Michaelina Woutiers, Self Portrait with Easel

H Art MagazineĀ and Rekto:Verso, March 6, 2017

Michaelina Woutiers. Does that name ring a bell (mean anything to you)?
She was a contemporary of Rubens and Van Dyck and worked from Brussels. Woutiers was particularly talented and, together with Van Dyck, can be regarded as the top of the 17th-century Baroque painting. Their work is hard to distinguish in style and quality. It would not surprise me if some of her works were incorrectly attributed to Van Dyck.
Another figure is Clara Peeters from Antwerp. Although, just like Woutiers, she was successful in her time, she too was a big stranger until recently. The exhibition "Clara Peeters. At the table! ’In 2016 in the Rockox House put an end to that. And rightly so because Peeters was the pioneer of the still life. Weird that we only know about 400 years after her death.
The M HKA is going to renovate and has ambitious plans for the future, we learned in the latest HART. That is nice to read and good news because, as artistic director Bart De Baere says, Flanders does not have any full-fledged museums for contemporary art, although its greatest asset is visual art. This project is the first step to such a full-fledged museum, says De Baere. That creates high expectations.
He announces 3 monographic overview exhibitions that will take place in the fall of 2017, 2018 and 2019. They serve to highlight the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys and James Lee Byars. De Baere calls them the three big Bs and he regards them as the Best of contemporary art. In addition, the three Bs had a personal relationship with Antwerp during their lifetime. The HART article refers to the mission text "M HKA becomes a contemporary forum for art, the public and the world" which can be found on the website of the museum. The new museum of the future has ambitious plans. "The M HKA project has the notion of Flemish Masters at its core," it says and "Visual arts in and from Flanders is a relevant export product both culturally and economically. Not only contemporary, but also anchored in history. [...] Flanders continues to be a center of global interest for the visual arts with artists such as David Claerbout, Jan Fabre or Luc Tuymans who are in the global top hundred artists of the moment. ”Flemish Masters. A little further on, especially "Flemish" artists are mentioned who will be shown in the temporary and permanent collection presentations. Apart from two artists, they are all men. No female artist residing in Belgium is present. And that in a mission text that wants to make the ambitious future of the museum known with the emphasis on Flanders? And that as a first step to a full-fledged museum?
Furthermore, the ranking referred to in the quote is not a direct quality ranking, but an opportunity ranking. The artist who has the most international chances to show her or his work in leading institutes, galleries and other locations is ranked highest.
And that is the core of the problem and perhaps it already shows itself in the choice for the term "Flemish Masters". Art is international and the history of art teaches us that women have fewer opportunities than their male colleagues. And afterwards they are often forgotten or erased from art history. Being rediscovered is their last hope. But although they are much more numerous than in the past, even now it appears that they are forgotten, making it difficult for them to compete with their male colleagues in terms of recognition, let alone in such opportunity rankings.
If they are not listed, they get fewer opportunities.
In 2007 it appeared that the collection of M HKA included 85 female artists (internationally) out of a total of 550 or good for 15%. Ten years later, that percentage rose by 3% to 18% or 124 women (internationally) out of 691 artists.
If they are not in the collection, they cannot be displayed.
How can the museum be the ambassador of visual culture in Flanders if it forgets that our female artists are also part of it? If we gradually have to realize that visual art is the face of Flanders and our greatest asset, shouldn't we also gradually realize that that face is largely feminine and multicultural? Why don't we read anything about them in the mission text? Why are they absent? Where is the diversity?
The M HKA has certainly made efforts in recent years to show more female artists and that is only to be welcomed. But there is as yet no question of an equal balance and equal opportunities. No fewer than three female "Bs" are to be found in the museum's programming, they do not yet have that honor.
Not only does it require a better infrastructure to become the museum of the future, but above all a change in mentality. How can the M HKA play a full part in the European (sub) top if the museum in the mission text forgets that female artists are also entitled to their space and recognition, if they are underrepresented in the presentations and the collection?
As long as the museum does not focus on the thorough elimination of that imbalance and injustice, it can never fulfill that ambitious function. And with a growth in the collection of 3% in 10 years, it will be a very long time before the museum becomes a fully-fledged museum.
There is a very large group of female artists in Belgium / Flanders who work at a professional high level. It is very unfortunate that now in 2017 it is still not evident that our female artists who are important players in the field of contemporary art, both nationally and internationally, are still being forgotten when it comes to recognition and appreciation for their work. , when it comes to mapping history, when it comes to being part of (future) memory.
Michaelina Woutiers will have her first solo exhibition in 2018. The Curator is Katlijne Van der Stighelen, author of "Vrouwenstreken" , who has made her life's work restoring art history. She will give Michaelina Woutiers, one of our greatest painters of the 17th century, her space in the Rubens House 400 years after her death.
I wish the museum of the future, the M HKA a lot of success, but let us celebrate that future together with an open mind, with all artists.
Provide a lot of room for female artists in our museum of the future so that we do not have to wait another 400 years for a female curator who is aware of this historical discrimination.
Actively eliminating that discrimination, that is the first step.

Karin Hanssen
Visual artist, doctor in the arts
Researcher at KASKA, founder of Picture This! Gender & Art (2017) and CWAB (2011), a research and promotion platform with database for contemporary female artists working in Belgium.

See Pieters, Rudy "Too few female artists in Flemish museums" De Morgen, 16.04.2007

Info M HKA, January 31, 2017

See Van der Stighelen, Katlijne, Vrouwenstreken. Unforgettable women from the Low Countries, (Lannoo, October 2010)