Reconsider Evidence

Katy Deepwell in an e-mail interview with Rudolfine Lackner (1)

Katy Deepwell is an Art Historian, founder and editor of n.paradoxa: international
feminist art journal http://www.ktpress.co.uk/. She recently published: ‹Women Artists between the Wars: ‘A fair field and no favour’› (Manchester University
Press, 2010) and a ‘Twelve Step Guide to Feminist Art History and Criticism’ (download on: http://www.ktpress.co.uk/ [March 2011]

Rudolfine Lackner: Dear Katy, in an e-mail conversation we had in 2008, you mentioned, “I wrote a history of the Society of Women Artists who started in 1855 in Britain, and were similar to the VBKÖ, but never campaigned for women and never raised sufficient money to own their own building. The only other group who managed to do this in Scotland was the Glasgow Society of Women Artists (started in 1888) and the Danish Women Artists Union in Copenhagen.” This remark gives a short insight into the diversity of actions by the first collectively and politically engaged generations of women artists. It refers to huge international networks, consisting of programmatic counter-institutional activisms, which fought against the unequal and discriminatory professional status of women artists and the inaccessibility to education and the art world. They were, more or less, closely connected to the women’s rights or liberation movements. However, something like a naming of a first/historic/feminist/women’s art movement, whatever we would like to call it for now, doesn’t exist on any level whatsoever. What is your opinion on that?

Katy Deepwell: I think we should be critical of the late 19th century as our tradition of international activity or as feminist foremothers. The first initiatives were educational schools for women to rival the academies in major European cities, and because they were initiated at the time in which many independent art schools were established (1850-1900), some had an ‘alternative’ agenda, but very few challenged the model of excellence which the academy represented. Most simply wanted women to take part and show what they were capable of. The first women artists’ societies were either an attempt to recognize women artists in the form of a separate academy or as an artists’ group and they were a push for visibility and exhibition space, but this was more about having a parallel female-specific (women-only) institution to the dominant male institutions of the day. The arguments that women were different or could produce something different remain very confused by different feminine stereotypes. Throughout, women continued to compete for exhibition space in the mainstream and some distanced themselves from other women regarding their activities as a group as ‘amateurish’ (nothing changes!). While there were political feminists in all these women artists’ groups, the character and activity of the group as they developed often did not reflect these aspirations, and the press continued to receive these works with a very ambivalent agenda, often seeing them as second rate or mediocre or the ‘weaker sex’. Some press reports linked the assertion of a female identity, or women’s exhibition space with the assertion for women’s rights but this is very ambivalently expressed – and what we don’t have a clear picture of – from diaries or letters – is women’s own attitudes and aspirations at that time in founding these organisations. That so many women in different European centres had an idea to do the same and organize separate exhibition spaces, academies and societies is significant as it indicates the spread of ideas, but it is not really a network, more a range of local or national initiatives.

Rudolfine Lackner: A first historic/feminist/women’s art movement still does not exist. Moreover, even though I am aware of the constructive realm query may contain, let me put it this way – besides plurals in the breadthways, there is no linear plural in terms of a first/historic and a new/second feminist/women’s art movement. It’s as if the feminist art movement of the 1960s/70s never had a history: no movement history; no political art history. Do you also think that a fundamental discussion, interrogation, re-mapping or re-positioning of the art movements and their political, as well as their artistic, practices is missing?

Katy Deepwell: The first wave of a women’s art movement, parallel to the first wave of political activity in terms of campaigns for the vote and political rights in the second half of the 19th century, does not exist in the same fashion because of the situation described above. There is a kind of divorce or gap between the first and second wave, if we define the first as the late 19th century and the second as from the 1970s. There is nevertheless more than 60 years in the first part of the 20th century in which many things changed and many movements or activities amongst women took place, as well as some fundamental re-definitions of what role art played in cultural life. The situation for women artists changed alongside the major changes in women’s secondary and college education and women’s work in many fields of paid employment. The difficulty for historians is: were these changes in women’s position the result of economic imperatives? Were these changes the result of pressure from women? Were these changes visible in terms of the work women artists produced during the 20th century? The problem for feminist art historians is identifying the contribution women made to the numerous avant-garde movements and groups of which they continued to be included, but largely as minority members of groups. There were increasing numbers of women artists in the 20th century and they had amazing and spectacular personalities with huge and interesting oeuvres. Do we want a history of individual great women artists – isolated and focused on their biography or the cult of artists as excessive personalities, or do we want a normalisation of women as professional artists moving away from this 19th century idea of the woman artist as perpetually marginalised, inferior, epitome of the feminine – and a greater understanding of women’s contribution to culture in terms of their work, creativity and imagination?

Rudolfine Lackner: During the research process for the project ‘Movement Politics. The Revolution Is Longer Than We Think’, an enormous international plurality of movement legacies, programs, strategies and ideas of the past centuries appeared, but no debates or articulations of – let’s say – ‘complete’ feminist/women’s art movements histories (in the constructed sense mentioned above). A fairly undiscussed complex theoretical body of questions could be related to this kind of fragmented, seemingly hegemonic communication of science. Would you agree or what are your thoughts on these observations?

Katy Deepwell: I agree with you that the movement is longer than we think, but we should remember it is also an invention or rather a cultural construction. It is a useful fiction through which many activities have been organised. It has been a major contribution of the second wave to link its activities to the first wave of suffragette resistance and to initiate a new idea of histories between women, women’s history as a subject and generate a new discipline, Women’s Studies – which would open up new analysis of the position of women. Feminist art history since the 1970s made this contribution alongside women’s history and Women’s Studies as well as the changing discipline of art history itself. There are peculiarities in feminist art history in terms of its national focus in many different contexts and cultures, a recovery-based museum and object-based focus; however, the trend since the late 1980s has been to link women’s studies to feminist theory, and in doing so, it has been dispersed as an autonomous field by the emerging focus on queer studies, postcolonial studies and visual culture. Neither trend has been very good at mapping feminist art practices in the field of contemporary art and both have made various attempts to present women’s art practices since the 1970s with varying degrees of success, largely in monographic studies of individual women artists. I don’t agree that we will reach a ‘complete’ feminist history of women’s art movements – there remains much to discover, reinterpret and find out. What we have lost, which still remains vitally necessary, is the imperative for historical research and the need to preserve and value material about women’s histories. There is a huge and largely unexplored body of archival material on women’s art practices in the last 100 years held by museums and women’s cultural resource centres – but there is a lot which has been discarded or lost, because individuals felt it had no value. Are women prepared to invest in this history of culture today over and above standing in line for a blockbuster exhibition on a solo woman artist?

Rudolfine Lackner: You just published a new book, ‘Women Artists between the Wars: ‘A fair field and no favour’’ (Manchester University Press, 2010) and a ‘Twelve Step Guide to Feminist Art History and Criticism’ on http://www.ktpress.co.uk/. [March 2011] The first one focuses on a topic, which, in my opinion, is also generally much too unseen. The guide is potentially an n.paradoxa-tour-de-force towards a better understanding of feminism’s art histories. Could you please tell us more about each production?

Katy Deepwell: These are two different attempts to kick-start the conversation amongst women. The first is a 300 page book which is the result of 20 years of my own research on women artists in the 1920s and 1930s in Britain. The works discussed are in museums and art galleries, the artists exhibited in the major exhibitions of this period. The work of the selective tradition rendered them invisible and has largely forgotten their contribution, with the exception of a few ‘magnificent exceptions’. The book analyses the evidence of women artists’ involvement in the professional art world against the myths of the selective tradition. It uncovers women’s contribution as one third of major exhibiting groups of the period and analyses how the press negated and dismissed their contribution in various ways, largely through different forms of cultural stereotyping of the genres in which they worked or their personalities. Art history in Britain just repeated these assertions without re-examination and sealed their fate. The book is an attempt to reopen the field and push this conservative area of the discipline to reconsider the evidence.

The online self-help guide is a different attempt to interest a new internet-based audience in feminist art history as well as in n.paradoxa. There are so many publications on women’s art now that people don’t know where to start, what issues to engage with, nor do they have any sense of debates which have happened. The guide is a starting point, it is not a syllabus. It is written as a self-help guide – as this is the primary tradition of feminist education – go and find out yourself, use your discontent and disquiet to ask questions and educate yourself. It was written to open people’s interest in a field which is now 40 years old. I wrote it because information about feminist art is so weak online: museum pages, Wikipedia entries or blogs have really very little to offer. n.paradoxa’s website – now 14 years old – is an attempt to point people to the books on feminist art, the women’s resource centres, the websites and magazines which have been published alongside its own publication of new research and articles in the form of a journal, online and in print. However, information is one thing, strategies for interpreting work, understanding the premises of feminist art history, knowing why basic questions still remain important, this is what I hope the guide simply and poignantly could remind people of.

Rudolfine Lackner: How would you connect both of these works to the achievements of the rich and groundbreaking past, present and future within feminist art movement politics?

Katy Deepwell: These new publications are part of my ongoing commitment to writing about the work of women artists as a feminist art critic and art historian. These are my individual contributions, but they sit alongside my commitment to n.paradoxa as a forum for new debates where others publish their work. n.paradoxa remains the only international feminist art journal in the world, because it publishes in every volume contributions by women writers from all over the world which question the work of women artists through the lens of feminist theory.

1  This e-mail interview, from October 2010, was a 5-questions-5-answers concept. It did not include changes or rearrangements afterwards.
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