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The Bay Area Reporter


Provocative Women

by Sura Wood


16 October 2014

Diane Arbus (left) and Dorothea Tanning 2 (right), 2014, oil on paper by Annie Kevans. Photo: Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery




Two new exhibitions put female artists front and center, where they belong and deserve to be in far greater numbers.


Annie Kevans: Women and the History of Art at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery addresses the disparity between the representation of female artists and their male counterparts in public consciousness and the sexist annals of art history. Kevans, a hot British painter in her early 40s, was spurred to tackle this subject, in part, by discovering that only 5% of London galleries allocate equal space to male and female artists. Generally speaking, the majority of precious exhibition real estate, in both museums and galleries, remains the province of men. Fine art is certainly not the only male-dominated arena – the film industry and the paucity of female directors comes to mind – but that doesn't make the statistics any less disgraceful in our supposedly enlightened modern era.


The show, a portion of a larger ongoing project, is comprised of 23 straightforward, uniformly-sized, bust-length, oil-on-paper portraits of accomplished but overlooked or underappreciated women artists from the 16th century onward who were recognized in their lifetimes but then largely forgotten. (Frida Kahlo, Diane Arbus, Eve Hesse and Mary Casatt are among the exceptions.) The artwork, based on the artists' self-portraits, composites of existing images, or the product of Kevans' imagination, is traditional, but it's the women's stories, outlined in brief bios accompanying the pictures, that give the show its weight and provocative edge.


Kevans is no stranger to thought-provoking work. Her previous series include Boys, portraying youths who grew into ruthless dictators; The Muses of Jean Paul Gaultier; and All the Presidents' Girls, which resurrects the mistresses and slaves of past presidents. Here, she advances a feminist critique without being pedantic, providing a corrective to a record primarily authored by men who saw fit to leave women out of the canon. Some of the artists, such as Frida Kahlo, initially achieved recognition through their associations with or marriage to famous male artists. Kahlo, as Kevans points out, was better-known as Diego Rivera's wife until feminism came along in the 1970s and helped elevate her stature. Having a well-known husband wasn't always a plus. Impressionist Marie Bracquemond pursued her craft and made her mark despite jealousy and competitiveness from her husband, Felix, a fellow painter who disapproved of Impressionism and was a bit of a pill. Evidently, there was room for only one star in the family. Renowned 16th-century Italian painter Lavinia Fontana charged exorbitant fees for her altarpieces and portraits of popes, all while raising 11 children. The first woman painter to be admitted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts, Suzanne Valadon would have been a circus acrobat if she hadn't fallen from the flying trapeze. She's still better-known as muse to Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, though the latter artist supported her talent and made his studio available to her.


Many women faced obstacles their male peers did not, but somehow prevailed. African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis (1843-1911), who often depicted Abolitionists and civil rights leaders, was not only accused of murder when she was a college student, but was also labeled a hoax. Undeterred by sexism or racism, she was a financial success by 22, and disproved her critics by carving a block of marble in front of an audience. Artemesia Gentileschi, an important 16th-century Italian Baroque painter and polemical figure among feminist historians, produced passionate paintings characterized by strong bonds between women. Gentileschi approached her subjects in startling ways, often giving women the dominant power position. Real life was a different story. Apprenticed early on to Agostino Tassi, an artist and convicted murderer who raped her, she was tortured before testifying at his trial; he was acquitted.


History and the art world haven't given most of these successful women their due. Kevans means to change that. 


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