Oct 28, 2011

REVIEW| The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, The Guerrilla Girls, Penguin Books, 1998

The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, Book Cover

“I consider women writers, lawyers, and politicians as monsters and nothing but five legged calves. The woman artist is merely ridiculous, but I am in favor of the female singer and dancer.”

This exceptionally sexist quote was spoken by none other than Auguste Renoir, a highly regarded male impressionist artist in western art history. Quotes with similar shock value taken from highly regarded men such as Martin Luther, Aristotle, Jean Jacques Rousseau, as well as other male artists and art historians are found graciously throughout, and are one of the many infuriating aspects of The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art.

The authors of this book, the Guerrilla Girls, describe themselves  as “…a group of women artists and arts professionals who fight discrimination”. Upon discovering the Guerrilla Girls in a recent and enlightening art history lecture I became extremely interested in learning about these women. While browsing through their website I found several of their controversial posters which illustrate their wish to “…expose sexism and racism in the art world and the culture at large”.

I also stumbled upon one of their many books, The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art, which I picked up immediately. This incredibly informative book shocked me beyond belief. Being an art history student for the past three semesters had previously led me to believe that I was somewhat well educated in art history but after reading this book my perception of my knowledge changed completely. I was never aware of the huge bias art history contained. This book opened my eyes to the horrors women have suffered to make their art as well as the horrendous treatment women artists and women in general have endured through history.

The book’s short ninety-one pages show a brief chronological history of western art through the eyes of the Guerrilla Girls. Instead of focusing on the art and lives of male artists like most art history books, the Guerilla Girls focus on deceased female artists through history and their struggles living in a male world. The book also contains depictions of famous artworks by the women being described in the book, making the book as visually informative as it is textually informative. In addition to these images there also many works of art which have been humorously altered by the Guerilla Girls, most often showing the subjects of the work sporting guerilla heads.

Focusing on women such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, Harriet Powers, Mary Cassatt, Claude Cahun, Kathe Kollwitz, Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Khalo, the book gave a huge insight to struggles they had experienced in their lives. Although I was familiar with the identity and art of these women I had never known or learnt about the struggles they had experienced to make their art or to become known in the art world.

This book also introduces several women artists I was not familiar with. A particular woman in the book I felt was worth noting was the artist Judith Leyster. Leyster was a painter who lived in the seventeenth century who became a member of a Dutch painter’s guild.  Her work was sadly credited to men “…including her husband and her teacher Frans”.

“In the 1890s her signature was noticed on a number of paintings sold to major museums as Frans’s, one of them described as “one of the finest he ever painted". After these paintings were reattributed to Judith, art historians suddenly realized that they weren’t so fine after all: in 1964, art historian James Larver said, “Some women artists tend to emulate Frans Hals, but the vigorous brush strokes of the master were beyond the capability. One has only to look at the work of a painter like Judith Leyster to detect the weakness of the feminine hand.”

Upon finishing the last couple pages of The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art I felt a variety of emotions, predominantly anger towards the art world. I was angered, saddened, and ashamed of my own ignorance when it came to art produced by women as well. I then came the realization that my ignorance has been facilitated by the art world we still live in today.

As the guerrilla girls explain in their book, art historians, art history classes, and the art world in general has always put an extremely huge emphasis on white male artists and their work and have consistently oppressed and ignored women. Although women artists such as the ones previously listed are now being discussed and taught, the art world is still extremely sexist. This is shown by a poster created by the Guerrilla Girls’ shown on the back cover of their book. The poster reads “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of artists in the modern art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” Statistics such as these are also found throughout the book and contribute to the books enlightening nature.

Although this book gave me reason to perceive the art world as more misogynistic than I had ever thought possible, I was also hopeful. I take pride in being a woman artist and consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to live in this day in age where women are able to make art, to study art, and be able to show their art. I’m also hopeful that the contemporary art world will be increasingly open to giving women artists the attention they have long deserved. I feel that this is possible as long as people such the guerrilla girls and those who see the injustices committed against women continue to fight for their rights by speaking out as was done beautifully in this book.

-Andrea Kraus-Lozano