Spotlight on: Women in Art

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In Celebration of International Women’s Day, the arts team pay homage to some of our favourite female creatives.

Agnès Varda

Known as the ‘grandmother’ of the pioneering French New Wave cinema movement, Varda’s influence on cinema is undeniable, breaking conventions with location shooting and using non-professional actors. Her most famous film is Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), which tells the story of a self-absorbed singer awaiting the results from a cancer screening, and her ensuing 90-minute transformation as she contemplates and fears her possible death, all the while surrounded by what is, undoubtedly, one of the most gorgeous depictions of 1960s Paris. Although Varda is known for her realistic and complex depictions of women, (supporting her own firm political beliefs, as she campaigned to legalise abortion in France), her other films like Vagabond (1985) touch upon poverty and homelessness, all the while questioning the bonds that draw us to connect to other human beings. Intelligent yet accessible, the 90-year-old Belgian-born director continues to direct, as well as having branched out to photography and art installations.

Greta Gerwig

An American writer, actress and director, her two best-known films are Frances Ha (2012) and Ladybird (2017), which cemented her as a tour-de-force writer of what it means to enter adulthood in the 21st century. Her work typically centres around the growth and emotional maturation of the leading woman, and she is a master of twisting your emotions to feel torn between sympathising with or disliking her complex characters. Watching a Gerwig films feels like bunking on a bus to ride it until the very last stop, where you finally alight, looking back determinedly with half-laced and scuffed trainers being the only thing guiding you home.

George Dunleavy

Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois, French American artist, and one of the greatest figures in modern and contemporary art, is mainly associated with her large-scale sculptures and installations of huge steel spiders and twisting spiral-like bodies floating in the air. Her work encompasses a variety of themes, including family, death, gender and sexuality.

Making art is a therapeutic process for Bourgeois, allowing her to create work filled with self-expression and exploration. “I need to make things…I need to have these objects exist in relation to my body.” Her work is deeply personal, not only through using her own experiences and memories as inspiration, but also by examining female sexuality, fragility and insecurity. From the feelings of entrapment within ‘In and Out’ and its cold metal cage, to ‘Spiral Woman’ which is contrastingly simplistic and fragile through its depiction of the female form. Bourgeois does not only create beautiful, complex works of art, but also offers up a series of intimate confessions, memories and self-portraits filled with intense emotions and hardships.

Madeleine Gauci Green

Thelma Schoonmaker

Recently awarded the 2019 BAFTA fellowship, Thelma Schoonmaker has developed a reputation as one of the film industries’ greatest editors. Having won two BAFTAs and three Oscars for her work, she is part of one of cinema’s greatest director/editor partnerships through her friendship with Martin Scorsese. In total, the duo have worked on a total of twenty-three films together, and every Scorsese film since 1980’s Raging Bull. Her first success came from her work on the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary Woodstock, as she demonstrated what would become her trademark style. She has been unanimously praised for her creation of juxtaposition through jump cuts and freeze frames. The now 79-year-old is currently finishing the editing for The Irishman and shows no signs of slowing down what is an inspiring and wonderfully creative career.

Matthew Moorey

Monica Hernandez

Hernandez reclaims what it means to be an ‘Instagram artist’ in the digital age as she subverts the popular critique of social media as ‘shallow’. Her social platform of 107k followers is a work of art that is always in progress, mirroring Monica’s experimental style and her passion for finding innovative ways to communicate her feminist politics. In photographing herself, Hernandez sends the powerful message that women do not have to be reduced to muses—they can resist objectification by becoming their own artistic subject. To her, art can be as simple as filming yourself chopping your hair in front of the bathroom mirror or documenting your facial acne. She also incorporates this style of visual art to display her paintings and give the finger to Eurocentric standards of beauty. Her studio has been turned into a safe space where she can freely flaunt her hairy armpits and pose in front of oil canvases whose subjects are carefree, naked people of colour. Monica Hernandez is definitely an artist that deserves more recognition.

Maria Leontiou

Tessa Thompson

Starring in five feature-length films in 2018 alone, Tessa Thompson is without a doubt one of the most prolific actors working in Hollywood today. Versatile, too, as she will not only be reprising her role as Valkyrie in Avengers: Endgame this year but will also be starring once again alongside Chris Hemsworth in Men in Black: International, as well as lending her voice to the upcoming remake of Lady and the Tramp. In addition to her powerful female presence onscreen, Thompson is committed to supporting women who work behind the camera. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Thompson announced her involvement in the ‘4 Percent Challenge’, an initiative set up by the Time’s Up movement challenging actors to work with a woman director over the next 18 months. Whatever may result from her pledge is bound to be as incredible as her work thus far.

Holly Weaver

Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi was a significant and pioneering painter in Renaissance Italy who often presented brash new interpretations of classic themes. However, the seventeenth-century artist was active in a context in which women, unlike their male counterparts, were forbidden from knowledge of anatomy and excluded from academies; until recent feminist scholarship, Gentileschi’s biography did not follow the conventional narrative of her male contemporaries. Indeed, her reputation and status in historical memory has been tainted by her rape by fellow painter and collaborator Agostino Tassi. However, Gentileschi demands respect as an artist in her own right: she was both innovative and assertive. ‘Susanna and the Elders’ (1610), her first dated work, for example, added another dimension to the female figure; unlike other versions, we can see power and resistance in Gentileschi’s Susanna, both to the male subjects also pictured and the male gaze more generally. Thus, not only accomplished in technique, but this work is also seminal as an example of a confrontation of the customary interaction between an active male spectator and a passive female recipient, marking Gentileschi as fundamental in both art history and women’s history.

Safi Bugel

Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz is arguably the most popular female photographer of our time. Born Anna-Lou, the artist graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute with a major in photography. Leibovitz’s work is defined by ‘point of view’ and lack of ‘objectivity’, in the words of the artist herself. Her intimate photographs helped to shape the Rolling Stone aesthetic and create the iconic cover featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono. After ten years at the music magazine, she moved on to shoot for Vanity Fair and Vogue, and was the first female artist to have a solo exhibition at Washington DC’s National Portrait Gallery. Leibovitz has written multiple books focusing on photography, and now offers online classes. Her works continue to be displayed in museums as well as magazine stands.

Karolina Glasek