“For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue. I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.” – Helen Frankenthaler.
I was never particularly entranced by photography until I saw “House #3, Providence, Rhode Island,” from 1976, by Francesca Woodman. The photograph is strikingly unusual. Woodman utilizes a long exposure time to meld into her surroundings. Her face and body are barely visible; she is part wall, part human, part ghost. The only discernible body part is her leg. The location of the photograph adds to its unusual nature. The fireplace suggests a home, but the worn floors and peeling wallpaper make the space appear inhospitable.
Many art historians have interpreted Woodman’s disappearing act psychologically. Scholars suggest that Woodman made herself part wall, part human and part ghost because she wanted to disappear, to be small. They see her as a tragic victim, an art-historical Ophelia drowning in her creative powers. Feminist scholars, in comparison, reject Woodman as a victim. Instead, she radically commented on women’s objectification and 20th-century American femininity. Woodman’s artwork becomes a means of understanding Woodman the person, rather than as an artist. This makes her a spectral presence, not only in her own artwork but also in the interpretation of the artwork. Woodman haunts her creative powers rather than actively interacting with them; she is mythologized but never understood. She disappears from her own story.
I believe Woodman’s constant disappearing acts bolster her presence rather than diminish it. What is disappearance? Disappearance is the act of something ceasing to be visible, not invisibility. The more I considered “House #3” it became a compelling metaphor for the status of women throughout art history.
Female artists are always performing disappearing acts. Seventeenth-century artist Joanna Koerten made such beautiful paper cutouts that contemporaries compared her to Michelangelo, as one poet wrote: “When Michelangelo and Apelles wanted to make a painting they made use of paint. But J. Koerten makes a blow with the chisel. In cutting paper, she paints everything according to nature.” There she is, in the same breath as Michelangelo. The list goes on: Angelika Kauffmann was one of two female painters among the founding members of the Royal Academy in London in 1768. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun made portraits for royalty. Augusta Savage was a pivotal sculptor in the Harlem Renaissance, whose work as a teacher inspired a generation of artists. And yet, these women are rarely acknowledged.
The notion that society did not allow female artists any recognition makes them footnotes or part of an alternative canon. We should not see including women in the canon as a gift—begrudgingly given—to align with liberal politics. Women made an impact. You cannot understand art history without them. There are forces like class and race that allowed some women to succeed more than others, but they existed. We can only see them if we acknowledge that they were once there and if we see the visibility within the act of disappearance.
Exclusion from the narrative of art history does not mean exclusion from art production or creative impulses. Marginalized people throughout history have always spoken, but speaking does not guarantee that others will listen. What voices past historians have deemed essential to hear and remember is often subjective and maddeningly unfair. History’s memory is forgetful and inattentive. The story of history, which people and events historians form into a narrative, is often fiction, different from the vast web of history. People’s daily lives, words said and lost, small successes, moments of joy, once here, now lost—thousands of lives, thousands of creative presences. But disappearing acts, the ghosts of creativity, give me hope because it suggests that something can be re-discovered, re-found, and re-seen even after one thinks it is gone.*
*Mary Shelley is an excellent example of history’s malleability. She enjoyed an energetic revival of interest with the emergence of feminist scholarship in the ’70s. We now see her as a significant figure in Romanticism. “Frankenstein” is on many syllabuses in high schools and colleges. Scholarship on her later work like “The Last Man,” a book on a global pandemic, abounds.