Uncovering forgotten female artists: French archive aims to rewrite art history | Arts | DW | 17.01.2019
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Uncovering forgotten female artists: French archive aims to rewrite art history

Female artists are still often overshadowed by their male colleagues, with many unknown or forgotten to history. But a French nonprofit wants to change that with a new archive to "bring visibility to women artists."

Back in 2009, Camille Morineau, then a curator at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, felt it was time to stage an art exhibition devoted solely to women — a first for the modern art museum.

But the show, titled "elles@centrepompidou," was anything but easy to put together. Morineau was hard-pressed to find information on the female artists whose works were owned by the museum — biographical information, details about their works or even the art movements these women belonged to.

Read more: Anni Albers retrospective celebrates Bauhaus pioneer

A 'scandalous' underestimation

Preparing for the show, Morineau realized how much women have been underestimated by art historians. "There was a lot even I didn't know, although I am an expert in 20th century art," she told DW. "I thought to myself, that is scandalous."

Camille Morineau (Christophe Beauregard)

'There is no reason why women should have a weaker artistic bent than men': Morineau

That realization would eventually give birth to a tool that would allow anyone to access information about female artists — "AWARE: Archives of Women Artists, Research & Exhibition," founded in 2014.

Along with six other women, Morineau started the Paris-based international non-profit organization to "bring visibility to women artists," as the group puts it on their website.

Morineau is convinced that having information about the existence of female artists, about their lives and works, will finally get them out of the shadow of their male colleagues. "Historians work with archives, and when they find new archives, that changes the narrative," she said.

No lack of female artists

The documentation center on Boulevard Saint-Germain has about 1,600 monographs, exhibition catalogs and essays on female artists. Online archives offer more than 400 entries on visual artists around the world, with the plan to add 150-200 more each year.

That number could be multiplied by the hundreds, said AWARE's Hanna Alkema — it's hard to say how many female artists remain undiscovered. Research, she said, comes up with new names every time.

There are two conditions for acceptance into the online catalog: the woman must have been born between 1860 and 1972, and must have been recognized as an artist by an institution during her lifetime.

AWARE has made exceptions, however. Alkema pointed out that some female artists were able to have a career, but were never officially recognized in their lifetime.

More diversity

Besides well-known artists including Cindy Sherman, Agnes Varda and Sonia Delaunay — it took half a century for the latter to finally be recognized as an artist in her own right, and not just as the wife of famous Robert Delauney — the catalog lists many unknown or forgotten female artists: Vera Pagava, Egypt's Gazbia Sirry and Marion Baruch, of Romania.

Sonia Delaunay (picture-alliance/dpa)

Delaunay, known for her abstract paintings, was a major figure in the Art Deco movement

With about 71 percent of the artists in the archives currently representing Western countries, the organization is keen on creating more diversity. That takes time, and it's not always an easy task from France.

AWARE is planning to build a worldwide correspondent network to help find female artists in Asia, Africa, the Mideast and Latin America — a particular focus in 2019 — and provide the public with information on their lives and works, Alkema said. 

Apart from its online presence and the documentation center, AWARE offers museum tours pointing out female artists, panel discussions in cooperation with universities, its own publications and an annual award recognizing two artists. Funding comes from, among others, the French Culture Ministry and Fondation Chanel.

Read more: Women artists push gender boundaries in 'Facing India'

'Same brains, same neurons, same biology'

"For centuries, art exhibitions were exhibitions of art by men — and no one noticed," Morineau said. She noted, however, that in recent years that has begun to change, as awareness of that discrimination has increased.

People become artists because they are driven, she said. "There is no reason why women should have a weaker artistic bent than men; they have the same brains, the same neurons and more or less the same biology.

"It's like a mathematical formula, on that now needs to be proven again," she added. With AWARE, she is intent on contributing to that process.

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