Modern & Contemporary Art

specialises in framed modern and contemporary art by 20th century artists


The position of women in 20th-century British sculpture

IT WAS IN the summer of 1985 when I was building a large sculpture at the Portland Clifftop Sculpture Park that I was struck by the equal numbers of men and women sculptors participating. Furthermore the women were, on the whole, using the heavy plant such as cement mixers and dumper trucks for the making of their projects, which were mainly large scale and very ambitious.

This raised interesting questions about the numbers of women working as sculptors. On my return from this residency, I attempted to look into the work of women sculptors but found a dearth of information on them although there was a growing volume of information on painters. I therefore decided to embark on this research as an M. Phil. with the University of Leeds.

Deciding I needed direct access to women sculptors, I sent out questionnaires carefully designed to elicit information on how their development towards sculpture evolved from the earliest years, detailing their art education, materials used and the sources for their sculpture, where they work and how they exhibit. Questions were also asked on their attitudes towards the feminist movement, their views on equitability for women sculptors, fitting in partners and children, as well as inviting comments on various procedures in sculpture and their views not only on the future for women in sculpture but also on the state of sculpture in general.

The questions were designed to elicit answers that go to the heart of women in their relationship to sculpture. I realised that I had to create my own archive, as there was nowhere that information of this kind could be found, because the kind of questions I asked were not just factual but probed into areas which had never been documented.

I had an enthusiastic response from all the organisations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that I contacted for lists of women sculptors. Mostly they responded with general lists and all showed interest in any Index that might result from the research. I was overwhelmed with the amazing response to the questionnaire and to date have received around 250 replies together with numerous phone calls and letters of support and encouragement for the project. I

was delighted with the enthusiasm and humbled by the honesty with which the women answered the questions in depth; many added extra pages of information when the spaces were too small for all that they had to say. Several wondered how I had found them as they had thought that they were invisible. Their ages ranged from birthdates in the early 1900s to the 1960s which gives a very clear overview of women working as sculptors today. I am also in the process of interviewing several sculptors each of whom fulfil different criteria, for a more detailed discussion on various topics.

All this information is now being collated and will result in not only a survey of women sculptors living, working and surviving in Britain today, but also should produce an Index of women sculptors which will be available eventually for reference. Should anyone reading this who has not received a questionnaire or who has received one but not returned it completed, contact me at Mount Pleasant Farm, 105 Moss Lane, Bramhall, Cheshire SK7 1EG, as this is a continuing project and is by no means complete.

Although the information is at present still being digested, the striking impression is that there is a tremendous amount of confidence among women regarding not only their future as sculptors but also the future for women in the sculpture world. No longer are they hidden as they used to be but are determined that they and their work will be seen.

The majority of the sculptors have had formal training within the art school system. Some found it helpful and constructive, others found it unhelpful and very destructive. Mostly courses were seen to be a combination but it became obvious that, for an alarming number of women, many bitter memories were aroused due, not only to a lack of understanding of their work by the invariably male lecturers and the issues raised by it, but also to the lack of women lecturers employed both part-time and full-time as role models. Sexual harassment was another issue raised. There were, of course, those who found the courses of great benefit and had no complaints, but it is an interesting point that whatever their reactions were to the varied courses, the majority felt that they were necessary for the development of their work because of the opportunities the course gave in time, materials, the chance to learn necessary skills, contact with fellow students and the invigorating effect of visiting lecturers, particularly when they were women.

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It is clear that the attitudes of women today are much more positive not only about themselves and their work but also about their place in the art world. This is evident in the choice of materials for their sculpture, much of which is unorthodox and non-traditional, such as cloth, paper, leather, polythene, even soil and photography, as well as the more commonly accepted ones of clay, wax, wood, stone, steel and bronze, as are their methods of making the work. As well as utilising the more conventional methods of carving/modelling/casting, women now have the confidence to make work in whatever media or about whatever subject they choose, and using whichever method of making is appropriate because it is suitable for that particular sculpture rather than adhering to traditional sculptural concerns. Should they choose to stay with conventional methods it is because they have decided to and want to, not because they feel they have to. It is this freedom that makes the future for women in sculpture look so positive. No longer are they hidebound by a conservative outlook because of their past insecurity and hidden art history; they are now able to enjoy a freedom hitherto unknown which enables them to explore their own world of sculpture and create their own traditions.

However the future is not all rosy and many feel that there will be still a great deal of struggle to succeed. Opinion is clearly divided about the way forward. There are those who wholly support and feel that the future lies in women’s shows; on the other hand there are those who feel that separatism is to be avoided and strongly criticise the whole concept of women’s shows; there is obviously room for both views, and women now have the choice of participating in either women’s shows or mixed shows and have the freedom and confidence to exhibit in both.

A large majority of women sculptors agree that equitability is improving; there is a small minority who disagree, a few feel unsure about the issue and there are those who feel that there is no gender difference apparent. However there are reservations, and frequently women are still thought to be included in major shows as tokens. ‘Starlit Waters’, British Sculpture 1968-1988, the opening sculpture exhibition at the Tate of the North, in Liverpool, illustrates the point in question; out of 18 sculptors only two, Alison Wilding and Shirazeh Houshiary, are women.

The women’s movement must have contributed to this changed climate, even if it was only recognised subconsciously. Many admit that the women’s movement has personally affected them, their life and their work; others acknowledge its impact; very few feel it hasn’t affected them at all. Several older sculptors wished that it had happened much earlier so that they too could have reaped the benefits sooner.

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Attitudes of art administrators, gallery owners and keepers, critics and art historians came in for much criticism. Many were praised for being helpful and supportive, equally others were criticised for unhelpfulness and for being patronising. Alarmingly some were accused of being careerists and of exploiting artists to further their own careers; inevitably there were those who were cited as being too commercially minded and reluctant to show certain kinds of work which may not find favour in the selling market, and finally there was evidence of straight chauvinism. But on the whole most artists had had some good experiences with them though it was felt that critics and art historians tended to support the star system rather than risking support for an unknown. Some women complained bitterly that their work was literally written out of art history or ignored by critics. This is a serious accusation which I found to be true (hence this research) and I, as a practising sculptor, am attempting to redress the balance by producing information about and a history of contemporary women sculptors.

Fitting partners and children in with working as a sculptor bring its own problems, many typical of any working woman. However it became apparent that the problems of women sculptors were in many ways different to those of other working women. Sculpture and/or art is not just a job or a profession but a lifestyle which can become wholly consuming not only in time and energy but also in the emotion and passion which goes into the making of it. The dedication needed to be a sculptor can create problems within the family whereby resentment can arise at the amount of time, energy and commitment required. Happily, many partners were and are found to be supportive, financially, emotionally and physically; some were supportive to an extent. Sadly, others were non-supportive and frequently the relationship was dissolved because their partner could not accept the demands of sculpture as a career, and a choice was made. A surprising number of women wait until the children are old enough to be left or at school before embarking on a career in sculpture–numerous mature students responded. It is obvious that unless a woman has a support system for looking after children, furthering one’s career was definitely impeded. Even Barbara Hepworth’s triplets were cared for until they were three at a nearby nurses’ training college, which gave her the time to work, and after that she employed a nanny. (1) Although children were never regretted, in spite of working time becoming extremely precious, partners frequently were. Unexpectedly, a considerable number had decided not to have children as they felt that they would be unable to continue working, confirming the total commitment they had made to sculpture. On a more positive note, partners and children frequently provided the inspiration or source material for work, even modelling at times.

This is a provisional report on a massive archive collected over the last 18 months and can only indicate questions raised within it. The survey is not a critical one; it is a sociological and economic survey to discover how women live and work as sculptors in the United Kingdom, how they survive, how they feel about their work and how they manage their lives. It is targeted at the unknown sculptor as well as the famous: their problems are similar, as are their hopes, dreams and criticisms. As one sculptor said so succinctly: ‘The future of women in sculpture is the future of sculpture itself’.

Published by art17, on November 3rd, 2014 at 3:49 am. Filled under: SculptureNo Comments

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