Lottie Laserstein, Traute Washing, 1930
The first half of the 20th Century brought about a great change in the world, and ultimately its perception of women artist. Innovation was the theme of the times, and with such advances as the automobile, Einstein's theory of relativity and Freud's psychological discoveries, came a questioning of all traditional values and norms of society. (NMWA,1998) World Wars I and II brought men to the battlefields and women were stepping forward to take care of businesses as well as family, and women were demanding political rights with Women's Suffrage. The art world simultaneously experienced a drastic overhaul-the academies that had, for so long, defined the value of art became out-dated, and a myriad of new styles emerged. Women artist abandoned the limiting images of home and family, and for the first time, used the image of the nude in their art. This was a great accomplishment for not only women artist, but for women in general. They did not paint the traditional, patriarchal-designed image of a woman lounging languidly, as though in wait of a man to seduce her. Instead, they claimed their own image, and depicted women who were not necessarily beautiful, but that were real, such as Lottie Laserstein's image of an older, athletic woman at work ( see image 3) and Suzanne Valadon's image of a pubescent girl (see image 4). Neither carries the sensual overtones found in the traditional nudes. another manipulation of the nude is found in the work of Alice Neel, who portrays a man suffering from tuberculosis- quite a role reversal in the depiction of the vulnerable nude. (NMWA, 1998) These works, however, were unappreciated for much of their lives-they were seen as unattractive and unnecessary contributions to the art world. Again, women were not afforded the recognition they deserve.
Toward the second half of the 20th Century, men were back from the wars, and after gaining a place, however small, for themselves in the art world as well as the business world, women were again relegated to the households and family. Abstract Expressionism emerged at this time, and true to history, men were at the forefront of the movement.(Heller,163) Though women were great contributors to the genre, their male contemporaries again obscured them. For example, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Dorothy Dehner, perhaps the most prominent of the female abstract expressionists, were never treated with the same honor and aspect as artist as their "master" husbands, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and David Smith, respectively. (NMWA, 1998) Women, tired of being chastised and patronized when a man's artwork was praised for its brilliance and ingenuity, were beginning to chaff restlessly at being overlooked and unappreciated. A change was imminent.
That change was manifested in the form of the seventies, a decade which brought the women's movement and a demand for change. Women decided that if society as a whole would not support their art, they would support each other's. Associations like the Women's Caucus for Art provided venues for women's art, allowing them the visibility that they for so long have been denied (art museums present an average of 15% women in curated exhibits, and a mere 4% of museum acquisitions are works by women artist). This organization and those like it were a major proponent in "bringing women out of their studios"(Brodsky, 1997,p.1) and give them a voice in the art world at large.
There were also specific artists who brought women's art into visibility. Judy Chicago (1939- ) took advantage of the voice women had found with the emergence of the feminist movement, honoring women artists of the past who, for so long, had gone without recognition. One of her most famous, and controversial works was a large, multi-artist project called"The Dinner Party (see image ) This was a triangular table with thirty-nine place settings, each for a woman that history had forgotten, from Earth Mother Gaia to Georgia O'Keeffe. Each place setting had an intricately embroidered place mat, with china place settings, to honor the "unsigned" art that women have created for centuries. Each plate was fashioned into a stylized image of the female genitalia, introducing controversy into this landmark piece. The titles at the center of the table and those at the base bore the names of 999 women artist who have been overlooked by history.("The Dinner Party,"1998)
Finally, women had gained the recognition that they had so long pursued. They had finally broken free of the confines of "men's" art, and created art that was wholly their own, one that spoke with the female voice- A voice that had for so long been silenced. Sadly, this has ultimately proved to be hampering to women artist of recent years, as it seems now that all art created by women is regarded only in the light of her gender identity, and society is failing to see that what creates a women's identity encompasses far more than simply her gender. She has an ethic history,spiritual belief's, a political stature and a personality that act as the foundation of her person. She is the sum of her experiences, and we can not ignore this fact any more than we can ignore her gender. So- The evaluation of the feminine artist is far from complete and there are new frontiers of issues to be addressed and resolved. Women will always be valuable contributors to the art world. They need to be honored for what they bring to the world du to their individual experiences, rather than be criticized for their inability to conform.