Women Can’t Paint: Gender, the Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art, by Helen G?rrill

Emma Rees applauds a detailed analysis of how women are sidelined in the art world – and how they can fight back

June 15, 2020
Young female lithography worker holding a sign "underestimated"
Source: Istock

The trauma of 2020 will scar the collective memory. While cancelled plans are trivial in the grand, existential scheme of things, they can still be experienced as loss. My students now inhabit a liminal, digital world where seminars, lectures and even doctoral vivas are simulacra – poor relations of the enriching experiences they should have been.

October is now chock-full of rescheduled events: my plans, like those of so many others, have been significantly altered. One talk I?was due to give, which is still on ice, was at London’s National Gallery for its major exhibition of works by the Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi. Ben Luke, writing in The?Art Newspaper, talked about the significance of the postponement of exhibitions such as this one: “Major shows by male artists dominated the London museum landscape before the crisis,” he wrote, “now women and non-binary artists are missing their turn.”

One intervention into this “museum landscape”, and into the art scene more broadly, is Helen G?rrill’s passionate and provocative Women Can’t Paint. Her bête?noire and motivation for writing this study of gender inequality in the modern art world is Georg Baselitz, himself a painter of large, ugly abstract canvases. “It’s a fact,” he told Der?Spiegel in 2013. “Women don’t paint very?well.”

The book draws on a database G?rrill has built up of 3,000 (mainly British) paintings, and on her interviews with artists. The mixture of quantitative methods (the “tornado charts” dotted through the book reflect the nearly 10,000 data points she has created) and qualitative ones allows for a deep dive into the many reasons why women’s paintings are valued – in every sense of the word – less than those by men.

There are some dry but nonetheless informative graphs that compare, for example, prices per square centimetre of image sold, or that show how, in the 1990s, “the painting of people could be described as majority-feminine or feminine and the painting of places as majority-masculine or masculine”. G?rrill’s objective is to identify the “androgynization” of techniques which took place after that, to prove that “a?differential painting aesthetics” is a fiction stemming from, and perpetuating, the misogynist tradition maintained by Baselitz and his ilk.

Complaining about an entrenched situation is one thing, but complaint is productive only when a?viable alternative is articulated, and it’s here that G?rrill’s work really hits its stride. There’s an energy to her call to arms that the graphs and charts fail to convey. In her seven-point manifesto, she offers achievable proposals to bring about gender equality in all aspects of the art world.

The points range from revisiting employment strategies in universities so that more women can act as role models to seeking gender quotas for esteemed awards such as the Turner Prize. She also wants others to embrace quantitative methodologies in feminist visual arts research. “Numbers”, she claims, a?little tenuously, “have been the basis of some of the greatest art in our history.”

Despite some infelicities such as the irritating duplication of paragraphs at different points in the book and spelling theorists’ names incorrectly (Roxane Gay and Nicole Ward Jouve, among others), Women Can’t Paint is a sound exposé of the systematic vilification of art by women.

Emma Rees is professor of literature and gender studies at the University of Chester, where she is director of the Institute of Gender Studies.


Women Can’t Paint: Gender, the Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art
By Helen G?rrill
Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 296pp, £75.00 and £25.99
ISBN 9781788310802 and 9781501359033
Published 6 February 2020

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