Throughout history, certain women artists, especially in the West, have had greater resonance than others, such as Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) or Dora Maar (1907-1997). Often, however, these female artists were more recognized than others because of their family background or the acquaintances they had with other male painters. Below are five women artists from the past and the present, perhaps little known or even forgotten, who are united by their talent and desire to go against the rules imposed by society.
1. Female Artist of Abstract Expressionism: Janet Sobel
According to Ernst Gombrich, author of The History of Art, the forerunner of abstract expressionism was Jackson Pollock, who gradually eliminated unusual imagery in his paintings in favor of purely abstract variations. His rhythmical and expressive compositions were achieved through his drip technique. Few people know, however, that before him, Janet Sobel (1893-1968) used this technique and suffered from a latent lack of recognition as a painter throughout her career.
Sobel’s story is a turbulent one. She was born into a Jewish family in Dnipro, Ukraine. Her father lost his life in a pogrom when Sobel was very young, and she was forced to flee to New York with her mother and two brothers. At 16, she married a goldsmith with whom she had five children. Because of her difficult life, Sobel did not receive a formal education but she had a natural interest in art, music, and literature.
However, the critics of those years were not yet ready for the artist’s innovative style. Moreover, they struggled to classify her production characterized by the dripping technique that renders the idea of this rapid execution, as seen in Milky Way (1945). The critic Clement Greenberg himself only recognized Sobel as a housewife and primitive painter, making it clear that the artist’s work had no legitimacy.
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In 1945, Sobel was included in Peggy Guggenheim’s exhibition The Women.
To this day, Sobel is still not recognized as the inventor of dripping because the art community, just like the others, still struggles against a heavy patriarchal legacy in which only the creativity of men was nurtured and glorified. Nevertheless, her pioneering use of drip painting, along with her influence on Jackson Pollock and the development of abstract expressionism make her an important figure in the history of modern art.
2. Jeanne Mammen: The New Objectivity Artist
In 2018, the exhibition Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933, organized by the Tate Modern in London, gave visibility to the works of Jeanne Mammen (1890-1976). Four decades after her death, the artist was finally recognized in the international art scene. The Decadent movement, Art Nouveau and Symbolism strongly influenced her artistic production. In the 1920s in Germany during the First World War, Jeanne Mammen became associated with the New Objectivity art movement. Like the movement’s artists, Mammen’s works are characterized by naturalism and the satirical depiction of Germany after its defeat in World War I.
During the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, Mammen faced increasing scrutiny and censorship due to her unconventional artistic style and subjects. Her works were labeled degenerate art, and she was banned from exhibiting her work in official galleries. Despite these challenges, Mammen continued to create art privately and focused more on illustration and fashion design during this period.
Mammen’s paintings focus on the social life of Berlin and its inhabitants, as well as the transparent and opaque boundaries of the city, as in Ostende, am Strand (1926). The artist has benefited from cosmopolitanism in that her works are safe and discreet, whether she frequents elite circles or proletarian bars. Mammen merely records what is happening at the time without taking sides.
Her unique style, developed in French and Belgian schools, combines the creativity of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in depicting the demi-monde of fin-de-siècle Paris with a sober vision of Berlin life. Mammen also regularly creates parodistic public service announcements and collaborates with fashion houses, and her illustrations are periodically published in Chinese publications with mocking humor.
In the last phase of her artistic career, between 1960 and 1975, Mammen abandoned her characteristic stylistic plurality. In her works, there are no signs of a struggle with the outside world; instead, one gets the impression that the artist has time to work hard on each image.
While Mammen faced challenges and marginalization during her lifetime, her work has gained recognition and appreciation in recent years. Retrospectives and exhibitions have shed light on her artistic contributions, and her artwork is now celebrated for its unique style.
3. Emily Kame Kngwarreye: The Desert Art Movement
Emily Kame Kngwarreye (1910-1996) had a highly prolific artistic career and is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential Indigenous artists in Australian art history. After years of painting batik fabrics, she started painting on canvas in the late 1970s. Unlike many desert artists of the time, her compositions are abstract, dynamic, and with a strong sense of color. The artist’s visual language alludes to the narratives about ancestral spirits that created the universe and the stories of the aboriginal ancestors of the Western Desert, through intricate dot patterns and extensive drawings, as in Summer Celebration (1991).
Kngwarreye’s homeland of flora and fauna is easily identifiable in all her paintings. In fact, the works seem abstract, but when observed closely, subtle details reveal aspects of Aboriginal cultures, such as the yam flower, whose seeds allude to the life and beauty of the desert landscape. After her death, her work was selected to represent, together with other Australian Aboriginal artists, the Australian pavilion at the 1997 Venice Biennale. She and the other female artists’ presence on this occasion has been essential in introducing a female perspective.
Kngwarreye’s legacy continues to inspire and captivate art enthusiasts and collectors worldwide. Her ability to transcend cultural boundaries and convey a profound connection to the land through her art has left an indelible mark on the contemporary art scene, highlighting the richness and depth of Aboriginal artistic expression. Her works can be found in several international collections in the modern context. In particular, all major Australian museums, the British Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.
4. Shirin Neshat
Born in 1957 in Qazvin, Iran and relocated to the United States, Neshat is a multifaceted artist who explores the harsh reality of Muslim women in the Islamic world through her photographs, video installations, and performances. The artist’s best-known series is a series of black and white photographs entitled Women of Allah (1993-1997), resulting from her confrontation with her past. In fact, the series developed following the artist’s return to her homeland in 1990.
Iran’s political system at that time was deeply divided between democratic and dictatorial tendencies. Consequently, Neshat applied art as resistance to the oppressive government. Images such as Rebellious Silence (1994) evoke a silent power capable of communicating female strength through the steadfast gaze of women.
Following this photographic project, Neshat also began to approach filmmaking. Her film Women without Men (2009), inspired by the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, a writer imprisoned for several years, won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival. Her thought-provoking art has significantly impacted, sparking discussions about gender, culture, and identity in the global art world.
Although, the artist’s political activism is not limited to the Islamic world. Neshat’s work resonates with audiences around the world, transcending cultural boundaries and offering insights into the universal human experience. She addresses themes that are relevant also to broader discussions on politics and power dynamics.
In Land of Dreams (2019), the American dream and the myth of the West are compared with the policies adopted by Donald Trump’s presidency against human rights and vulnerable groups. This work highlights parallels between the US and Iran and the tensions between the two countries. With her works, which embrace both feminist themes and those of Iranian and American politics, Neshat shares an amplification of art as a means through which to exercise resistance and social responsibility.
5. Mickalene Thomas: Rebellious Female Artist
Rhinestones, acrylics, and colorful patterns are just some of the things that characterize Mickalene Thomas’ distinctive style. Born in 1971 in New Jersey, Mickalene became prominent in 2007 when one of her works sold for $30,000. Her works focus primarily on the representation of African American women through a reinterpretation and challenge of notions of feminine beauty.
Her works’ fresh perspective on femininity results from the artist’s need to go against the dominance of the male gaze in art. A gaze that can also influence the perception of history and art. Her artistic technique is reminiscent of Pop Art, and her provocative subjects, which proudly look at the viewer, are often obtained employing intricate collages and mixed-media installations.
The work Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: les trois femmes noires (2010) is a significant manifesto through which Thomas proposes a reinterpretation of Manet’s famous painting. The 2010 version shows this iconography in a modern key through the three African American female subjects while emphasizing the need for more visually inclusive art. Thomas’ exploration of race and identity adds depth and nuance to her artwork. Drawing from her own experiences as an African American woman, she sheds light on marginalized communities’ unique struggles and triumphs. By intertwining historical and cultural references, she confronts societal injustices and advocates for equality.
In recent years, her works have reached record figures, confirming the attention of collectors toward the artist. Mickalene Thomas’s impact extends far beyond the realm of art. Her boundary-pushing creativity is inspiring a new generation of artists, encouraging them to challenge conventions and express their authentic selves.