We’re living through an unprecedented age for women, where women artists — both historical and contemporary — are receiving more high profile, mainstream attention than ever before.
But if there’s one thing we have to get right when we talk about these historical women artists, it’s that their exclusion from art history is no mistake. Unfortunately, much of the language that surrounds their retroactive inclusion — through museum retrospectives, new biographies, and increasing market interest — makes it seem as if their systematic erasure has been a fluke of history, rather than an intentional sidelining.
Few words frustrate me more on this subject than the use of the word “forgotten” when applied to an artist’s legacy, as the word expresses a passivity that obscures the reality of these women’s stories. I prefer the more accurate “erased,” which denotes an effort to rub out what was there. (Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning Drawing” (1953), after all, was a deliberately symbolic action intended to declare the old guard dead.)
Over the past five centuries there have been countless women artists who were well known in their moment, only to be erased when it came time to write the history books. One of these is Edmonia Lewis.
The recent announcement of a new USPS stamp featuring a portrait of the American sculptor inspired a spate of headlines — from The Guardian to the Oberlin Review — which made use of the term “forgotten” to describe this remarkable artist’s life.
So who was Edmonia Lewis? And how did we “forget” her?
A half Black, half Ojibwe woman, she built an international reputation as a sculptor in the Neoclassical style. Lewis eventually established herself in Rome after enduring several incidents of racism and discrimination in the United States, particularly while enrolled at Oberlin College. People lined up to see her sculptures, and her studio was a place of pilgrimage for Americans abroad.
So how could Lewis go from drawing crowds at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition to being buried in an unmarked grave in London 30 years later? Could an internationally recognized artist (whose marble works displaying an exceptional range of human emotion would’ve been hard to ignore), simply be “forgotten” like a footnote someone left out of a historical text?
Could it be that after her death her novelty wore off, and the revanchist sociopolitical reality of a post-Reconstruction US had no use for a successful woman of her heritage? Sometimes the public forgets, but at other times institutions use language to distance themselves from the past. I was disappointed to see advertisements for the Museum of Modern Art’s current retrospective of Dadaist Sophie Taeuber-Arp, which entices its audience by calling her “a shapeshifting artist you probably don’t know … yet.”
The appeal of this campaign, of course, is the shock that so intriguing an artist could be unknown. The “yet” offers a correction — you don’t know this artist, but we’ll show her to you. “You’re welcome!” it seems to shout. But lurking behind this ad campaign is the role MoMA has played in the public’s ignorance.
To understand this fully, we must revisit the museum’s storied first director Alfred H. Barr, famous for his flowcharts of art movements progressing inevitably toward abstraction, which was the museum’s foundational understanding of modern art and, therefore, its own programming.
Dada has pride of place in this chart, evidenced by the influential 1936 MoMA show, Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, which displayed over 700 objects across four floors. Its press release claimed the show would “present in an objective and historical manner the principal movements of modern art.”
If Taeuber-Arp is worthy of a retrospective today, then where was she in 1936? The literature on the earlier show is telling: Taeuber-Arp has only two pieces in the catalog and her name is listed in the index as a “member of Zurich Dada group … [who] did murals and decorations … [is the] wife of Hans Arp.” Arp on the other hand is listed as a “founder of Zurich Dada” and cited frequently in the movement’s timeline. He is never mentioned as her husband.
Through the lens of MoMA’s early history, its self-congratulatory advertising which corrects an error the institution made 85 years ago, rings hollow.
Not unlike a retrospective, a biography is a monumental undertaking, capable of shifting public appreciation of an individual or movement. As there is a paltry number of biographies on women artists and an even smaller number of scholarly books on the work of women artists of color, their addition to the literature of art history fills glaring gaps in the historical record, though the language surrounding these, too, can feel begrudging.
For example, Irene Gammel’s 2002 biography of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, the (disputed) inventor of the readymade, received this muted praise from the New York Times’s Holland Cotter: “The Baroness,” he wrote, “could not have asked for a more thoughtful and engaged monument.” I wonder: do the individuals who shape history need to ask to be included in its writing?
And lest you think language like this is isolated to the early 21st century, Leonora Carrington’s biography, written by her great-niece Joanna Moorhead, elicited an equally condescending blurb in 2017: “She is lucky to have found such a memorialist,” wrote Peter Conrad in The Guardian.
Whether in print or a museum text, the message is clear: Women have to ask permission to be a part of art history and are lucky when they are included. Their revival is now met with a pat on the back for certain institutions while the erasure of their legacies is treated like a clerical error.
Language like this does nothing to implicate the system that created the current state of affairs. It lets everyone off the hook at a moment when we need to understand how and why we got here. If we don’t, the crimes of the past will undoubtedly be repeated in the present.
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