GEORGIA O’KEEFFE AND THE DEBATE OVER FEMALE ARTISTS
Jimson weed/White Flower No. 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 from 1932 sold at Sotheby’s in New York the other day for over $44 million. This was a record for a work by O’Keeffe, whose most expensive work to date had been a painting sold at Christie’s in 2001 for a mere $5.6 million. It was also the most ever paid for a work by a woman artist, the previous record held by Après le Déjeuner by the brilliant impressionist painter Berthe Morisot from 1881 which made £6,985,250 back in 2013. Fourty-four million dollars may sound like a lot and it is certainly a huge leap from Morisot’s price but it is nothing compared to the huge sums which works by the most popular male artists now sell by – Cezanne’s Card Players was bought for an incredible $259m in 2011, and Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust for $106.5m in 2010. Recently even they were left far behind by Paul Gauguin who’s Who Will You Marry made a staggaring $300 million. Morisot herself is massively undervalued by the art market – this radical and talented Impressionist was surely the equal of a Sisley, a Sickert or a Renoir. This fact that has ignited debate in the papers and amongst the art world as to why female artists are still undervalued by the market.
The fact that there were so few successful female artists up to and including Morisot’s time is easily explicable – there simply were almost no female artists, never mind successful ones. Women were barred from the essential academic artistic training afforded by art schools and academies. It was considered improper for a woman to paint a man (as this would require her to look at him) and female artists all too often had to make do with painting still lives, or other women and children within their domestic sphere. Whilst a formal training began to become less important with the advent of Impressionism and Post Impressionism, women still had no access to those places and their subjects that had begun to define the ‘modern’ – all too often areas of Paris where the different classes mixed. They couldn’t paint the prostitutes who were such frequent subject matter for Tolouse-Lautrec, or Manet, nor the working class laundrywomen and or the dancers drawn by Degas who like many men of his class, was able to pay them visits backstage and watch their training. By it’s very nature the definition of a modernist painting excluded works by female artists who were confined to the suburbs and to their homes.
By the time the public idea of the modern, avant grade artist was fully formed, this stereotype (perhaps inhibited most perfectly by the very macho Jackson Pollock) was so inherently male that it simply couldn’t encompass a female artist. Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt were to my mind two of the very best of the Impressionist painters but are the least known. Georgia O’Keeffe is typical of many female artists of the twentieth century who either felt excluded from the main avant garde artistic movement of the day – for instance the wonderful German Dadaist artist Hannah Höch whose retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery has just drawn glowing reviews from the art critics but, one suspects, not very large audiences – or who didn’t feel any identity with it and instead ploughed their own furrow. O’Keeffe’s paintings were certainly modernist, but still largely figurative – wonderful wide landscapes of the wild New Mexico desert. It didn’t help perhaps that O’Keeffe’s most common subject matter was flowers – that great female stereotype – but her flowers were different: huge, abstracted, and ambiguous….often interpreted as expressions of her sexuality.
Artnet News recently canvassed opinions from a number of contemporary female gallery owners and artists on the question of whether or not the art world still persistently undervalues women artists. There were a couple of funny, short responses (‘Hahaha…Is the Pope Catholic?’ from artist Marilyn Minter, and even better ‘Two words: Jeff Koons’ from Roxanna Zarnegar, Senior Vice President, of artnet Auctions and Private Sales.) Many longer replies made the point that art museums and galleries are still run in the vast majority by men, despite the fact that art history today is an overwhelmingly female dominated subject. Women apparently run just a quarter of the biggest art museums in the US and Canada and earn less than a third of their male counterparts there. As one of the women surveyed noted, running a gallery is a full-on job requiring frequent trips abroad to Biennales and other art fairs which may preclude women bringing up a family, and that ‘many women who are on the cusp of senior positions are also of the age when they want to have families, and the societal mechanisms are not in place to support this, especially in the US, with its lack of state-subsidized maternity leave or child care.’ You could say the same for virtually any industry too.