In case you were living under a rock last week, March 8 was International Women’s Day, and everyone on social media was celebrating. This day is a part of a longer celebration, as March is Women’s History Month.
We couldn’t think of a better time to highlight some of our favorite female artists. Although women have been involved in the creation of art for centuries, the art community has been male-dominated for the majority of art history. Women have often been overlooked in the art historical canon.
As the expectations and limitations of women changed throughout the 20th century, so did the roles and representations of female artists. With this new sense of agency, many women have examined themes of identity, polarity, and gender distinction, as well as exploring personal trauma and aspects of daily life.
Countless women have emerged as significant figures in the art world and have changed the course of art history. Here are eight ladies who have rocked the art world. This list is by no means complete, so feel free to share some of your top women artists in the comments!
Image Source: MoMA. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #21 (1978)
As one of the first prominent female photographers and one of the most influential artists in contemporary art, Cindy Sherman reverses the typical roles of photography by turning the camera on herself. Sherman invents and transforms herself into a variety of personas, all exploring different social roles that highlight female stereotypes.
She takes on all roles in the process: photographer, model, makeup artists, hairdresser, and stylist. Gaining recognition throughout the 1980s, her photographs range from playfully kitschy to realistically gritty, while exploring the ability to construct and represent the female role during a time of increased media saturation. Always naming her work as Untitled, Sherman allows the viewer to place any identity onto the character depicted, transforming the narrative however one desires.
Addressing themes of artifice, performance, gender, the grotesque, fantasy, and class, Sherman’s photographs allow for a critical look at how one creates and portrays an individual identity.
Image Source: fridakahlo.org. Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas (1939)
It’s nearly impossible to discuss women in art history without bringing up Frida Kahlo. A Mexican painter born in 1907, Kahlo primarily created self-portraits that explore the tragedies of her personal life. Despite a physical handicap that resulted from an accident as a teenager, as well as a challenging personal life due to her infamous marriage to Diego Riviera, Kahlo pursued her goals and passions to achieve success.
Kahlo’s work is often associated with Surrealism, due to its fantastical and sometimes gory nature. However, she was unfamiliar with the concurrent movement and her parallelisms to it. Defying social standards set during her time, Kahlo engaged in a number of relations with both men and women while also being an outspoken proponent of communism. Her work embodies the self-determination of women to create a forceful and independent self-identity.
Image Source: Gladstone Gallery. Shirin Neshat, Rebellious Silence (1994)
An Iranian artist working in New York City, Shirin Neshat utilizes film and video to address contrasts between masculinity and femininity, domesticity and publicity, and Islam and Western culture. In addition to being an influential mark on the art community at large, Neshat has paved the way for other Muslim female artists by declaring a strong female presence in a male dominated culture.
Her series from the mid 1990s, Women of Allah, which integrates images of women with calligraphic Farsi, introduces some of her key themes. Designed to be a conceptual narrative, Women of Allah represents the female warriors of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Neshat has received global praise, winning the International Award for the XLVIII Venice Biennale in 1990, as well as being named Artist of the Decade by Huffington Post critic G. Roger Denson.
Image Source: Hyperallergic. Eva Hesse, Untitled (1969-70)
One of the most influential sculptors of the 1960s, Eva Hesse is known for her use of unconventional materials, such as latex, rubber, and fiberglass. Hesse was one of the first artists to usher in the Postminimalist movement, as her works took organic forms that sharply contrasted to the rigidity and limiting qualities of Minimalism. Trained in abstract painting and commercial design, Hesse originally planned to pursue a career in commercial textile design. However, she began to experiment with industrial objects, such as rope and wire, to create abstract sculptures.
While some interpret the flowing and natural movement of her work to be references to the female body, others read it to have a whimsical, spontaneous intent akin to everyday life. Her simple materials and their eccentric presentation lead to endless interpretations, which would inspire a new genre of sculpture and installation to develop, influencing artists in the decades to come.
Image Source: Vincent Mars. Louise Bourgeois, Maman (1999)
Exploring themes of domesticity, sexuality, and her childhood throughout her work, the French-American artist is one of the leading sculptors of the 20th century. Her work continually references male and female bodies through various anthropomorphic shapes, as well as representing her personal experience through her own personal language.
Through the smooth and elegant exterior upon a bold and dominating form, Bourgeois’ sculptures contrast in power and grace, masculinity and femininity, sexuality and innocence. Bourgeois would influence the growth of installation art and body art that soon would come.
Image Source: Saatchi Gallery. Tracey Emin, My Bed (1998)
A British artist whose work is deeply personal, Tracey Emin is renowned for her installation and multimedia art; however, she also works in a variety of mediums, including drawing, sculpture, embroidery, film, neon, and painting. Emin illustrates her own experiences to intimately engage with the viewer, such as in her work, My Bed, an installation of her own bed that is covered in stains, empty liquor bottles, cigarettes, and condoms.
While she documents her personal trauma that would normally be kept private, she aims to connect with her audience on a larger scale by relating to pure human emotion. Critical responses to Emin’s controversial work drastically vary from strong praises to harsh disapproval. In 1999, Emin was nominated for the Turner Prize, and in 2004 she represented Britain at the Venice Biennale.
Image Source: WikiArt. Mary Cassatt, Auguste Reading to Her Daughter (1990)
An American painter and part of the Impressionist movement, Mary Cassatt is recognized for her depictions of women and children. Cassatt, who never married and still achieved professional success, is considered to be one of the “New Women” of the late 19th Century, a term used to describe the increasing number of independent, educated women that emerged during the time period.
Capturing moments of women’s domestic and social lives, Cassatt utilized loose brushstrokes and a light color palette – the style of impressionism – to portray various roles of the female. Cassatt spent extensive time in France and developed her own art practice, forming relationships with artists, dealers, and collectors. Not only did Cassatt help to forge the legitimacy of female artists, but she aided in bringing Impressionist art to the United States.
Image Source: Whitney Museum of American Art. Yayoi Kusama, Fireflies on the Water (2002)
Best known for her repeating dot patterns, Yayoi Kusama’s practice extends to a wide range of mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film, performance, and installation.
Kusama was born in Japan in 1929 and began painting at age 10 as a means of coping with early psychological issues and hallucinogenic visions. The artist’s avant-garde style, often very conceptual in nature, contains elements of minimalism, pop art, and feminist art – all of which are art movements ahead of her time. Centering on themes of imagination, repetitive obsession, sex, and creation and destruction, Kusama is often self-reflective. Her work is indicative of larger personal and societal struggles.
Image Source: Guerrila Girls
These are just a few women who have challenged the patriarchy and won. While the canon of art history is still dominated by men, the scale is continuing to balance out. Due to groups like the Guerrilla Girls, the question regarding this subject has been changed from “Why haven’t there been more great women artists in history?” to instead, “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout history?”
This distinction has led to more scholars researching, discovering, and adding women to the canon. Eventually, and hopefully, there will not be a distinction between male or female artists; rather, we can just talk about great artists in a manner that is completely unrelated to gender.