As The Maxmara Prize For Women Goes On Show, Let's Explore 9 Female Artists Who Have Changed The Way We See Art Today

20 March 2013

The biannual Maxmara Prize for Women goes on show at the Whitechapel Gallery on today. The prize always awards to UK based female artists who haven’t previously had a solo preview of their work, as well as six month residency in Italy. Art is often seen as such a feminine subject, that it’s easy to ignore the potential glass ceiling that greets women in the arts. Like any career the path of a female artist has been littered over the years with male domination and struggle to make the upper echelons. Here’s a list of nine women of the arts who have smashed to the top, and changed the way we see art today. - By Emily Steer

1. Marina Abramovic

The most hardcore of the list, Abramovic’s work includes self mutilation, periods of starvation and enacting activities such as hair brushing to a point of physical pain. Her work is the result of her regimented Communist upbringing, and a constant addressing of her sexuality. Her recent documentary revealed a woman as internally vulnerable as she is strong.

2. Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur, "The Highland Raid," 1860; Oil on canvas, 51 x 84 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

In the mid 19th Century, at a time when traditionalism was rapidly shifting, Bonheur’s classical methods earned her notoriety as one of the strongest traditionalists still going. She is also remembered as a strong feminist, for choosing to dress in men’s clothes, smoke cigarettes and live with another woman.

3. Louis Borgeois

Louise Bourgeois, 2003 Photo: Nanda Lanfranco

Louise Borgeois studied maths at the Sorbonne, and kept making art work until she died in 2012 at the age of 98. Her mammoth spider sculptures are her most recognisable, as well as her cross referencing of female materials and craft, twisted and torn and reshaped to fit her very dark and otherworldly universe.

4. Judy Chicago

Birth Hood © Judy Chicago, 1965 (finished 2011). Sprayed acrylic lacquer on car hood , 42.9 in. x 42.9 in. x 4.3 in. Photo © Donald Woodman

Her early work, aged 19, featured well disguised sexual parts on the bonnets of cars. Her apparently tropical scenes throb with sexuality and uncover a very early desire for self expression and embracement of womanhood. She has since made an intricate dedication to her fellow female artists, making place settings for her dream dinner party.

5. Tracey Emin

Copyright the artist, courtesy white cube. Tracey Emin, You Loved me Like a distant STAR, 2012, Neon

Of all the YBAs to gain notoriety, it is Emin who is known to art lovers and newcomers alike, with graphic sketches, re-appropriation of feminine crafts and her renowned storming off the male heavy set of The Southbank Show with a lairy ‘f*** you’. She’s calmed down in recent years, but her feminist agenda and powerhouse work ethic haven’t.

6. Georgia O Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction White Rose, 1927. Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. Copyright Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O Keeffe embraced the ambiguity of the female organ. Taking the most delicate of flower forms, O Keeffe painted them as powerful, sexually explosive objects. We’ve all sat and blushed in school art class looking at her sublime paintings as our teachers discussed the real meaning.

7. Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo addressed female physicality and vanity through constant self portrait and self exploration throughout her career. Working in the intensely intellectual, male circle of the surrealist movement her work is still some of the most powerful and explorative from that era.

8. Berthe Morisot

Morisot was known as one of the ‘Le Trois Grandes Dames’, one of the three unexpected female faces to appear in the renowned 19th Century circle of Parisian painters, the Impressionists. Her work focussed on class and gender restrictions of the time and her work still sits in the biggest galleries in the world.

9. Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman has created a persona around dressing up, and taking on the physicality and the cliches of modern day American female characters. From beaten up wife, to dolled up screen star, she addresses everything it means for us to be women in the modern world.

The Maxmara Art Prize for Women runs from 20th March until 7th April showing winner Laura Prouvost’s work at the Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street London E1 7QX.

By Emily Steer



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