she is a mother, but how often is she the protagonist in the visual narrative? How often is the woman just the object of attention? 

The Gallery’s Fund does not show optimistic data either – from a total of 26,492 works, approximately 84% are created by men and 16% by women. 128 solo exhibitions were organized, 111 from men and only 17 from women (87% from men, 13% from women), and the participants in 493 group exhibitions were divided into 407 men and 86 women (83% men, 17% women). The data obtained from Varna, Kyustendil, Targovishte, Sliven and Pazardzhik does not deviate much from these percentages. Out of 150 group exhibitions in the Sliven Art Gallery, 68 were held without the participation of women. The Association of Bulgarian Artists in 2018 consisted of almost equal numbers of men and women – 1759 to 1195. The new members accepted between 2007 and 2018 were also balanced – out of 706 new members, 365 are women and 341 men. Why then is there such a lower percentage of artworks by women artists? 

The history of art has multiple dimensions, it must consist of different stories, different points of view and different experiences in order to be common. However, the experience, feelings and gaze of women are systematically silenced in the narrative of most of the notable museums and galleries around the world. Great cultural institutions have the power to bring to the surface or completely erase personalities and events from history. The value of the art object is determined by its institutional recognition. The content of the collections and the way the artefacts from the past are presented to the general public shape public opinion, creating the most sustainable public memory – the historical one. With this power comes a great responsibility that these institutions must recognize as a priority. 

  • Women and the Problem of Representation  

The mechanism of discrimination against women in the world of art works at all levels – from the willingness of galleries to stand behind the woman author’s name, through the prices of the works, to their inclusion in collections and the organization of solo exhibitions. Statistics from  ArtNews magazine from 2015 trace the problem of equal representation of artists in the largest American art institutions. The data shows a slow increase in the number of solo exhibitions of women artists. For example, in 2000 no exhibitions of women were organized at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, while in 2014 this percentage increased from 0 to 14. Improvements can be noted in European countries such as Germany and France, but the pace of these changes is slow. This raises the question of whether the public advocacy of directors and art organizations for changes in representation is not just a PR campaign in the era of the #MeToo movement. In terms of true consistent results, a lot of work remains to be done, including within the context of permanent public and private collections. 

As a direct response to the problem of the balance in representation of artists, in 2009, the head of the contemporary art department, Camille Moreno, at the Pompidou Center, France, rearranged the permanent exhibition so that it included only works by women artists. The almost two-year-long exhibition called “elles@centrepompidou” increased the number of visitors to the museum’s permanent collection by 25%. After “Elles”, however, the collection was rearranged in its previous format with only 10% works by women. 

In Bulgaria, “elles@centrepompidou” finds expression in the exhibition Feminine Expression held in 2012 at the Sofia Arsenal Museum of Contemporary Art with curators Hitomi Kanmai and Niya Pushkarova. In the text of the exhibition, Niya Pushkarova notes – “The art created by women is still seen as a whim and by no means a serious job.” The exhibition aims to rethink what “women’s art” is and to give it more audibility and significance. 

However, women’s exhibitions in Bulgaria are held mainly around March 8, without reflection and commentary on the “8 March” Group’s actions and art. Most of these group exhibitions present to the public the image of the woman and the artist as a two-dimensional fine lady who, in addition to being ready with lunch for the whole family, also painted the family portrait. There is a particular lack of understanding of why artistic actions related to “women’s art” are needed. 

The problem is not only on an individual but also on an institutional level. For example, in early 2019 the Union of Bulgarian Artists organized a National Exhibition of Contemporary Art in Gabrovo entitled “Spring Salon of Women Artists”. Women artists from all over the country had the opportunity to participate in it, the genres were diverse and there was a financial prize fund. 

In this first edition of the exhibition, 62 women artists were admitted, and presented with 100 works. The theme is again dedicated to March 8. However, the jury that nominated the winners of this women’s competition consisted of men only. During the opening of the exhibition, the “Hristo Tsokev” Art Gallery’s director Evgeni Nedev quoted Picasso. The same Picasso who stated that every time he has a new wife, he must burn the previous one. You kill the woman and with her the past she represents. This lack of sensitivity to the universal problem of women’s rights and their place in the world of art is a clear sign that Bulgarian society is in urgent need of a constructive and informed discussion on the problems of representation. Without such dialogue, we run the risk of ignoring the rich experience of many of the witnesses to our own history and erasing women, along with the past they represent. 

An effective way to start such a discussion is through specific works created by women artists. Perhaps the most famous and successful example of this is Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous artistic group that in 1985 noticed that the recognizable names in arts, the people who get all the attention, opportunities and money, are almost 100%, white heterosexual men. Their next observation is that no one pays attention to this fact. This is their motivation to put up provocative posters on the streets of New York, starting a conversation on the topic. Now one of their most iconic posters can be found as a souvenir card in almost every museum of modern and contemporary art in the world. It is, of course, the image of the classically depicted body of a naked woman with a gorilla mask, similar to the masks that members of the Guerrilla Girls wear to maintain their anonymity. Next to the depicted muse, we can read a text that says “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female”.  

And since their question has not found a clear answer, Guerrilla Girls continue to ask and meanwhile answer themselves on why it is important to have a balanced percentage of representation in exhibitions. Can art be self-sufficient, or does it need to be identified in accordance to gender? “Every aesthetic decision has some sort of value,” says a member of the group, nicknamed Frida, “and if all decisions are made by the same people, then art will never look like a representation of our entire culture. Currently, the world of art is run by billionaire collectors who collect art that carries their values. We [Guerrilla Girls] argue that art should look like the rest of our culture. While all the voices in our culture have not been heard in the history of art, this is not a history of art, but a history of power.” 

Collectors also have a great responsibility. When they do not see women’s works in exhibitions, whether in private or national institutions, they also see no value in owning their works. Thus, women artists receive lower pay for work that is completely equal to that of their colleagues. 

In 2018, Jenny Saville surpassed Yayoi Kusama for the most expensively sold work of a living woman artist. Her self-portrait was traded for $ 12.4 million. By comparison, the most expensive work of a man artist is a sculpture by Jeff Koons, which was sold for $ 91.07 million. In terms of record holders in the entire history of art, the most expensive man artist’s work is Leonardo da Vinci’s controversial canvas, which was sold for $ 450.3 million, while among women Georgia O’Keeffe is the leader with $ 44.4 million. The difference of more than $ 400 million in the artwork’s prices speaks for itself, and O’Keeffe noted that she was often mentioned to be the best woman artist, but she would define herself as one of the best artists in general. 

It is difficult to talk about the prices of artworks in Bulgaria. According to the data provided to Bulgarian Fund for Women, since its establishment, the National Art Gallery has purchased 84 works by 70 artists, 54 men and 16 women, 76% of the works are created by men artists and 24% by women artists. In Varna from 1989 to 2017, the purchases were 81% in favour of men, and the remaining 19% of the works were the work of women. Pazardzhik – 82% of the purchased works are created by men, 18% by women. The pattern continues. 

  • The Question about Women

The main question we have not yet posed is what can we do? Systematic violations of women’s rights can only be overcome through systematic action. 

We can think of history as a complex narrative built from many different perspectives. Perspectives that are influenced by the individual experience of not only one part of society. 

We can search, research, compose and add to the historical narrative of women who have succeeded in creating artworks, even when they had not had access to education and institutions. We can also tell the stories of women who are fighting for equal access to the art market even now. We can communicate the problems and opportunities that art is facing around the world, but also here in Bulgaria. We can have a debate, we can inform, we can listen to the specific problems of artists and the institutions that are supposed to support them. We can hold these institutions accountable for the exhibitions they organize and the purchases of artworks they make. 

We can support initiatives of women artists in Bulgaria. We can and must visit women’s exhibitions to show the institutions that there is a public interest. We can support organizations that fight for women’s visibility and rights, in the arts and beyond. Above all, we can continue to ask the important questions that help us see the whole picture. 

Text: Dobromira Terpesheva 

Dobromira Terpesheva is a researcher, manager and curator in Sofia. She is the manager of UniArt Gallery, the art space of New Bulgarian University. She has worked on a number of exhibitions as a curator, the most notable of which are “Ontology: Words and Graphite”, Milko Boshkov and Boris Hristov, UniArt Gallery (2019); “Feasts for the Senses”. Genre painting from the 17th and 18th centuries, European Collection of European Art, UniArt Gallery (2018); “Territories of the View”, group exhibition, Vaska Emanouilova branch at the Sofia City Art Gallery (2017). Dobromira Terpesheva’s interests range from contemporary art, with an emphasis on public art and the Bulgarian cultural scene, to women and the study of gender, theatre and the art of cinema. 

* Author of the illustration: Victoria Borisova 

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