Now, more than ever, people are following through with advocating for the under-represented. As of 2019, Phaidon published the most extensive fully illustrated book of women artists, that bolsters incredible artwork spanning 500 years of creativity. It also provides an engaging and diverse range of artists and styles, featuring more than 400 artists from more than 50 countries.
After reading our copy of “Great Women Artists,” we wrote to Rebecca Morrill, the book’s commissioning editor, with questions on the context for creating the book, selecting the artists, and providing a unique glossary that recontextualizes the history these women lived through.
Morgan Everhart: How did you get involved in the project?
Rebecca Morrill: Commissioning art books is my job at Phaidon Press, and while this often involves working with authors to develop their ideas into books, at other times it is about conceiving and executing our own projects under the umbrella of ‘Phaidon Editors.’ I have wanted to see a big, illustrated survey focused on women artists ever since I studied the subject at University in the mid-1990s (when so much of the reading material seemed to be very academic, being connected to feminist theory, or very text-heavy). When I began working at Phaidon, I realised that it was even more important for this kind of project to be undertaken in order to address the fact that female artists have been largely overlooked for generations. Phaidon, afterall, is the publisher of the world’s best-selling art history book (E.H.Gombrich’s “The Story of Art,” first published in 1950), and it only includes one female artist! (Käthe Kollwitz).
There has been an increased interest in art made by women over the past 10 years and this has allowed for a larger diversity of voices to been shown in galleries and museums worldwide. The re-energizing of global feminism in the wake of the #MeToo movement, created a context in which a women-only art book could be seen as a viable, mainstream endeavour, rather than a niche subject for a small audience, and so it finally seemed that the stars were aligning to make this project possible.
In your introductory text, you reference Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” as the inspiration for the design of the cover. On the cover, “Women” is crossed out. Were you involved in the design of it? Can you tell us more about the process of the design?
We knew we wanted the title and cover design to be very bold, so that it would be clear at a glance what the book was about, and so that it would “stand out” visually in bookshops just as Phaidon previously achieved with other important art surveys (such as “The Art Book”). The idea of striking through the word “women” came from Phaidon’s Publisher, Deborah Aaronson, and it immediately seemed to solve the quandary we were having of both whole-heartedly believing in the importance of doing a book on this subject, while also knowing the problematic issues around separating artists by gender. A line through this word is a simple gesture to demonstrate that we know that it should be enough to call these artists “great” without having to also mention that they are women, but that until there is 50/50 gender representation across the art world (and indeed the wider world) such rebalancing acts are still necessary, to increase awareness of artists whose names are not yet well-known. It’s been very rewarding that so many artists, reviewers and customers have picked up on this aspect of the book’s design and immediately understood and appreciated what it signifies. Thanks must go to the book’s designer, Astrid Stravo, who took this idea and made it into something so elegant and powerful.
In the introductory text, you mention the history of women who have resisted their work being categorized by their gender, for fear of being belittled. You also acknowledge the irrelevance of speaking about artists in terms of gender at all in contemporary society. Were there artists that declined the opportunity to be in this book?
I wondered when we started the project whether artists (and indeed the estates of deceased artists who are still in copyright) would refuse to be included on the grounds of being categorised by gender. As it happened, only a couple of artists declined and we didn’t push this matter as it is the prerogative of an artist to decline permission to reproduce their own work in a book without having to explain why. Furthermore, given how hard it was to narrow down the list already, we had no shortage of other artists we wanted to include, so this kind of self-selection actually made that easier.
It’s been interesting to get feedback from artists who are included in the book, after the book has come out: on the whole, they’re delighted to be featured, although some have expressed frustration that this kind of book still needs to happen. Aleksandra Mir put it very well when she posted the following on her Instagram: “I can only look forward to when the revisionist [sic] project to correct art history, collection displays and the market has been completed, and the culture at large will recognize the absurdity in measuring art according to hormones and genitals, the day we’re finally out of this ghetto and the moniker ‘Woman Artist’ becomes entirely obsolete.”
Did you use social media to find any of the artists in the book?
The long list was created by compiling lists of female artists who have featured in previous Phaidon books (both monographs and surveys) and in major solo exhibitions worldwide, and also with the help of the freelance consultant editor, the American, British-based art critic and curator, Karen Wright (who sadly became ill during the project and wasn’t able to continue working on it). She did an incredible job of building a long list of artists and arguing the case for the inclusion of some who she felt particularly passionate about: including a few I didn’t know myself. I don’t know whether she used social media in doing so, she simply arrived week after week with more names for consideration. I didn’t use social media myself because I don’t find it to be an easy way to look for information. It has proved a useful tool for helping promote the book—many of the artists featured in it have posted generous comments about the book on their profiles.
The glossary of the book, which provides context to where each individual artist is situated historically, provides a new structure for reviewing several generations of artists. Each term, style, and movement is organized alphabetically, like the artists. It seems that in retrospect, the book is not only reasserting these women’s places in history but also re-evaluating the way we reflect on how artists are categorized by time and material. Can you tell us more about developing the glossary? Did the glossary happen before, during, or after the narrowing of the list of 2,000 artists to 400 artists?
The glossary was the final thing to be written, and the decision to include one came out of the realisation that there was an assumed knowledge about what an art historical term, movement or style meant, which felt important to unpack. By doing so in a glossary rather than within the individual artist’s entry, it avoided the need to repeat this information for multiple artists (we couldn’t assume that a reader would move through the book from front to back so it wouldn’t be enough to simply deal with the definition the first time it occurred as one would normally do in a narrative book). Plus, as the word limit per artist was so short, it was better to use the available space to focus on the artist, rather than explaining definitions.
To start with, we thought a glossary could be compiled from the glossaries of existing Phaidon art books (many of which have thorough back matter of this kind), but I soon realised that many of these reiterated the exact patriarchal biases that have led to women artists being written out of history, (for example: citing names of artists connected to a particular style, but then all those names being of male artists) so I ended up rewriting many of the glossary definitions in ways that felt more ‘neutral’ or, at least, less dependent on upholding the dominant, narrow canon of art history. So you’ll see, for example, that the definition for Abstract Expressionism doesn’t namecheck figures of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, as one might normally see, but rather focuses on the kind of art the artists associated with it—male and female—were making. (Read Mary Gabriel’s excellent “Ninth Street Women” if you want to know more about that particular movement and the central role of women within it.)
As mentioned in the book’s introduction, the intention is not to exclude men entirely (hence individual artist entries do, where relevant, mention male figures in terms of the roles they played in women’s lives and artistic careers), but rather to broaden the existing story. In terms of the glossary, however, it felt important not to simply default to previously published examples. (In the future, I’d like to see museums, galleries and other institutions that create and uphold cultural value to think more about how they can demonstrate gender equality/neutrality in all of the texts they produce, from books to wall labels. It’s not enough to simply programme more women-only exhibitions—every time a curator lists four artists to contextualise a work, they should be thinking ‘who are the women who are part of this story?’) Don’t be so scared to include lesser-known names as examples. It’s the only way they will become better known!