Number 15 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' explores art’s role in the fight for women’s rights…

For hundreds of years, women artists were excluded from history.

A number of factors played a part in this: women were mostly excluded from education, let alone a real arts education; their practices were forcibly limited to what we now call decorative arts, often dismissed as craft; and that it was men who controlled both arts practice and the history that was recorded.

The few female artists who did manage to find a way into the history books were often labelled as exceptionally talented women who overcame the 'limitations of their gender'.

This is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman.

German painter Hans Hoffmann’s ‘compliment’ to influential abstract painter Lee Krasner

Women artists in nineteenth century had already begun the political fight for their rights. Emily Mary Osborn was one of the most important artists associated with the campaign for women’s rights in the Victorian era. One of her most famous paintings, Nameless and Friendless, was a clear political statement at its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1857. The exhibition coincided with the formation of the Society of Female Artists, an organisation enabling women to exhibit and sell their work in public.

Emily Mary Osborn, Nameless and Friendless..., 1857.

The early 20th century saw some of the greatest progress in women’s rights, like the right to vote. Surrealist artists like Eileen Agar and Louise Bourgeois were revolutionaries in their intimate explorations of mind and body. But it wasn’t until the 1960s, amid the heights of civil and queer rights movements, that there was a boom in women teaching and studying art in schools.

These art schools became hubs of the feminist movement, and art one of the movement’s most powerful tools in conveying its message and calls to action. Through the 70s, feminist artists sought to create a dialogue with their audience, using art to provoke people to question the social landscape. Through these questions, they hoped to permanently alter the way people thought and to bring change towards equality across the world. One of the iconic works of this period of feminist art is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

Feminist artists at this time often embraced mediums like textiles that had previously been dismissed as ‘women’s work’, or other mediums that didn’t have centuries of embedded male history, such as performance and video. By expressing themselves through these non-traditional methods, they sought to expand the definition of fine art and to include a wider variety of perspectives. To combat the continuingly male-dominated galleries and museums, feminist artists created alternative venues and campaigned to change institutions’ policies.

In 1985, the anonymous all-female collective the Guerrilla Girls formed in response to the previous year’s An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture exhibition at MoMA. Although the museum’s exhibition was supposed to represent the best artists in the world, only 13 out of 169 artists were women. The Guerrilla Girls used street art as their mode of protest via posters, stickers, and billboards. Probably the most famous of these is Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?, which was produced in 1989 after members of the group counted the ratio of female artists to female nudes. The group discovered was that ‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’.

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?, 1989.

Today, around 51% of practicing artists are female. But there is still far, far further to go to ensure that women are properly represented in galleries and museums. Art by women still only makes up a measly 5% of major collections in US & Europe.

We’re proud to say that the Paintings in Hospitals collection is drastically different in this respect. Although our collection began in 1959, before the feminist movement truly hit full swing, we collected works by promising emerging artists regardless of gender. One of our earliest acquisitions was a work by Gillian Ayres, who went on to become one of the leading British abstract painters of her generation. Gillian exhibited at the V&A and MoMA, and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1989.

Our collection also includes gems by Mary Fedden: the first woman to teach painting at the Royal College of Art between 1958-64. Contemporary female artists in our collection include Sonia Boyce, Catherine Yass, Susan Derges, Helen Chadwick, Neeta Madahar, and many more. Currently, the representation of women in the Paintings in Hospitals collection is approximately 48%. And we have no intention of stopping there.

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