Challenging The Male Graze - Guerrilla Girls in Glasgow
Do women need to be naked to get into your favourite art museum? As part of The Male Graze initiative, Guerrilla Girls are calling on feminists across the nation to count the number of women artists exhibited in a space versus the number of female nudes on display. Do Glasgow's artworks add up? My first visit was to The Hunterian Art Gallery, a location that always brings back fond memories of my Art History MLitt days. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, the gallery itself is accessible and continually evolving... but like many art museums, the stats suggest that further work needs to be done in embedding feminism into every wall.
Unfortunately, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Hunterian’s famous Mackintosh House was closed on the day I visited, meaning that there was no opportunity to view and therefore count the amazing Art Nouveau creations of Margaret and Frances Macdonald. Instead, the main exhibition in the gallery at the moment is one on James McNeill Whistler - an icon of the Hunterian's collection and yet also an artist whose work proves problematic when viewed from a feminist perspective. The highest number of female nudes by far appeared as part of Whistler's oeuvre - many in sketch form, perhaps reflecting the historic idea that drawing women in a state of undress is a rite-of-passage for male artistic development (if one was truly dedicated to studying the human form, however, why not incorporate male nudes too)? Troublingly, I also noticed that many of the Whistler artworks that featured female nudity were those inspired by Japan or what would (offensively) have been termed in his time 'Orientalism': a reduction and even fetishisation of Women of Colour that I suspect other Male Graze counts will also come across in Western art history. A space within the gallery is dedicated to Beatrice Whistler, James Whistler's wife, and it was wonderful to see this recognition of her own talents - interestingly, she also depicted women in several of her artworks, although every one of them was clothed!
Another especially admirable exhibition within the Hunterian when I visited was Edwin Morgan: An Eardley on My Wall, exploring Edwin Morgan's love for Joan Eardley's artwork and including several pieces that were originally in the poet's home. Every time I visited this gallery during my university studies, I always sought out a magnificent Catterline seascape by Joan Eardley, Salmon Nets and the Sea: a visceral, immersive artwork that even features real sand from the coastline on which she worked. Sadly, this piece seemed to have been moved to facilitate the Whistler show, and while the Edwin Morgan exhibition did give strong recognition to Joan Eardley in its title - as well as featuring a literally 'sweet' artwork by her in the form of Sweet Shop, Rotten Row, which Morgan owned and inspired him to write his poem 'To Joan Eardley' - it would have been fantastic to see even more of her pieces as a visual mark of respect to her significance.
My final tally for the day was as follows:
Works by women artists: 18
Women artists exhibited: 5
Female nudes in artwork exhibited: 31
Fancy conducting your own count and highlighting how women artists across history deserve better? Visit your favourite art museum and log your results on The Male Graze website. May the odds be (eventually) in our favour, feminists!
Ps. In my humble if passionate opinion, there are some things that every art museum can do to both challenge historic misogyny and celebrate under acknowledged women artists:
Labels - The Male Graze has some intriguing suggestions for how exhibit labels can better represent the reality of life for the women depicted in many historic paintings, and I wholeheartedly agree that this is one concrete way in which museums can start to combat endemic sexism. The Hunterian did a strong job throughout of explaining who the women drawn or painted by Whistler were, and I'd like to see all museums achieve this and more: opening viewers' eyes to the reality of what life was like for women in centuries gone by, and exploring issues of inequality, poverty and consent that are likely to have been relevant to many 'muses' of men.
Hold Space - It's a tragic reality that for every woman artist we've heard of, a hundred or even a thousand never got the chance to fulfil their creative destiny because of the oppressive, patriarchal times in which they lived. If a classical museum is genuinely struggling to find enough women artists to adequately represent a time period (although don't forget those like Artemisia Gentileschi!) why not commemorate that absence? Silence speaks volumes and an empty wall or any other sort of creative acknowledgement could make for a moving tribute to the women whose stories were stolen by sexism.
Think Outside the Frame – As I noted above, it was a real pity that the Mackintosh House was unavailable to visit, because from past views I know that it features some incredible and inspiring creations by Margaret Macdonald in particular that incorporate textiles, gesso, metalwork and more. If we accept that the sad reality of historic misogyny means that avenues into the art world were off-limits for many women, in my view it becomes even more important that we have a broad attitude to what an artwork is. Hierarchies of media are weighed down with patriarchal assumptions, so approaching an object whether ‘art’ or ‘craft’ with open eyes (and an open heart) is critical to gaining a comprehensive sense of what human – and not just male – creativity can achieve.