Sixteen years ago, I wrote an article for a short-lived women’s art magazine called Make responding to a complaint on the letters page that only childless women could succeed as artists. Off the top of my head, I immediately thought of half a dozen artists who disproved this rule and I interviewed them for a piece called A Woman’s Work. They included Shani Rhys-James, Evelyn Williams, Susan Wilson and Sarah Raphael. A quote from Raphael, who had just had a third child, appeared to clinch the argument: “Motherhood is such an overwhelming purpose that it has to be very powerful, the urge to do the other thing. It cuts the crap. I just haven’t got the time to sit around wondering what sort of artist I am. The kids get their trainers, that’s the main thing. I think it’s horseshit, personally, that you can’t be both.”
Gender studies have since moved on, along with definitions of mother and womanhood. We’ve had handbags at dawn between David Furnish – or was it Elton John? – and Domenico Dolce – or was it Stefano Gabbana? – over the dress designer’s suggestion that men can’t be proper Italian mammas, and Germaine Greer has been sent into purdah for refusing to recognise transgender women as women. This throws up some interesting artistic questions. If Caitlin Jenner re-reinvented herself as a woman artist, would she produce women’s art? Given that artists draw on their life experiences and Jenner’s, up till now, have been a man’s, her artistic perspective ought to be male. But who knows? These days there’s really no way of telling until s/he is imprisoned for violent assault, when a decision can be made according to the gender of the prison.
It’s legitimate to talk about ‘women’s fiction’ because women buy it, but is it invidious to talk about ‘women’s art’ when the vast majority of collectors with disposable incomes to spend on art are men? (Interestingly no one talks about ‘gay art’, perhaps because if you removed all the homosexuals from art history it would knock a huge hole, so to speak, in the male art pantheon.) We live in an increasingly touchy world. Such are our sensitivities on gender issues that some in the trans community – smaller than the community of giant pandas, but more visible – are calling for gender specification to be dropped from official forms. Since one of the presumed points of official forms is to ensure fairness, others in the feminist community have complained that this will make it harder, all things being unequal, to monitor sexual equality. No sex, no equality – we’re British.
It hardly seems worth getting one’s knickers in a twist when all the data on gender collected to date has had no visible impact on the only significant measure of equality, the pay packet. But now women artists have found a surprising champion in Charles Saatchi. The wife-throttling philanthropist has chosen to mark his gallery’s 30th anniversary with Champagne Life (until March 6th), an exhibition of 14 emerging women artists from around the world. In the wake of the gallery’s recent series of exhibitions of contemporary art from Africa and Latin America, Russia, Germany, the Middle East and China, comes a show of art from the planet Venus. Any Martian glancing through the recent programme might be forgiven for thinking the female sex was a foreign country.
Aware of the problem, the show’s publicity stresses that it “does not offer an overarching vista of ‘female’ artistic practice, nor does it presume to state that there is such a thing”. There are plenty of people around, however, who assume there is. Most wouldn’t dare go as far as Brian Sewell and claim: “There has never been a first rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness”. But Sewell did agree with the Make magazine moaner: “Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”
Historically, this was obviously true. Greer’s The Obstacle Race is a catalogue of female artistic ambitions hobbled or snuffed out by childbearing; between domestic commitments to children, husbands, fathers and brothers, a woman’s work as an artist was never done. Equally damaging, in her view, was the imitative hero-worship squandered by women artists on male teachers or husbands – or both, in cases where love-struck women students married their masters. “The artistic ego is to most women repulsive in themselves, and compelling in men,” is Greer’s analysis of the situation. Or as Degas put it to Suzanne Valadon: “You must have more pride.”
Male ‘aesthetic greatness’ often goes with showing off; the problem is that the public can’t tell one from the other. Not being natural show-offs, women artists are too easily diverted from the self-satisfaction of making reputations by the deeper satisfaction of making things. “No artistic success has given me as much pleasure,” said Liubov Popova, “as the sight of a peasant buying a length of material designed by me.” The artist of ambition, argues Greer, “must have a masterful attitude not only to his subject, but also to the beholder whose attention he claims”. This, she suggests, is why women have tended to work small.
Not any longer. There are no small works in Champagne Life, with the exception of two little heads hanging amongst Jelena Bulajic’s monumental portraits of old women. Still in her 20s, this young Serbian artist – who had two paintings in last year’s RA Summer Exhibition – is something of a prodigy. Although shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award, her magnified grisaille faces showing every wrinkle are not photorealist: from close to, they break down into pointilliste confections of marble dust, ground granite and limestone, kaolin, graphite and charcoal. In terms of technique, most of the paintings in this show – from the densely patterned mythological images of American Mequitta Ahuja, executed in acrylic, coloured pencil, oil, watercolour and wax crayon on vellum, to the nude body landscapes of Korean Seung Ah Paik, with their perfect nipples stippled in pigment sealed with rabbit skin glue – are in a different class from the slapdash efforts of the mostly male artists in the gallery’s recent Pangaea exhibitions. These women artists take a pride in their work: they like making things.
Is it patronising of a male patron to stage a women-only exhibition? The Tate has been promoting women’s art, but only through safe solo shows of established artists. Saatchi, meanwhile, has brought together 14 strikingly different young women artists in a group exhibition whose effect, intentional or not, is to blow the idea of ‘women’s art’ out of the water. Yet on the most basic measure of equality – money – art by women still ranks a distant second. In 2014 the holy cow of American modernism, Georgia O’Keeffe, broke auction records for a woman artist with the sale of Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 for $44 million at Sotheby’s New York; the following year Picasso’s Women of Algiers sold for almost exactly four times as much at Christie’s. It puts the 20% gender pay gap in the workplace into proportion.
One glass ceiling leads to another. As long as the art market is dominated by male collectors on whom a sniff of senescent Picasso acts like rhino horn, nothing’s going to change. Saatchi’s gesture is welcome, but any celebration would be premature. Until women’s work commands equal prices, the champagne can stay on ice.