Women, art & obscurity. Seers, Knights, Lassnig.
Date : Wednesday 31 August, 2016
Women artist don’t enjoy the kind of spotlight men often get.
Kira Cochrane from the Guardian wrote 3 years ago:
How many female artists featured in the top 100 auction sales, ranked by price, last year? Gemma Rolls-Bentley, an independent curator, decided to find out. One day, not long ago, she sat down with the 2012 list, “and spent a couple of hours writing M next to the artists. I got to the end and there wasn’t a single F.” Some of those artists were alive, some were dead, all were highly valued – considered “great” or “genius” – and all were men.
Maybe because I am a woman, maybe because I am a feminist, or maybe because I am in awe of people who pursue their goals whether or not they are recognised for their work or completely ignored by the art world, but I like discovering women artist. A while ago it was Dorothea Tanning, Eva Švankmajerová, and Lee Krasnersg, who were no less talented than their husbands’ (Max Ernst, Jan Svankmajer, Jackson Pollock). Today it’s three women you’ve probably never heard of: Lindsay Seers, Winifred Knights and Maria Lassnig.
These are women of different periods, different origins, different backgrounds, different disciplines, but what they have in common is the fact that they all had some major obstacles to deal with. And that they struggle(d) to enjoy the recognition they deserve.
Lindsay Seers didn’t speak until the age of 7 and lost her step-sister, Christine Parker, who went missing in Rome following a moped accident which led to a catastrophic memory loss.
Maria Lassnig’s childhood was far from happy: My early childhood was a real life-drama / the pots and pans went flying through the air / The small child screamed aloud: „Stay alive, dear Mamma!” / The poor child suffered from her parents’ war, she sang in Kantate. The Ballad of Maria Lassnig.
Winifred Knights, while fortunate to have had grown up in more fortunate circumstances (being the daughter of a Guiana sugar plantation owner, who “combined socialist convictions with the happy knack of making money”, as Kathryn Hughes describes in her article, she didn’t have much to complain about), did go through some trauma too. She lost her baby brother at the age of 15 and gave birth to a stillborn boy in 1928. When she finally gave birth to a healthy son, John, in 1934 she was already experiencing mental problems, and refused to leave the child with a nanny or let him out of her sight.
And they all virtually dedicated their lives to art. Lindsay Seers’ obsession with photography started by the age of nine and hasn’t stopped since. Maria Lassnig was painting until her very last days; her 80s paintings were showing her on a hospital body, frail, wrinkled and limping. In her animated film Cantate (1992), she sang: I just don´t feel my life as nearly ended / I still go skiing, ride my motor bike / And each new day that breaks — brings new dimensions / so Art has kept me young in ways I like. Even Winifred Knights, who lived at times where women were much less free to make their own choices, and who had a period of withdrawing from work and focusing on family life, returned to painting eventually and had it not been for a brain tumour which caused her sudden death, she probably would have continued working.
Trailer for Winifred Knights exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2016
They all have been acclaimed. Lindsay Seers, who lives and works in London, recently received a few major awards: the Derek Jarman Award (2009), the Paul Hamlyn Award (2010) and the Sharjah Art Foundation Award (2012). Winifred Knights became the first woman in England to win the prestigious Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome for her critically acclaimed painting The Deluge. Maria Lassnig was the first female artist to win the Grand Austrian State Prize in 1988 and was awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art in 2005.
Kantate (also known as The Ballad of Maria Lassnig), 1992
But even the most talented and acclaimed women can somehow fall into the shadow of obscurity. Upon moving to New York, the country of “strong women”, Maria Lassnig struggled to find audience for he work, which got labelled “strange” and “sick”. Unmarried and childless, she was well into her sixties when she began to receive widespread recognition – though nobody I told about the recent exhibition at Tate Liverpool knew who she was (I didn’t either). Despite being called a genius, Knights became virtually forgotten – I discovered her thanks to the wonderful exhibition at The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Not a single obituary appeared upon her death. Seers is still active, but besides her own website, I struggle to find much on the internet about her in terms of photo- or video-documentation, and exhibition reviews not written by niche art critics, but art fans. Maybe she enjoys the privacy. But maybe she doesn’t have a choice in the matter.
Lindsay Seers — Chalkie Talkie from “Objects Do Things” exhibition at Centre For Contemporary Art Ujazdowsky Castle in Warsaw
So, I’m inviting you to check out the work of these three female artists. Because it’s really good and special. Lindsay Seers’ inability to speak in the early childhood led her to develop eidetic memory (i.e. photographic memory), which later got replaced with obsession with photography. But Seers had her own very personal and interesting take on photography. She internalised the technology of the camera and used her own body as well as puppets to produce photographs – “the cavity of her mouth became the camera body and her lips became the camera aperture and shutter”, to borrow a quote from the website of Goldsmiths University, where she lectures in fine art. Maria Lassnig took the art of self-portrait to a different level, experimenting with a huge number of styles, techniques, combining painting and animation. There’s a beautiful and very well designed website for a recently (2015) established Maria Lassnig Foundation, that shows the incredibly vast scope of the artist’s work. Winifred Knights developed a very unique painting language, mixing Italian Quattrocento-inspired religious imagery with elements of a modernist style. All the paintings I saw at the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition (which, given her premature death, weren’t very many) have stayed in my memory.