Why Men Like Straight Lines and Women Like Polka Dots: Gender and Visual Psychology - Gloria Moss 2014
The world of art
Men of each psychological type tend to admire the art produced by artists of the same type.
In 1994, a Frenchman named Jean-Marie Chauvet discovered a cave in the Ardèche Valley of south-eastern France. Now called the “Chauvet cave”, it contains paintings of animals dating back 32,000 years, making these the oldest cave paintings yet discovered. In terms of quality, they were said to rival the legendary cave paintings at Lascaux.
Who were the artists? Commentators made up in eloquence what they lacked in precision. Jean Clottes, a French cave expert, said that he “was standing in front of some of the great artistic masterpieces of mankind” and that these were the work of the “Leonardo da Vinci of the Ice Age”. He took it as read that the artists were male. Gombrich, author of The Story of Art, was moved to offer the laconic comments that: “Man is a great miracle.” Underpinning these flights of eloquence is the assumption that the artist was male and the British press illustrated appropriately with sketches of prehistoric man.
In itself, this assumption is nothing new. Paul Johnson, author of Art: A New History, has a discussion of cave art and describes cave artists as “great men who gave themselves airs.” He has enormous admiration for them and assumes that these were people with high social status. His logic is convincing. According to him, artists must have worked by torchlight and, since torches consume animal fats in large quantities, they must have been held in high esteem to be granted use of such precious resources. Secondly, whilst some of the best cave paintings must have been painted either standing up, lying down or squatting, others, painted on a gigantic scale or at heights many feet from the cave floor, would have required elaborate scaffolding. At Labastide in the Pyrénées, for example, an immense horse towers 14 feet above floor level. At Font de Gaume, the famous painting of a woolly rhinoceros is high up on a huge cave wall. At Lascaux, the evidence of scaffolding is provided by sockets cut into the walls.
Another argument for the elevated status of the artist lies in the fact that prehistoric artists probably had a large staff to assist them. The evidence for this is rooted principally in the magnitude of the task, and scale of support tasks needed before the artist could even begin their work. At Lascaux, for example, the big cave vault known as the Picture Gallery is over 100 feet long and 35 feet wide. At Rouffignac, the cave runs over six miles into the mountain, and some of its huge collection of drawing engravings are nearly seven feet long.
An abundance of support tasks would have been needed to underpin work of this scale. Lamps would need to be filled, torches held, scaffolding secured and brushes made from twigs, feathers, leaves and animal hairs. Moreover, paints would need to be mixed on a regular basis since some dried quickly and needed to be used quickly. Without this backup, it is unlikely that the artists could have transformed these cave interiors. Jean Clottes and Paul Johnson make the assumption that the highstatus individuals commanding these resources must have been men. Are they right?
Using the evidence we have collected for this book we can do some detective work to infer from the style and thematic content of the paintings information something about the gender and personality of the artist. In terms of themes, we find that expressions of life are preferred to expressions of violence with depictions of pregnant animals and the peaceful portrayal of dangerous adversaries such as fierce felines and cave bears. The depiction of a man felled by spears is an exceptional instance of violence, and the relatively greater emphasis on themes connected with life is more suggestive of female rather than male artistry.
A further clue as to the gender of artists in the Palaeolithic comes from the hundreds of statuettes and carvings found from the Russian steppe to south-west France and northern Spain. These rotund so-called ’Venus’ figurines all have exaggerated breasts, hips and abdomen. It is unclear exactly what their significance was but the choice of gender may be significant since very few, if any, figures have been found in the shape of men. Remembering that men and women have a tendency to depict their own sex, one could see how, if the artist had freedom to choose what they depicted, these could easily have been produced by women.
So much for themes. The shapes of the figures and figurines depicted also provide vital clues. If you look at the shape of the figurines, for example the famous Venus of Willendorf from Austria, you will see that it is made up entirely of round shapes and detailed beading around the head. The same rounded shapes occur in the depiction of animals in the caves, where there is a conspicuous absence of straight lines. The artists seem to take pleasure in depicting the curves of animals, their underbellies and their horns. The curves and the level of detail is just what you would expect women to produce.
One final factor can help us in this detective work. It concerns small ochre-red handprints found in several caves. In a fascinating article in art magazine Leonardo, the French scholar Michel Schmidt-Chevalier expresses the view that these would appear to be women’s hands, and he goes on to argue from this, as well as the plethora of female statuettes, that the artists in many of the caves in south-west France must have been women. If the evidence on shape and peaceable subject matter is also brought into the equation, then the case for female artistry becomes compelling.
Several thousand decades later, during the late Neolithic period, around four thousand years ago, a simple tier society took over, with the big chief and his men at the top, women and adolescents in second place, and children at the bottom of the structure. The art of this new society shows a mass of abstract geometrical ornament, and few attempts at representing animals or natural objects. It seems that the era of female dominance in art is over.
Cave art to modern art
It is tempting to take this exploration of primitive art forward to the art of modern man (and woman) and apply the same analytical techniques. We could ask what painterly fingerprints men and women leave behind in their work. This is speculative work and is not ’scientific’ in the sense of not using controlled samples. This proved much more difficult to achieve in the case of Fine Art than in Design, so I decided instead to select pairs of artists linked by family or marriage. Our investigation starts in the seventeenth century.
Seventeenth century flower paintings
We start with flower paintings, those exquisite but botanically improbable collections of blowsy tulips, roses, lilacs and lilies, spangled with jewel-like insects. As a fashionable person in seventeenth century Holland, you would be familiar with the names of Willem van Aelst and Maria van Oosterwyck, two of the most sought-after flower painters of the period. Van Oosterwyck was Van Aelst’s pupil and legend has it that she responded to his offers of marriage by proposing that he court her for a year and paint ten hours a day before they marry. Faced with this hurdle, it is not surprising that the romance never blossomed.
Despite this lack of conjugal success, both painters had much in common. Both specialised in flower paintings and both earned well. His work was said to fetch ’abnormally high prices’ while hers earned her enough to make it possible for her to donate major sums of money (1500 and 750 guilders) to free three Dutch sailors imprisoned as hostages by Algerian pirates.
How do their paintings compare? They both produced asymmetrical flower arrangements with van Aelst being one of the first to do this apparently; but if you compare their paintings, you will see subtle differences. In Willem’s paintings, the flowers tend to be large, whereas Maria painted a mixture of sizes, from large to very small with small blooms like lily of the valley and lilac filling up the space between some of the larger blooms. You will be hard put to find this in Willem’s paintings.
There are subtle differences in colour too. In Willem’s paintings, colours which stand opposite each other on the colour wheel (and are known as contrasting, or complementary colours) are often placed adjacent to each other. For example, blue and orange, opposite points on the colour wheel, are often placed adjacent to each other in his paintings. The adjacent placing of these two complementary colours makes for a strident contrast.
The colour wheel is a tool used by artists and designers which arranges the basic hues or colours in a ring showing the relationship they have to each other.
Traditionally the ring consists of twelve basic colours. Colours close to each other on the wheel are called harmonious colours. (An example of this would be reds, oranges and yellows.) Colours opposite each other on the ring are called contrasting or (slightly confusingly) complementary colours. Examples here are red and green, or orange and blue.
NB We have used both the expressions contrasting and complementary in this chapter: they mean the same thing.
It is interesting to see if Maria places these complementary colours in adjacent positions like Willem does. He was her teacher after all, and they were both living in the same period and working within the same genre.
Armed with a colour wheel, I looked at several of her paintings. I quickly noticed that although a pupil of his, she avoids this combination. Her palette consists of harmonious colours, keeping the complementary pairs apart. So, the blue-violet flowers are not adjacent to the yellow-orange ones but separated by red and white flowers. Our own research is beginning to show that this combination of colours is typical of women’s work. I have called this combination quadrant colours as they are often four spaces apart on the colour wheel (whereas contrast colours, opposite each other on the wheel, are six colours apart). This four-apart, quadrant combination has never been named before but I have noted it over a period of time in women’s work and consider it to be worthy of a name.
Several years ago, long before I had become interested in gender aesthetics, I met a friend at the National Gallery in London. We had a coffee and then wandered in to the Impressionists’ gallery nearby. Now I happen to be rather short-sighted and often forget to take my glasses from the car so the paintings made only the most general of impressions from a distance. However, of all the paintings in the Impressionist gallery, there was one that caught my eye and drew me in closer. What I saw first were shades of emerald green and blue, and as I moved closer I could make out the shape of two women in a boat with straw hats and blue clothes against a background of shimmering blue-green waters and emerald trees. Moving up close to spot the name of the painter, I noticed that it was Berthe Morisot and this is one of just fourteen paintings in the National Gallery by women, all two and a half thousand of the rest being by men.
Fast forward to the present day and I wondered what had drawn me to this particular painting. A trip to the library revealed that Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 and married Manet’s brother, Eugène. She exhibited in all the Impressionist exhibitions except for one after the birth of her daughter Julie and according to her biographer, Jean-Dominique Rey, left an output that was only “slightly less than Manet’s”. With just three years difference in their life spans and he only nine years her senior, it made sense to compare their artistic output.
I asked two students to independently examine ten paintings by Morisot and ten by Manet (selected at random) and, using a colour wheel, to note down the main colour combinations used. The paintings spanned the period from the 1860s to the 1890s so they were produced within the same short time frame. The number of paintings rated was small so this was in the nature of a pilot study, but the results of the two students showed surprising congruity. Where Morisot’s paintings were concerned, neither of the students noted instances where contrasting colours were placed adjacent to one another. When it came to Manet’s ten paintings, the first student noted seven occasions on which Manet employed contrasting colour, and the second student noted six.
When I went back and re-examined Morisot and Manet’s paintings in the light of these findings, the differences in the way they used contrasting colours become immediately apparent. Take Manet’s painting, Argenteuil at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Tournai, Belgium, for example. This painting shows a couple sitting against the backdrop of a harbour with brilliant blue water. The brown and orange in the couple’s hats and clothes form complementary colours to the blue in the water, and therefore contrast rather than blend with it. In the same sort of way, the brown and light blue stripes on the lady’s dress form complementary colours and contrast with each other. The figures do not blend into their environment, and the same could be said of The Plum, a painting by Manet in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. This shows a young lady in pink against a light green backdrop, another juxtaposition of complementary colours with the effect, inevitably, to make her stand out from the background.
Compare these paintings with those by Morisot from the same period. The painting from the National Gallery in London that had caught my eye all those years ago, Summer’s Day, shows two ladies in a rowing boat wearing clothes that are on the blue-violet spectrum. The backdrop formed by water and trees is painted in shades and tints of green. Green and blue-violet are very close on the colour wheel so the women blend in more with their surroundings than do the Manet figures. The same colour scheme appears in Morisot’s A Woman and Child in a Garden in the National Gallery of Scotland, and in Lady with a Parasol Sitting in a Park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. What we see in both paintings are characters clothed in blue-violet with a background etched out in green. In the New York painting, the bench on which the lady is sitting is the same colour as her dress and parasol, thereby again reducing contrast between the person and their environment. If we think back to the issue of men and women’s relative field dependence, we can see Morisot’s paintings as examples of women’s greater field dependence and Manet’s of men’s great independence. As we saw, women tend to prefer things to blend in, and men to stand out.
We could pause for a moment to consider the implications of these tendencies. If men and women like the sort of art that they would produce themselves (an example of the ’own-sex preference’ we have referred to earlier), then male gallery curators and art dealers — historically a group in the majority — are likely to prefer men’s over women’s work, ’hunter’ over ’gatherer’ work. Maybe this explains why, as we saw earlier, women’s or ’gatherer’ work constitutes only a tiny proportion of paintings exhibited in the National Gallery of London and elsewhere. If, historically, women had predominated as dealers and curators, our National Galleries might be filled with women’s painting. As things stand, most National Galleries are displays of men’s art and should be dubbed “National Galleries of Men’s Art” since that seems to be their primary mission. The way of seeing of the opposite sex is largely ignored, possibly because it has less appeal to those deciding on acquisitions.
This is not such a crazy view as it may at first sound. Griselda Pollock, Professor of Social and Critical Histories of Art at the University of Leeds, wrote in her 1988 book Vision and Difference that “women had always been involved in the production of art but … our culture would not admit it.” She also comments that: “… it was only in the twentieth century with the establishment of art history as an institutionalised academic discipline that most art history systematically obliterated women artists from the record.”
Ironically, a large proportion of the viewing public is female and, if my experience is typical, they would derive as much pleasure from seeing women’s art as men do from seeing men’s art. I am not alone in thinking along these lines. Not so long ago, I had lunch with a well-known art historian at Cambridge University. Did he think that the paintings of men and women were different? He paused as he poured himself a glass of wine. “It certainly appears that women are more sensitive to colour than men and this is one of the things that has fuelled the debate over the centuries as to the relative importance of drawings and paintings.”
He went on to describe the heated debate that raged between the Florentines and the Venetians in the sixteenth century as to which of draughtsmanship and colour were more important. This debate was still alive in the seventeenth century but this time it took root in France, with the French Académie playing down the importance of colour. Later, over in England, Locke argued for the primacy of shape and the lesser importance of colour on the basis that shapes and space were apprehended by the mind whilst colour was apprehended through the senses. Since mind was superior to senses, form must be superior to colour.
By the time we were both tucking into the crème brûlée, the story had reached the nineteenth century and Charles Blanc, then Director of the Department of Decorative Arts at the Ministry of the Interior in Paris. He wrote some of the most influential texts on colour in his time, and I was astonished to hear him say that Blanc described drawing as the masculine part of art, and colour as the feminine, and nearly spilled my coffee when I heard his description of complementary colours as “victorious allies when they appear side by side.” That might be a view that men and women might not buy into equally!
It was back to the library to consider a further pair of artists. This time, Mary Cassatt and Degas. Mary Cassatt, although American, spent much of her life in Paris and in 1877 experienced a life-changing event. The painter Degas came to visit her studio in Montmartre and, impressed by her work, suggested that the two of them bypass the rigid jury-based Salon system and exhibit instead alongside the Impressionists. “I accepted with joy,” Mary recalled years later. “I hated conventional art. I began to live.” She never again submitted anything to a juried show and this single meeting with Degas, a kindred spirit artistically, allowed her to progress from a competent professional to one of the most original artists of her generation.
You can see from their attitude to the Salon system that both artists shared a common set of artistic priorities and this justifies a comparison of their work. As with our examination of Morisot and Manet paintings, this is not a scientific exercise but one that will give a flavour of these artists’ use of colour.
Let’s begin with Mary Cassatt’s Susan on a Balcony Holding a Dog, now in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. This shows a girl sitting on her balcony with a backdrop of trees and Montmartre. In terms of colours, this painting uses similar colours as the two paintings of Berthe Morisot described earlier and Cassatt has even included a vertical strip in the interior to match the green colour beyond the balcony. This helps bind the environment of the girl to the world beyond, just as in Morisot’s Lady with a Parasol Sitting in a Park there was a concern to blend the human figure with the immediate environment. Another of Cassatt’s paintings, Five O’Clock Tea, shows two young women on a settee, their clothes painted in the same blue-violet colours as the nearby wallpaper, mantelpiece and tea set. So once again, they blend in with their environment.
It is interesting to compare these paintings by Morisot with two by Degas from the same period. One is The Star and the other, Dancers Climbing the Stairs, both in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. These are well-loved, familiar images with the first showing the star of the show dancing a solo turn on an empty stage. Her tutu is speckled with red and yellow flowers and her black velvet neckband trails to her side, suggesting movement. Colour-wise, the main colours are the blue-green tone of the stage and the red-orange colour of the flowers on her tutu and hair, opposite colours on the colour wheel. The second painting shows dancers climbing stairs to a rehearsal area, with their tutus in light blue and the rehearsal area in orange. Once again, these colours are complementary, opposite colours on the colour wheel.
So, next time you buy a birthday card and see reproductions of these well-loved paintings, ask yourself which you feel most drawn to. It could just be that the choice of colours is playing a subtle role in your preferences.
Twentieth century decorative artists
An explosion of interest in the decorative arts took place in the first quarter of the last century with Roger Fry, painter and art critic, encouraging young artists to earn a living not merely through the sometimes chancy sale of their canvases, but also through interior decoration and the design of objects such as tables, chairs, jugs, bowls, vases and boxes. The idea was that these should harmonise with wall-paintings, curtains and soft furnishings.
His Omega Workshops whose idealism sadly only lasted a few years, due in part to the outbreak of World War I, presented work principally from the circle of artists around husband and wife designers Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Their near lifetime of artistic collaboration is epitomised by the decoration of almost every surface of their unconventional home Charleston in Sussex, now open to the public. A comparison of their work should be fruitful since, like the other pairs of artists looked at, both were working within the same artistic tradition, in this case the Applied Fine Arts. A comparison of a small sample of their extensive output will be intriguing.
In the 1930s, Bell and Grant were commissioned to produce plate designs for Clarice Cliff. There are superficial similarities insofar as both show a floral centrepiece with a border. Look more carefully, however, and you will see that all the elements of Duncan Grant’s design are separate and self-contained (sometimes contained within the boundaries of rectangular boxes). Vanessa’s meanwhile shows flowers and circles overlapping and crossing the boundaries of their background. If you compare her fabric design with the carpet design Duncan Grant wove for Virginia Woolf at the same time, you will see how they share a common set of motifs but that his are large, bold and detached, and her forms are filled with fine polka dots and small additional details and the circles that make up the border are shown intertwined.
To the end of the twentieth century
Artists have a habit of being drawn to each other romantically and you can probably think of several examples from the early modern period: Augustus John and his first wife, Ida Nettleship who he met while art students at the Slade; Picasso and painter Françoise Gilot, famously the only one of his women who left him); Henry Moore and Irina Radetsky, a painting student at the RCA. In rare cases, both partners achieved artistic fame, and twentieth century cases include Sonia and Robert Delaunay as well as Ben Nicholson and his first and second wives, Winifred Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Given the prominence achieved by both parties in these relationships, it will be interesting to compare the work of these husband and wife teams.
Starting with Sonia and Robert Delaunay. Sonia was born in modern-day Ukraine to humble parents — her father was a foreman in a nail factory and she was adopted by her more affluent aunt and uncle who gave her a privileged upbringing in St Petersburg. Her skill at drawing was spotted by her teacher who initiated her move to art school in Germany, from whence she moved to Paris in 1905. After marriage to a homosexual art gallery owner, possibly to forestall calls to return to Russia, she met Robert Delaunay, became pregnant, divorced and remarried. They became leaders of a movement known as Orphism, one that attempted to soften Cubism with lyrical colour. So the Delaunays’ paintings, unlike the mainly monochrome cubist works by Picasso and Braque, consist of bright hues with bold, repeating patterns. There is much that superficially seems to unite these painters. Let us now look at their work in a little more detail.
Robert painted several versions of the Eiffel Tower, with his first one dating to 1909. This first painting shows a brightly coloured tower with adjoining shades of green and red-orange and this bold use of complementary colours and his exaltation of what he called “simultaneous contrasts” were strongly influenced by the works of Michel-Eugène Chevreul, former director of dyes at the national Gobelins textile factory in Paris. Chevreul’s classic ’colour theory’ text of 1839, The Law of Simultaneous Colour Contrast, describes the combination of near complementary hues as “superior to every other” and, in his own writings some seven decades later, Robert Delaunay notes that “colour simultaneity through simultaneous contrast […] is the only real way for constructing a painting.” So you have Robert Delaunay’s abstract painting Rhythm which positions split complementaries next to each other and does so with razor sharp precision.
The apparent similarity between Robert’s work and that of his wife is in fact misleading. Her paintings never achieve the razor sharp clarity that characterises his work and the slightly whimsical character of her work finds expression also in the fabric patterns that she produced in abundance. In all her work, she seems to delight in using irregular, blurred outlines and curvy shapes and lots of detail. You can delight in looking at a pink scrolling design with blue-violet extended dots, or a blue pattern with myriad red polka dots. There is a mass of detail here, as well as colours that are no more than four apart on the colour wheel.
Interestingly, she was very aware of the differences between their work, claiming that she worked intuitively and that her husband was the scientist. “My life was more physical,” she recalled in 1978. “He would think a lot, while I would always be painting. We agreed in many ways but there was a fundamental difference. His attitude was more scientific than mine when it came to pure painting because he would search for justification of theories.”
A similar difference springs from a comparison of Winifred and Ben Nicholson’s work. These artists were married for eleven years and during the time they were together, his work, like hers, was representational. It was only after he took up with Barbara Hepworth that his style settled into the stark, abstract idiom that was quite unlike that of his earlier years. Before we compare their work, it is appropriate to compare their artistic education.
Both Ben and Winifred Nicholson had been to art school, she to the Byam Shaw School of Art where she completed a degree, and he to the Slade where he completed no more than the first year. In the time they were married, they exhibited jointly and there is much to unite their early oeuvre. Both painted representational scenes and both employed naïve, childlike shapes. When it comes to colour, however, the similarity ends. In his Still Life on a Table, now in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in New Brunswick, Canada, the dominant colour is brown. Compare this with Winifred’s Honeysuckle and Sweetpeas, now in the Aberdeen Art Gallery, or Flowers in a Green Jug (showing an irregular shaped vase with an abundance of small flowers tumbling out of it) and you will immediately perceive a difference. The colour palette in both her paintings consists of bright colours, as against his darker colours, and colours that are no more than four spaces apart on the colour wheel.
Brilliant and subtle colours typify Winifred’s work and we know from her writings that this was no accident. Although fine art training at the time tended to subordinate colour to line and drawing, her travels, particularly a visit to India in 1919, led her to explore fresh aspects of tonality and light. By 1937, she was writing about how “colour was used as melody by the Easterns” while Ben Nicholson had launched himself into a prolonged love affair with abstract forms. In fact, his work was characterised by forms that were stark, colourless and angular.
The appearance of ’hunter’ characteristics in his work can be found in his use of dark colours and angular forms and is paralleled in his passion for ball games. He loved tennis, table tennis and a game called ’shut-eye golf’ in which you had to memorise the shape of an imaginary golf course on paper and then, after shutting your eyes, attempt to draw lines between the holes without hitting an obstacle. The sculptor, Henry Moore, also played the game and described it as relying on “visual memory” as well as “a judgement of distances and angles”, skills that he said Ben Nicholson enjoyed using “enormously”, and applying in his painting. If you think about it, these are all ’hunter’ skills and maybe what you can observe in his paintings are finely-tuned hunter skills. What you observe in Winifred’s paintings, on the other hand, are skills that are of the ’gatherer’ variety.
Some people will be squirming at the suggestion of hunter and gatherer fine art skills but an appreciation of varying visual skills may help in understanding the factors that, in a given era, lead certain work to be excluded from galleries. Artistic waves mean that style will vary with time and the curves of the Romanesque, Rubens portraits and the Art Nouveau Paris Metro bronzes, works produced by men, would need to be set alongside contemporary work by women in order to highlight the contrast in style. The mere fact that curves are used does not lend them ’gatherer’ status since it is usually the gestalt of the work that carries the ’hunter’ or ’gatherer’ imprint.
It is likewise the gestalt of the work that will influence vital decisions by the hanging committee. As we saw in an earlier chapter, men can have a disproportionate influence on hanging committees and curatorial posts and the ’self-selecting’ phenomenon is likely to lead men to prefer men’s work over women’s. We are not suggesting that this is a conscious process but one rooted in a visual fellowship between one hunter and another. There will of course be men who do not follow the hunter mould just as there will be women who resist the gatherer way of seeing. In fact, one could plausibly take the view that women whose artistic style is most closely matched to the hunter way of seeing are most likely to have their work accepted by the hunter-dominated world of the world’s Galleries.
A glimpse at the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York provides an illustration of this since 95% of its collection is by men. This is not to deny the celebrity of what is on offer here since the collection is a veritable roll-call of the famous in the fields of paintings, sculpture, design and architecture. You can amuse yourself, and I can commit the ultimate heresy in fine art terms, by identifying the real Hunters amongst them. We might start with Gauguin’s The seed of the Areoi, a painting showing a naked lady seated on a blue mat with her feet resting on an orange surface. The striking colour contrasts are there also in Derain’s Fishing Boats with blue and orange set against each other again. Picasso’s Guitar would be another piece of hunter art with the normal curves of the guitar reduced to square shapes etched in dark brown.
Other hunter forms, with elongated lines, are seen in the work of Giacometti, Rennie Mackintosh (familiar elongated chairs allowing for privacy), Frank Lloyd Wright (notice the heavyweight, dark brown ’side’ chair with elongated rectangular piece of wood providing the backpiece) and Richard Sapper (his Tizio lamp with dark elongated lines of black metal). This is some collection. Walking through MOMA is to walk past iconic examples of the History of Art and Design for the last two hundred years. It is also to be exposed to the unique hunter way of seeing.
Surprisingly — or perhaps not so surprisingly given the prominence of hunter art in the artistic canon — the female work that has been selected by the Museum also displays a love of the linear, extended forms and lack of colour. You have only to see the white crumpled cans of Eva Hesse, the thin, elongated shapes of Louise Nevelson and blocks of white stone by Rachel Whiteread to see examples. In the architecture and design section, likewise, you can see it in the selection of work by Eileen Gray. One of her pieces is a screen constituted of grey and black rectangular blocks while another is a standard lamp Tube Lamp with an elongated tube of vertical chrome. From Anni Albers, a leading member of the Bauhaus, and one of the few women in that movement, we have two wall hangings. Both are formed entirely from linear motifs of rectangles and squares and, in terms of colour, the second is constituted entirely of shades of grey. Next, from Florence Knoll, we have a rather severe, square coffee table and from Louise Bourgeois a piece, Articulated Lair (there’s a hunter name for you), with large chrome screens supporting black rubber shapes resembling body parts or, according to the narrator on the MOMA video, “swords in a hunter’s cave”. Speaking of it herself, Bourgeois commented that, “The security of a lair can also be a trap where a hunter is storing his prey,” so the pre-eminence of the hunter style in the work by women in MOMA could not really be clearer.
Just occasionally, something closer to a gatherer-type style is on display. Examples include Polly Apfelbaum’s circular collage of jewel-coloured velvet pieces, or Eva Zeisel’s small salt and pepper shakers resembling a playful family of seals. You could look also for Ellen Gallagher’s collage of muted pink squares and see the way that they avoid sharp alignment. Look out also for another of her pieces (unnamed this one) that uses pink dots as part of an irregular oval shape. Enjoy these examples of gatherer art since much of the rest of the Museum is devoted to the Hunter legacy. I say this not because either aesthetic is better than the other but simply because human beings can produce works at either end of the Hunter and Gatherer aesthetic extremes, and life is richer when it serves up works produced in both the hunter and gatherer modes.
MOMA could do this but some of its more overtly ’gatherer’ work is actually not on display. For example, the work of Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s greatest living artist, are not in view even thought the Museum has 17 pieces of this artist’s work. These include smaller works — so easier to find space for — that date back to the 1950s and which use her trademark dots, whether black pen dots on paperboard or mauve spots on a mauve background. Yayoi, now 84 years of age, has been described as the “princess of the polka dots” since so much of her work features this pattern. An early work Horseplay was a photograph of Yayoi posing with a horse, with the artist wearing an all in white bodysuit decorated with polka dots, and the horse likewise covered in giant dots. Later, she produced room-size installations with walls, floor and giant balloons festooned with polka dots and much of her oeuvre held by MOMA feature this pattern.
Incidentally, the undercover feminist movement, the Guerrilla Girls, railed against the male domination of fine art although they never used the terms ’hunter’ and ’gatherer’. After twenty years of campaigning against the male-domination of the world’s art galleries, they say that: “it’s even worse in Europe” than in the US. The figures for the National Gallery in London speak volumes. Out of a collection of 2,500 paintings, 14 are by women, giving women a 0.5% showing in this national gallery. These statistics speak eloquently of the dominance of the hunter vision in London. In the US, things may be slightly better, but hunter vision still rules the roost, even in museums of modern art where you would expect a greater balance between the genders given women’s greater participation in art in the modern period. However, in the permanent collection of painting and sculpture in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, only 19 items on view in 2006 were by women (less than 5%); after the public was made aware of this under-representation, the displays were changed, but for the worse — only 14 of 400 pieces the following year were by women (3.5%). At the nearby Guggenheim, between 2000 and 2006, only 14 per cent of the museum’s solo shows were devoted to women.
For those who like the balanced forces of Yin and Yang, you can come away from galleries suffering something of a surfeit of Yang. After a day’s hunting, with straight shapes, dark colours and elongated forms, it can be revivifying (for women at least) to settle down to scrumptious colours, curvy shapes, compact forms, and a different take on the world.
Gallery curators take note! Nathan Richie, education programs manager at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in Chicago, studied gender patterns in art museum visitation and perceived a link between who works in museums and who visits. He found that when male curators at art museums started doing exhibitions of motorcycles and cars, male attendance at those museums rose significantly. So what proportion of museum and gallery curators are men? According to Marjorie Schwarzer, Professor and Chair of Museum Studies at John F. Kennedy University in Berkeley, California, the situation in 2007 was that men hold sway over boards of directors, major donor lists and pay scales; they occupied 53 per cent of executive director positions and 75 per cent of CEO seats at the nation’s largest and best-funded institutions.
While the management of art galleries may be skewed to men, attendance favours women. According to Eileen Hooper-Greenhill, in a book in 2013 on museums and their visitors, visitors to art galleries are more likely to be women than men. Statistics from individual surveys show a slight excess of women visitors over men with a 2005—06 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that 25 per cent of women attended galleries, compared to 20 per cent of men. In the UK, according to a MORI report on Museums and Branding strategy in 2000, visitors to galleries tend to comprise more women (55% vs. 44% men).
Since women compose the majority of visitors to museums of all sizes — such is the allure of culture to the female half of the species — offering a more balanced diet could serve to increase their appeal. Moreover, since women spend more money than men on audio guides and in the gallery shop and café (Schwarzer, 2007), attracting more women would make sound business sense. So in addition to any moral argument that there might be in favour of a greater gender balance in fine art collections with a more even hunter/gatherer presence, there is a strong business case as well.
Our brief foray into the world of Art must now be abandoned in favour of a glimpse at the impact of difference on relationships.