Before the 20th century, you could have counted the number of women artists (other than dainty amateur watercolourists) on the fingers of one hand — and still have had one or two digits left over. Go on. Start with Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652), skip a whole century to Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), and again for Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Mary Cassastt (1844-1926).
When you hit the 20th century, you quickly run out of digits. There was an explosion of art by strong, determined women: Surrealists, Modernists, Abstract Expressionists… Towering over all of them is Frida Kahlo, that heroine of all contemporary female painters — especially those who manipulate their image as part of their practice.
Left: Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #36, 2012-2015 © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery. Right: Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #2, 2012-2015 © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery. michaelhoppengallery.com
Kahlo’s story is so well-known that it doesn’t need telling here — though three exhibitions this summer will certainly add a lot to the Kahlo we thought we knew. First — at that excellent London gallery Michael Hoppen — is Ishiuchi Miyaka’s FRIDA, an featuring photographs of some 300 pieces of clothing and objects owned — and highly decorated — by Kahlo. Her husband, Diego Rivera, locked all of them in a bathroom at their home the Blue House when she died, the room remaining sealed until 2004. Her decorated prosthetic leg alone is worth a visit, offering an understanding of how, as the exhibition essay puts it, Kahlo used her clothes as ‘visual armour’.
Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida by Ishiuchi #86, 2012-2015 © Ishiuchi Miyako. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery. michaelhoppengallery.com
Two interlocking exhibitions in New York strike, one might say, a more cheerful note: At The New York Botanical Garden, Frida Kahlo: Art, Garden, Life is a living essay on the importance of nature and plants in Kahlo’s life as an artist, recreating part of the Blue House and its garden, for the delight of the visitor. It is on until the leaves fall — 1 November.
Last — but by no means least — is Mirror Mirror… at New York’s Throckmorton Fine Art , featuring fascinating studies by, amongst others, Carl van Vechten, Edward Weston, André Breton, Dora Maar and Gisèle Freund, who photographed Kahlo in the last days of her life.
There was one challenger to Kahlo’s position as the most legendary female artist of the early 20th century, and that was Amrita Sher-Gil — the eminent Indian painter whose incredibly rare self-portrait, painted at the age of 18, is to be sold at Christie’s on 10 June.
Half Hungarian, half Indian, the exotic — and thoroughly liberated Sher-Gil — caused a fantastic stir in amongst the artists and socialites of 1920s Paris — a city that was already in love with all things grand and Indian, but especially when it came packaged with the extraordinary talent and beauty of this artist. Her story is fascinating and sad, in a way, much like Frida Kahlo’s, and she died at just 29.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Justifying Doctor’s Note, 2010. Oil on canvas © Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, and Corvi-Mora, London.
Not so sad is the third female painter I write about this week. Born in London, Lynette Yiadom Boakye is of Ghanaian descent, and studied at Central Saint Martins and The Royal Academy Schools. Fast becoming an international start, she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2013 (I think she should have won it) and now has a Catherine wheel of a show (all sparks) at London’s Serpentine Galleries. The exhibition features the artist’s imaginary cast of characters, painting with such scale, bravura and strength that they haunt you. Her name, I think, should be immediately added to the canon of women artists who have transcended prejudice to become superstars both in, and beyond their own time.
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