Guerrilla Girls: Rewriting art history from the distaff side

“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met?” and other pointers on the good, the bad and the ugly of women in art


Women may be winning more prestigious art awards than ever before, but in the minds of at least some artists, the best way to get ahead in the art world is to be to be male, white and (preferably) dead.

The Guerrilla Girls are still waging war on the forces of sexism and racism which they believe remain prevalent in the world of art. Their latest salvo, The Guerrilla Girls’ bedside companion to the history of Western art was published earlier this year in the US and Canada.

Part of the New York art scene of the last decade, the Guerrilla Girls are a group of female artists and art world professionals who shot to fame in 1985 after plastering the walls of SoHo with posters listing the galleries which under-represented women. Their poster campaigns, which delivered serious messages about women in art with a barbed wit, caused quite a stir, as did the Guerrilla Girls themselves, who wore gorilla masks for every public appearance.

Today, the Guerrilla Girls are going strong, despite the advances that women have made in the art world since their inception. The women continue to wear gorilla masks, partly to draw attention to the cause and partly to preserve the anonymity of the group members; they believe their message is stronger when delivered anonymously. Further to conceal their identities, Guerrilla Girls assume the names of dead female artists.

I recently asked the Guerrilla Girl known as Frida Kahlo whether the time had come to retire. “No” was her answer. “It may be the best time ever for women in the art world,” she said, “but things are still difficult. There is still a glass ceiling. It may be better for women at the entry level, but women are not yet reaching the top places. They are still not directors of museums. And it is particularly difficult if you are a woman of colour.”

She cites the example of MoMA’s “Objects of desire” exhibition last year, which contained the works of seventy artists, only four of whom were women and only one a woman of colour—despite the fact that still life is historically an area where women artists have excelled. “We did an action around it”, Frida said. “Thousands of protest cards landed on the curator’s desk. It wasn’t enough to change the show, but every article that was written about the show questioned the choices. It meant that the audience didn’t blindly accept those choices.”

The bedside companion attempts to show that women have been producing noteworthy art for many centuries, and that attitudes towards women have contributed to the relative obscurity of many female artists. Eye-opening quotes abound, such as Auguste Renoir’s “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 favour of the female singer and dancer.”

The book includes chapters on some of the better known woman artists in history: Georgia O’Keeffe, Rosa Bonheur and Angelica Kauffmann, as well as the lesser known. “We wanted to challenge the hierarchy of painting and sculpture, so we included the quilt maker Harriet Powers and the designer Sonia Delaunay”, said Frida.

The format is more scrapbook than text book. The section on Artemisia Gentileschi, for example, is presented in comic book form, while Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s life is shown through a fictional letter by the artist to the Guerrilla Girls, and Georgia O’Keeffe is treated to more straightforward text.

Despite its grand title, The bedside companion is a slender volume. The authors were limited by the costs of publishing a full colour book. As a result, many artists were omitted, while the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries get a scant seven pages. Given its size, the book is surprisingly informative. Its best passages manage to be erudite, provocative and refreshingly free of jargon.

A favourite section describes the rise of Neo-classicism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the importance of being able to draw the male nude. “...artists’ reputations depended on how well they could do that kind of art. One prerequisite was knowing how to draw from live nude models, especially males, something women were forbidden to do. How was a girl to make an important painting if she didn’t know a guy’s ass from his elbow?”

The sections on Hannah Höch and the Dadaists, and Gunta Stoltzl and the Bauhaus are salutary reminders of how women had to fight to be taken seriously, even among men who were ready to challenge every other convention in society, except the place of women.

The book’s greatest flaw, apart from its size, is the preponderance of fictional letters and conversations. This conceit can be annoying, and at times threatens to trivialise the issues the Guerrilla Girls are fighting so hard for.

The bedside companion will appeal to anyone looking for a light but informative look at the position of women in Western art over the centuries. Anyone with a more serious interest in the subject would do well to consult the books listed in the Bedside Companion’s extensive bibliography.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rewriting art history from the distaff'