“The famous query by feminine artist and art historians goes, ‘Why haven’t there been more great women artists throughout western history?’ The Guerilla Girls want to restate the question: “Why haven’t more women been considered great artists throughout western history?'”
The Guerrilla Girls Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art is chock full of witty insights, stories behind the stories, and relevant facts about women artists of days gone by. Broken down into chapters according artistic eras (Classical, Middle Ages, the Renaissance, etc.), this book chronicles the continuing plight for recognition of women through the history of art all the way to the twentieth century.
While this book is broadly based on feministic theory, it is interesting enough to appeal to all art history buffs – men and women alike.
And the Guerrilla Girls are not just blowing smoke, either. Sprinkled throughout the text are supporting quotes, insights and actual records from observers and artists alike, plus a heaping-helping of “altered” art works from history that have mysteriously had gorilla masks added to them – a trademark of the Guerrilla Girls.
The Guerrilla Girls, who several years ago anonymously published Confessions of the Guerrilla Girls, which exposed bigotry in the art world, are back at it. Smattering the pages are numerous pithy, pop-art style posters and graphics with their own minute captions, like: “Why did so few art historians mention me in their survey books?” (Artemisia Gentileschi) or “Why is the museum of Modern Art more interested in African Art than in art by African-Americans?” (Alma Thomas).
Quotes abound in this slim yet comprehensive tutorial. The Guerrilla Girls chose wisely among their references, highlighting bigotry, sexism and beliefs as they pertained to the discussed era. The supporting information is woven seamlessly into context, and the book on the whole is a compelling read.
There is a several-pages-long section on the rape of Artemisia Gentileschi and the subsequent trial of her attacker (who was also her father’s apprentice), with quotes from actual trial documents in 1612, which is quite interesting. As is the Guerrilla Girls take on why Tintoretto suddenly stopped producing works of art after the sudden death of his daughter, Maria Robusti, in 1590. The Ladies don Gorilla masks and proclaim that, “Since the works of Tintoretto and Robusti are indistinguishable, and he signed them all, we don’t think he lost his will (to paint), we think he lost his secret weapon! (Robusti, an exceptional painter herself).”
Personally, I was moved while reading this book – sometimes even outraged at how an artist was treated (or ignored) merely on the basis of her sex. What is worse, though, is that many men from history would publically proclaim women artists inferior, then go home and steal their daughters’ paintings, sign their own manly names, and take all the praise for being such a great “master” artist. Truly disgusting.
I started this book thinking, “Oh, I hope I can get past all this feminist chanting and enjoy the history within the pages.” (Yes, I am a woman!) But I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the book – feminism and all. In fact, radical viewpoints often don’t feel as “preachy” when it is so obvious that they have very firm ground to stand on.
One particular poster reproduction that graces the back cover is of a nude, reclining woman who is wearing the trademark gorilla mask. Beside her in bold print is the question, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” and smaller print below that states, “Less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” Enough said.
I recommend this book to anyone who likes to read the “other side” of history – the events little-known and talked about – as well as for anyone remotely interested in uncovering the great women artists from Western history. Enjoy!