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‘Now You See Us’ at Tate Britain Review: Finally, Women in the Spotlight

Dame Ethel Walker, Decoration The Excursion of Nausicaa, 1920. Photo: Tate.

Walking through Pimlico Tube station, it becomes obvious why an exhibition focussed solely on women's work is needed. The paintings on the underground tiles are admittedly stunning – but entirely dominated by men. It might be said, then, that Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520 - 1920, is long overdue.

In the introduction to The Story of Art Without Men, Katy Hessel underlines how we all recognise certain household names: Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Manet and Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Hockney, Basquiat…but how many of us can name that many women artists? Even if one has studied art history, women are hard to find: Hessel writes that, ‘Currently, women artists make up just 1 percent of London’s National Gallery collection’. It is shocking; unbelievable. And yet it is true.

Tate Britain’s new exhibition aims to finally redress this gender imbalance in British art history – and it starts by acknowledging its limitations. Most of the women included here were able to have an art career because of their higher social class, and their connections to male artists as fathers or husbands. However, even these privileged women faced endless obstacles and prejudices – they were always seen as ‘less than’ their male counterparts, bound to ‘imitating’ their works. There were also, most likely, countless women artists throughout history whose work will never be uncovered because, as wives and mothers, the historical record deemed them unimportant. As such, this exhibition is crucial – Tate’s principal goal is ‘to ensure these artists are not only seen but remembered’, on equal footing with men.

One of the exhibition’s most prominent artists is Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - 1652), an Italian painter who was the first woman to be a member of the Academy of the Arts of Drawing in Florence, and managed to run her own professional studio. One of her notable works on display is Susanna and the Elders, c.1638-1640, which uses an Old Testament narrative to suggest the difficulty of being a woman in a dangerous, patriarchal society. Nevertheless, Tate acknowledges how Gentileschi’s eminence has fluctuated through time, unlike her male peers. She is more well-known partly because her gender made her an anomaly – art historians have given her personal life as much weight as her paintings, as if she, too, is an object to be studied. In this way, women’s voices and autonomy have been historically robbed and silenced.

When the eighteenth century provided more opportunities for art to be widely exhibited, artists such as Angelica Kauffman (1741 - 1807) used this to their advantage. As one of the first women members of the Royal Academy of Arts (alongside Mary Moser – although both women were excluded from council meetings and governance, and it would be 150 years until another woman was elected), Kauffman’s depictions of historical, classical, and mythological narratives — regarded as the highest forms of art — received great critical attention in her day. They are stunningly impressive — I was amazed by the vibrant rainbow in Colour, 1778-1780 — especially considering how women were barred from life drawing classes until 1893, long after Kauffman’s passing. Indeed, she was criticised for her somewhat androgynous portrayals of men, but who can blame her without a proper model? On the other hand, Moser’s career is less established because of her focus on flowers, which was regarded as not ‘serious’ enough. Clearly, if women did not follow men’s rules regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, they were snubbed, and even if they did, they could never be ‘good enough’ because of their systemic exclusion.

To combat the conventions of art that men defined throughout history, the exhibition not only has an entire room dedicated to still life and flower paintings — which are indeed ‘serious’ and inspiring, especially the studies used to record plant species in scientific publications, such as those by Mary Delany (1700 -1788), who only started painting in her seventies (it’s never too late!) — lesser-known women are also given a platform. Among the women artists who were usually rebuffed for their ‘lower arts’ — such as pastel and watercolour painting (as opposed to oil paint on canvas), miniatures, embroidery, and needlework — Sarah Biffin (1784-1850) had no arms or legs, so she learned to sew, write, and paint using her mouth and shoulder. 

This subtle representation of disabled women artists — one could easily miss Biffin amongst the many works on display — made me long for more explicit and further recognition of marginalised women. Although the history of working-class, non-white, disabled, and queer women in Britain is buried deep or erased, I believe the exhibition could have done more to excavate these equally important narratives. For example, I counted one visible Black woman in the exhibition: Fanny Eaton in Rebecca Solomon’s A Young Teacher, 1861. Tate writes of the painting’s ‘complex reflection on gender, race, religion and education in mid-nineteenth-century London’, but does not go any further in explaining exactly what racial complications are at play here. We are left to draw our own conclusions – which is fine, of course; except, in a dominantly white exhibition, we must emphasise that gender was not the only barrier to women’s rights.

Nevertheless, Now You See Us is highly successful in spotlighting a wide range of British women artists through time, and thus challenging the history of art’s dominant narratives. The exhibition is extensive, detailed, and awe-inspiring, with countless works in a variety of mediums that are all given equal importance, instead of pitting ‘high’ art against ‘low’. From the Tudor court to the aftermath of the First World War, women have battled to be seen, heard, and remembered, and finally, Tate Britain is telling their stories. With tickets at only £5 for Tate Collective members — available for anyone between 16-25 — Now You See Us is well worth a visit, even if it is only a step towards justice for women’s art.

'Now You See Us' is on at the Tate Britain until 13th October.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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