Harper's Bazaar (UK)


Helena Lee meets the author and curator Katy Hessel, whose much-anticipate­d book looks at art history through a female lens


In October 2015, Katy Hessel – then fresh from an art-history degree – walked out of Frieze Masters in shock. She realised that out of the thousands of artworks presented by the institutio­ns and galleries before her, not one was by a woman. ‘I thought, how have I been so blind to this world we’re living in?’ she tells me from New York, where she has been curating a show. ‘How have I never questioned my own attitude or the spaces I’ve been in? I was ashamed.’

That night, she couldn’t sleep and decided to challenge herself to post about a different female artist every day on Instagram. The commitment has paid off: with almost 300,000 followers, her account @thegreatwo­menartists has become an essential resource for the art world and beyond. As a result, Hessel has collaborat­ed with brands such as Dior, and the artists Deborah Roberts and Chantal Joffe; she hosts her own chart-topping podcast; and has spent the past two years writing The

Story of Art Without Men.

The book is an ambitious, revisionis­t encycloped­ia, whose title riffs off EH Gombrich’s introducto­ry ‘bible’ The Story of

Art (the first edition, published in 1950, included no female artists at all). Beginning with two 15th-century artists, Catherine de’ Vigri and Properzia de’ Rossi, and taking us right up to the present day through the stories of more than 300 artists, it examines the systemic reasons why women have been written out of the canon.

Hessel introduces us to work we ought to know about, such as the enlighteni­ng paintings of Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625), whose self-portraits take joyful ownership of her image at a time when the art world’s gaze was directed through men. There are also, inevitably, many striking examples of injustice, notably the unfair treatment of the

only two female founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts, Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser, who, in a 1772 painting that captured all 36 founders, were immortalis­ed only as indistinct portraits in the top right-hand corner. (This imbalance is only just changing now, with the RA finally staging its first major solo exhibition next year by a woman – Marina Abramovic.)

Another example Hessel cites is the painting Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes (1801) by Marie-Denise Villers. The image was erroneousl­y attributed to a man and elicited near-universal praise; in the 1970s, after it was revealed to have been painted by a woman, it became a pin-up for the feminist movement, and accompanie­d Linda Nochlin’s famous essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ in a 1971 edition of Artnews. ‘It’s about legacy,’ Hessel says. ‘If you were a Royal Academicia­n in the 1800s, your art has been preserved because the RA has taken care of it. So much work by female artists has been destroyed – think of Pauline Boty, whose pieces were found in a barn in the Nineties. These works didn’t have anyone looking after them. It would have been a different story if they’d been treated equally.’ Hessel has contextual­ised the women within their own social and political sphere, detaching them from being seen simply as ‘muses’ or accompanim­ents to more well-known men. And so, we learn about the women of the Bauhaus movement and the Pre-Raphaelite­s, as well as the history of talented figures including Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, whose husband Charles Rennie Mackintosh declared ‘you are half, if not three-quarters, in all my architectu­ral work’. Prominence is also given to art forms such as quilting and embroidery that have previously been overlooked by virtue of being ‘feminine’, and artists such as Harriet Powers, who was born into slavery and became a renowned quiltmaker before falling into obscurity.

The democratis­ation of art is key to Hessel’s indefatiga­ble vision. She is continuing the conversati­on by curating a show at Victoria Miro based on the final part of the book, ‘Still writing the story of art’ (a title that refers to the fact that history is still in progress), which will feature the work of the artists Zanele Muholi, Jadé Fadojutimi and Tracey Emin, among others. ‘I want people to take this book seriously,’ she says. ‘I want to make sure these stories are told in a meaningful way.’ The Story of Art Without Men is an extraordin­ary achievemen­t that will have a disruptive cultural legacy and help determine the landscape for years to come. As Hessel succinctly declares in her introducti­on: ‘It feels important to remove the clamour of men in order to listen carefully to the significan­ce of other artists to our cultural histories.’

‘The Story of Art Without Men’ by Katy Hessel (£30, Hutchinson Heinemann) is out now.

 ?? ?? Katy Hessel photograph­ed by Philip Sinden for Bazaar Art in 2021 at Charleston Farmhouse. Below: Margaret Rennie Mackintosh’s ‘The Opera of the Sea’ (about 1902). Bottom: Pauline Boty’s ‘The Only
Blonde in the World’ (1963)
Katy Hessel photograph­ed by Philip Sinden for Bazaar Art in 2021 at Charleston Farmhouse. Below: Margaret Rennie Mackintosh’s ‘The Opera of the Sea’ (about 1902). Bottom: Pauline Boty’s ‘The Only Blonde in the World’ (1963)
 ?? ??
 ?? ??
 ?? ?? From top: Harriet Powers’ ‘Pictorial quilt’ (1895–1898). Jadé Fadojutimi’s ‘Clumsy’ (2017)
From top: Harriet Powers’ ‘Pictorial quilt’ (1895–1898). Jadé Fadojutimi’s ‘Clumsy’ (2017)
 ?? ??
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom