Bee Rowlatt's blog: Let’s get visible! Women in public art
Right now one of my favourite people is hanging out in Moscow’s Tretyakov State Gallery. There, in two-dimensional form, is Mary Wollstonecraft.
The foremother of feminism is appearing - along with 48 other portraits - in a loaned collection from London’s National Portrait Gallery. As a Wollstonecraft enthusiast and author of a recent book about her, I was invited along to give a lecture.
“Perhaps you could talk about some of the other portraits too?” they asked. How cool, I thought. But then I read the attached list of history’s 49 greats, immortalised on canvas. Hold on a minute. Where are the women?
Out of 49, only nine of the portraits were of women. Of those, two were queens, and five were present thanks to their physical charms: actors, courtesans, and a singer.
The collection actually features more people called Charles than women of intellect. Only two women made it onto the Tretyakov Wall of Fame thanks to their brains: Mary Wollstonecraft, and the rebel poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. So I talked about them.
Wollstonecraft’s and “EBB’s” badass achievements are more than enough to keep an audience in thrall, but I couldn’t escape their loneliness as female pioneers on those gallery walls. And so my lecture also tackled the wider theme of the representation of women in public art. Art is, and always has been, an important public record. This is how history is recorded.
History has certainly not always been made by men - you don’t have to look far into Ukrainian history for proof of that. But it has generally been written and painted by men. It has generally been filtered by men. Which perhaps explains why so many women represented in art are little more than a gorgeous reclining body.
This has recently become something of an obsession of mine.
Take London for example. Over nine out of ten of all the statues on its streets are of men. Other cities don't fare much better. Paris has its buxom Liberté, Moscow has its proud Kolkhos Woman (with chaperone in dungarees) and of course there’s Kiev’s own Mother Motherland. But these female figures are idealised and political, rather than real and actual people.
Take New York. Among Central Park’s 29 statues the only females you will meet are Alice in Wonderland, Juliet alongside Romeo, and last but not least, the dangerous intellect that is… Mother Goose. Seriously.
So even as a tiny minority, the women who do make it onto a plinth or pedestal tend to be fictional. It is the artistic celebration of women, but only as mythical beings. According to this history, both on canvas and sculpted in stone and bronze on our streets, you'd think womankind never rolled off her chaise-longue.
Why does this matter? Why is it important to celebrate real women in public art? The icons and images that decorate our streets and our daily lives have an influence, and they send a message. These messages get absorbed over time, soaked up without our realising it. The messages can be large or small, but they all add up.
Here’s an eye-catching one from my Moscow hotel toilet door. I looked at it every day while heading down for my breakfast of salmon and pancakes, with sour cream. It seems to suggest severe malnutrition as the height of elegance.
From toilet doors to the most venerated art galleries, there are any number of filters on the representation of women - be they weirdly idealised, or just plain invisible. Airbrushed, or simply airbrushed out.
How to fix this? More positive images celebrating real women would be a great start. When kids look up and see only men on pedestals, as they currently do in London and other cities around the world, then this is sending the message of invisibility. It is saying that women have not contributed.
What we need is nothing less than the "unmaking of history" - to borrow from historian Dr Amanda Foreman. It's about redressing the narrative of thousands of years: the narrative in which only triumphant military men achieve visibility. And if the women who achieved great things are recognised as having done so, then the next generation of schoolgirls around the world will say: I might do that too!
Ukrainian version of this blog.