Why the Current Women’s Art Movement is Missing the Point

Women’s art cannot have a future without a history

 

 

Helen Frankenthaler like Malvina Hoffman an important 20th Century Artist
20th Century artist Helen Frankenthaler in her studio

 

The women’s art scene is heating up, along with a movement to promote LGBTQ and women-of-color artists. When I say artists, I mean creatives of every kind.    Bravo, I say, but, a question.  What happened to the former women who paved the path over the past centuries for our present-day movement? Read Why Buying Women’s Art A Good Investment I’ve been told these women were irrelevant, that they slept with their teachers and that gave them fame.  I was told this to my face.  Unless their names are  Georgia O’Keeffe or Frida Kahlo, there seems an incredible lack of interest to learn the stories of the other women who battled it out in the all-male trenches to provide contemporary creative women opportunity. Surely, we know more than a handful of women artists who are worthy of recognition in history? But, can you name them?   Give me twenty, I bet you cannot.  Now give me twenty men…snap.

At the turn of the 20th century, and throughout mid century, women artists were still an unusual sight.  Until marriage, a woman might study art, but it was mainly for refinement and most were subjugated to home and family after marriage – an important and worthy place, but with the expectancy to give up any dreams of a life in the arts.

Mary Cassatt one of the few early 20th century women artists remembered today
By Mary Cassatt. Commenting in American Artist, Gemma Newman noted that Mary Cassatt’s objective was to achieve force, not sweetness; truth, not sentimentality or romance. Her father objected to Cassatt living the bohemian life of an artist and would not support her education in art.

Which brings me to this story.  Women talk the talk about equality, but they don’t live it. I follow museum and gallery exhibitions, read digital marketing posts of creative women on the rise and can say, there is a lot of looking in the mirror and self-congratulatory rhetoric, but no contextual understanding of the authentic 360 degrees of reality. No history. Where do these emerging artists stand in the present tense in relation to those who came before them?  How are they honoring the past, while forging a new future? Or is the past dead and irrelevant, as I was told on several occasions?

Many women are online promoting themselves, “look at me,” but have no interest in supporting those who came before them.  Museum curators want youth, fresh ideas, new ways of seeing the world, and that is only right.  It feels many in the contemporary art scene, including the popular critics, don’t care to know the women who lived extraordinary lives or realize why or how  they changed everything.  These founding mothers of art have been pushed aside, thrown into museum’s forgotten, dark basement, archives.  It only takes one generation for an artist to be forgotten, and most of them are, with the intention of the mostly male gallery owners and curators, women.

Artists learn their craft from teachers first, through those who came before them. In the past, women mainly sought male teachers who generally viewed women as frivolous, problematic and sexual fodder. Many had to leave their families to pursue their dreams.  There were very few female mentors and teachers.   It is said, to become great, one must first work 10,000 hours learning under those who have mastered their craft.  Part of the 10,000 hours is time with experienced teachers, who provide technique and basic skills. Only after these skills are mastered then, true genius emerges. Many of our female founders had to learn the basics while fending off sexual advances of their teachers or learning from a master who had little interest in them as students.

Malvina Hoffman completes one of many great commissions
Malvina Hoffman spent weeks 90′ above the ground to finish her colossal sculpture for the Bush House (BBC for years) in London. She wanted to make sure the lighting was perfect on the faces. She tea stained the entire sculpture so the stones would be the same the same color.  MASTHEAD ABOVE: Malvina Hoffman’s sculpture graces the Epinal Memorial in Vosages, France, honoring WW2 soldiers lost in battle.

Perhaps I sound bitter, but it is really sorrow. How many interviews have I listened to where women want to talk about women who matter… or rather, women who matter right now.  The women who came before the great birth of feminine creativity in the 21st century never had the platforms available today. They are not found in history books and their talent is buried.   They were silenced simply for being born female.  Our creative, young women today  need to stop and take a moment to learn their story.

Now is a great time to be a woman artist, the barriers are being torn down.  I challenge female artists and critics to listen to the stories of the unknown women who shattered the art world before them, died, were buried, and forgotten.  This will happen to today’s artists if they don’t build a historic thread.  Like the song from the play Hamilton  Who Will Tell Yours Story, who will tell your story if no one is writing the history? Today’s Instagram post will be buried and forgotten tomorrow.

For women artists to survive over the generations, we must share the entire history and keep playing it forward. For contemporary artists I say, share the treasured stories of the pioneers in feminine art history. It’s the only way to make sure, long after your gone, someone will tell your story. If  you are the only one selling yourself, when you are gone, you will be forgotten, even if you change everything.  Let’s not forget, Georgia O’Keeffe’s husband was Alfred Stieglitz, the greatest art promoter of the 20th century. He made sure someone told her story.  Every artist needs a storyteller besides themselves and the best storyteller is the history of women’s art.  Start honoring the women who are forgotten, who brought you here… so future generations will be able to name at least twenty female artists without hesitation.

Rant over.

Why Did the Great Southern Writers Call Sculptor Malvina Hoffman Friend?

How did the famous New York sculptor Malvina Hoffman (1885-1966), wind up with close ties to the far away  Mississippi Delta?  In the early 20th century, many great southern writers liked to hang out at the home and garden of Greenville, Mississippi native William Alexander Percy. His was the arts and letters salon of the region.  In the August/ September  issue of Delta Magazine writer Hank Burdine calls Percy   “… a poet, planter, lawyer and world traveler.  He was a mentor host and friend to artists and intellectuals and even a few vagabonds and bohemians.  William Faulkner, Ben Wasson, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsey, Shelby Foote Stephen Vicente Benet, Langston Hughes and  the Hodding Carters were a part of Percy’s close circle of friends.”

We know what happened when these great southern minds came together, great writing prevailed. But how did  sculptor Malvina Hoffman fit into their story? Her world was Auguste Rodin, Anna Pavlova, Paris, New York,  The Metropolitan Museum of Art, not the Mississippi Delta.

The well-traveled William Percy came to New York to meet  Hoffman in February 1930. He wanted to create a bronze for his father, Senator Leroy Percy’s grave site and he only wanted the best. His artist sensibilities knew his father was worthy of this honor.  Hoffman and Percy connected, as artists of the same mindset often do.  He visited her studio, and to the tune of $13,000, Percy commissioned Hoffman to create The Patriot. In today’s dollars, almost half a million, a fortune.

The Patriot by Sculptor Malvina Hoffman, Greenville, Mississippi
Hoffman created The Patriot for William Alexander Percy in memory of his father Senator Leroy Percy. He remains steady and calm always protecting the Greenville Cemetery Grave.

As the months passed, the two began to write letters to one another.  When Percy wrote to Hoffman, he wrote as a poet about his beloved southern town, “I wish you could see our country now. It is lovely with the  Judas trees in bloom and the weeping willows that look like fountains.”

Hoffman came to Greenville in the summer of 1930 to complete the commission. The heat was wilting for the Yankee, but she prevailed.  Together, she and Percy picked out the landscaping, which still stands today.  She also became acquainted with the great southern writers of the day at Percy’s home.  They felt a kindred spirit in the sculptor and she was drawn to their great intellectual banter and talent. Throughout the years Percy kept in touch and later, he insisted his Greenville friend, sculptor Leon Koury move to New York and immerse himself in Malvina Hoffman.  Koury did just that and Hoffman shared with him the wisdom passed down to her  from her teacher, Auguste Rodin.

When you visit The Patriot in the Greenville, Mississippi cemetery, look beyond the incredible bronze statue, one that Percy called the greatest gift in his life.  There is so much more to the story than a great tribute to a local hero.  It’s the story of a man, William Percy who shared his love of arts and letters in a small town, in the very deep south. This sanctuary for the intellectuals of the time  gave rise to many of our great literary heroes today, heroes who accepted Malvina Hoffman as a member of their club.

 

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The Patriot by Malvina Hoffman, 1930  Greenville, Mississippi