Michaeline Woutiers ‘Triomf van Bacchus’ 1643-1659


The patriarchal paradise
There is no doubt that gender inequality exists in the art world. This problem was first clearly described in 1971 by art historian Linda Nochlin in her essay ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’(1).  The question installs the problem in the wrong place with female artists, while the cause lies elsewhere. According to Nochlin, answering the question means accepting the problem shift. She recognizes two popular attempts: to try to prove that there are great female geniuses or to show that there is such a thing as feminine besides masculine art, a different kind of genius. Both answers provide interesting information but ignore the actual problem. Even though the intention is different, there seem to be more similarities in the work of artists of the same time period as between women and men themselves. The Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist activist American artists' group, have been fighting against sexism and racism within the art world since 1984 in a visual, humorous, informative way. One of their actions is research aimed at the gender policy of museums and art institutions through surveys. The results of such a survey in Europe were shown last year, among others in The Whitechapel Gallery in London in the exhibition ‘Is it even worse in Europe?’. None of our museums for contemporary art in Flanders responded to this survey. Amongst the contemporary art spaces, it was Wiels that saved the honor together with Kiosk Ghent. Although our museums have recently acknowledged the problem of historical discrimination against women, not answering the survey is a bad sign. Our museums score very poorly when it comes to correct representation of the relationship between male and female artists in the collections and in group or monographic exhibitions. The intention to work on the problem, is there but it still lacks in commitment.

When the majority becomes the minority
50 years after the publication of the Nochlin essay, studies still show that the work of female artists is considered inferior. The recent study ‘Glass Ceilings in the Art Market’ (January 25, 2018) by Fabian Bocart, Marina Gertsberg and Rachel Pownall, shows that women are confronted with 4 glass ceilings (2)on the bumpy road of their career. The researchers examined 2.7 million auction results from Western artists (between 2000 and 2017) and 1000 galleries. Glass ceiling 1: although since the 1980s art schools in free arts tend to have more women than men, galleries prefer male artists. Distrust of their abilities and fear of the gallerist for a possible imminent motherhood of the women, in combination with the closedness of the boys' club, would steer that discrimination. Only 13.7% of the living artists represented by galleries in Europe and North America are women. 13.7%! Glass ceiling 2: of those 13.7%, a minority pushes on to a higher position. Because trust in men is greater, a mediocre male artist is more likely to become successful than a strong female artist. Glass ceiling 3: whoever manages to reach the highest peak as a woman is a big exception. That group is very small compared to the men who get there. Advantage: because of their rarity, their work is highly sought after by collectors on the secondary art market and their prices tend to be higher than their male colleagues! Downside: the artists usually earn nothing from this market. Glass ceiling 4: there  is no woman in the top 25 of dead successful artists. This group of artists accounts for 41% of the total profit in the art market. 0% women! If it is not up to the female artists, in the sense that they are nowhere to be found or that their work is inferior to that of men or of a different kind of genius that we have not yet been able to fully detect, where does the problem lie? ? Where does that distrust towards female artists come from? Could it perhaps have something to do with a bad legacy from the late 18th century? 

History falsification and gender apartheid
In 1993, art historians Marlitte Halberstma and Kitty Zijlmans published ‘Viewpoints, An Introduction to the Methods of Art History’(3). A point of view is the position from which something is viewed. Until recently, art history was exclusively constructed from the male perspective. It is no coincidence that these women cast a critical feminine look at that story.  Art history writing as an exclusion mechanism: from the very beginning of art history writing, women are structurally ignored or often forgotten. If they are mentioned, the criteria are and the treatment is different. Giorgio Vasari was the first to make registrations in the 16th century. Although he appreciated their work, Vasari tended to put the emphasis on women’s lives rather than their work. In the 17th century, mentioning female artists was proof of the cultural flourishing of a city or country. Female artists were active and appreciated in the Northern Netherlands and in Flanders but the highest category in painting, history pieces, was not reserved for them because academies if they already existed or artists’ studios, were not open to women. But our Michaelina Woutiers (4)was not stopped by this. Female artists did not have access to education but usually came from artistic families where they were taught by their father. Until then, men and women were included in the art literature together. In the late 18th century, however, it was decided upon to delete female artists from the books. From then on the concept of great masters was introduced. Because women were associated with nature and men with culture, the decision makers concluded that for that reason women could never be great masters. They could only copy, not create. The genius was male. The contempt for women was extreme. The writers of the books cut and removed the women artists from the books.  The books were purged, stripped of women. This is called history falsification. From then on work of women artists  was only discussed in separate publications.
How to solve this problem?

Fighting evil with evil, via the paradox from gender apartheid to reintegration
Restore the history and change the mentality: In 2017 I visited the Women’s Art Library (WAL) at Goldsmiths College London(5). In 2011, I started creating a database of female artists working in Belgium. Since 1994, Gynaika (6)was the first organization in Belgium that did very good work for gender equality in the arts, they had a database but did not use quality criteria. Names of our most important female artists were missing. Although very numerous, women artists and their work were not clearly visible. I decided to create a database with an up-to-date exhibition calendar and made use of the interactive and international character of Facebook to promote women artists, to put quality in the spotlight. Contemporary Women Artists in Belgium (CWAB) (7)was born. As a filter, I focused on professional visual artists who worked internationally and resided in Belgium. I relied on published information, visited exhibitions, studied the work, and relied on my own experience and memories of the past decades. Personal taste was not a criterion. CWAB became more than a database. I did research, published texts, took action, wrote to museums, galleries and curators, contacted the (specialized) press and as a result of this a natural interaction arose between my work as an activist, as researcher in the arts and in my artistic practice in my studio. I started focusing on the representation of women in art and public photographic images from the past, did research on gender stereotypes and gender spaces, examined the gaze en went further back in time to 17th century genre painting. CWAB became an awareness-raising project that, from a positive attitude, focuses on gender inequality on the one hand and on the quality and importance of the work of women artists on the other hand. Because I wanted to know how institutions dealt with this subject abroad, I decided to cross the Channel and went to the U.K.. I met Althea Greenan, head of the Women’s Art Library (WAL(8))  at Goldsmiths University College in London and had a conversation with her. In addition to paper files, the WAL has slide files from the 70s of individual artists, organizations and artists' collectives. WAL has a very large collection of all kinds of publications from and about women artists, including Zijsporen by Vivian Liska, published in 1996 by Gynaika. The oldest archives owned by the WAL date from 1900 and belong to the Women’s International Art Club (WIAC). The WIAC, founded in Paris, became active in London in 1900. In addition to a strong network, they organized exhibitions for and by women. The organization was dissolved in 1978. Because women joined forces as early as 1900 to support women artists and eliminate discrimination and we now have to face 4 glass ceilings in 2018, I asked Althea Greenan about the importance of such initiatives and databases. Her answer was clear. She sees shared responsibilities to address the problem. On the one hand, there is the responsibility of women to support each other. We live in a time where women have more opportunities than in the past, but we should continue to join forces and show solidarity. Archiving your own work since the 70s is a step towards professionalization and registration, whereby women take over the power of the archive and no longer leave it to men alone. Women now realize more than ever what their rights are and what their strength is. Greenan also sees great responsibility for education, researchers, art historians, curators, museums, galleries, art fairs, etc. who, by paying attention to this problem, contribute to shifting the perception. For example, Frieze with organizing ‘Frieze Masters: Older Women Artists’ in 2017 they helped older women artists to be "rediscovered" and to feminize the term master. Pioneers of feminist art were ‘dusted off’, acknowledged and restored. Naturally, money here also plays a role in relation to the exclusive nature of their art. "There is money to be made".
I myself doubted for a long time before I started with CWAB. I did not want to work with gender apartheid. By participating in the 2008 exhibition UN-SCR-1325 (9)by Galerie Geukens & De Vil, a show that  traveled to the Chelsea Art Museum in New York (curator Jan Van Woensel) I realized that when you work professionally and put the emphasis on quality and strength, you can make a positive statement and participate in that much needed perception shift. It took me another 3 years before I made the move to start with CWAB, now 8 years ago and I  hope to be able to quit with it soon so that we are all artists (m / f / x) with equal opportunities without glass ceilings. Hope springs eternal.

Karin Hanssen

(first published in March 2018, updated adapted version August, 2019)
Visual artist, Doctor in the Arts
Was researcher at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp from 2009-2018
Founder of CWAB (2011) and Picture This! Gender & Art (2017), a research group on art and gender at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp


(1) Why have there been no great women artists ?, Linda Nochlin (New York 1931-2017), January 1971, ARTnews.

(2) The 4 Glass Ceilings: How Women Artists Get Stiffed at Every Stage of Their Careers, Julia Halperin, Artnet’News, December 15, 2017.

(3)Viewpoints, An Introduction to the Methods of Art History" Marlitte Halberstma and Kitty Zijlmans, SUN, Nijmegen, 1993.

(4)Michaelina Woutiers or Wautier (1604–1689) on display at the MAS 1/6/2018 - 2/9/2018, curator Katlijne Van der Stighelen see also H ART # 167 The First Step, Karin Hanssen, 23 February 2017.

(6) Gynaika vzw (1994- 2011) was the first platform for the promotion of female artists in Flanders. Founded by Marijke Seresia.

(9) Named after the resolution of the same name, the first to pay attention to women in conflict areas, their contribution and strength to conflict resolution.