Women in Art


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Art speaks in multiple ways no other things can. It is literature for eyes. Women have utilized art in revolutionary styles to express their struggles, cultures, and of course, beauty. These are only a few of the characteristics recognizing their efforts.

From handprints in cave paintings, self portraits bearing beautiful, brimming dresses, 20th century surrealism, and contemporary creative minds, women have graced the art world in dynamic ways. Through art, a sense of independence and power has given women a different kind of voice.

Art dates back to prehistoric times when women would create pottery, textiles, baskets, and jewelry. Much of the art cultivated in the early years was presumed to be by male artists because signatures weren’t present on art pieces, and there was nothing to prove otherwise.

In the 11th and 12th centuries in Europe, women contributed primarily to the art world as patrons. Women would work alongside men on embroideries, manuscript illustrations and stained glass, according to CSULB art history associate professor, Mariah Proctor-Tiffany.

“As time goes on we see more and more signatures but many times you don’t. There certainly were women who were nuns artists but it was largely men’s work,” said Proctor-Tiffany. “There are examples of women who were running the workshops but...we have a lot of more hard evidence of female patrons.”

Hildegard of Bingen was one woman who was a mystic of the day and received revelation. People read her books about having visions of what it was like to be at the birth of Jesus like it was scripture.

“She was really a fabulous woman. She was a gardener, musician, philosopher; she did lots of different things,” Proctor-Tiffany said. “She is depicted in art with flames coming out of her head, representing her having revelations.”

Next came the ‘20s with revolutionary artists like Lee Krasner and Frida Kahlo, who began to frame more of the contemporary standard for today’s art.

Kahlo and her paintings are amongst some of the most iconic and distinguishable images today. The prominence of her being, as well as the independence shown through her art, has given women today a timeless influence.

A woman of European and Mexican indigenous heritage, Kahlo turned to painting after a life-threatening accident at age 18 made attending medical school impossible. At 22, she married the well-established painter and muralist Diego Rivera.

“In her lifetime she became internationally known as an artist in her own right, but after she died, her work [like that of so many other women artists] disappeared from public view,” writes Evelyn Torton Beck, a women’s studies professor at the University of Maryland in her essay, “Kahlo’s World Split Open.” “She was rediscovered by feminist scholars in the second wave of the women’s movement and has since become an ‘icon’ with a wide, international audience.”

The progression of women during the feminist movement also had a lot to do with how women could or couldn’t express themselves. For many who didn’t feel that they had a voice, art was the primary and best way for them to be heard. We often fail to acknowledge those who stay quiet, and many times those people, the observers, have the best insight.

CSULB graphic design associate professor Mike Whitlow points Mary Wells as a heavy game-changer in advertising of the ‘60s.

“Mary Wells was one of the main women who was doing big work for advertising agencies in New York,” Whitlow said. “Her background in theatre was one thing that she brought into the advertising world.”

In the “Mad Men” days of New York, Wells started her own agency, Wells Rich Greene in 1966 and was a part of the beginning of the creative renaissance for advertising. According to Whitlow, this was a breakthrough for a woman at the time.

“She was one of first ones to introduce acting into commercials and she brought theatrical feel to commercials. She recommended [adding] color to companies like Pan Am,” Whitlow said. “She changed…and redesigned the company.”

Despite the radical changes since the 20th century, modern women continue to utilize art as a way to express their cultures, renegade against politics and continue the story of the women’s movement. 13