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'Women have always defined themselves, seen themselves, even painted themselves, in relation to men'

Mary Stott (1971)


It was rather startling to receive a manifesto from three women's liberation artists calling powerfully and urgently for "Women's art." For so long I have been saying "Doing things, need we think of ourselves as male or female?" And have almost forgotten that people used once to discuss with rancour that tedious old question "Can a woman be a great artist?" Yet here they are, Monica Sjoo and Beverley Skinner in Bristol, and Anne Berg in Manchester, hoping to raise interest for an exhibition of women's art in London...and when asked "Why women's?" Monica Sjoo says "Because women have not expressed their vision of life, their woman experiences. For instance, giving birth is both sacred and profane, it is mystery, the sacredness of the creation of life and also it is of earth, blood, pain, and violence. My highest wish is to express just this in images...it has never been done before."

Trying to digest this concept of male art, female art, I asked the Guardian's Caroline Tisdall: "When you look at abstract pictures, do you recognise them as being by men, or by women?"
"The words masculine and feminine sometimes float into my mind," she said, "but only as a means of description. One of my students is making a study of women and painting and has come to the conclusion that it is a non-issue, except for the powerful influence of women collectors who have drawn a group of painters around them. Why don't you ask Sandra Blow?"
So I did ask Sandra Blow, and she was gently emphatic that standards in painting, "the good things, the compos-ition, the content, the balance have nothing to do with being men or women". It is certainly not "woman-ness," that she paints - her pictures are abstracts with a feeling for organic shapes, for colour, for texture but she was very, ready to talk about being a woman who paints.
"When I began I was terribly careful to play myself down, never to be assertive," an admission that all lib girls will pounce on as an illustration of female conditioning. And another admission: two men in her early days greatly influenced her. "They gave me a way of thinking about my painting, standards, basics to work from. I don't think I took too much. I don't think I was cheating." But she did not continue to have the "male" view as a point of reference; the compulsion to paint was so strong that she knew she needed solitude and an uncluttered life to fulfil it and refused refused marriage and the possibility of children for this reason.
Looking at Sandra Blow's success story through the eyes of the lib group, the first notable point is that though she took nourishment from the men painters who influenced her early work, she was determined not to be parasitic on them. Monica Sjoo says "there are many, many stories of artists feeding parasitically on the woman and denying her all self expression." You do not have to "lib" spectacles to visualise the long procession of creative artists battening ruthlessly off the devotion of their womenfolk. In fact one of the talking points in the dead old discussion about women's lack of creative genius was that they could not be ruthless enough in personal relationships; could not devote themselves to their Art, and let all the rest go hang.



Move on
The second lib point might be, that by denying herself children Sandra Blow limited the life experience which would "feed" her painting. Monica Sjoo's group feels strongly that it is time to move on from abstract art; that it has come to a dead end. "How does one communicate women strength, struggle, rising up from oppression, blood, child-birth, sensuality in stripes and triangles?" I don't suppose for a moment that this is what Sandra Blow would want to communicate. Nor would I. But I think older feminists like me have to face the unwelcome fact that women's lib is not just about equal pay and more nurseries and freely available contraception and the admission Muriel Bailey to the Stock Exchange - you have only to read Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch to know that it is also about woman-ness - which is just about as far from femininity as you can get.

The Women's Lib Arts Manifesto puts it vigorously in relation to painting. It quotes Renoir as saying "I paint with my prick" and comments "We as women, do NOT identify creative energy with phallic thrusting aggressiveness. That is ar limited form of one form of energy."  Instead of the phallus they elevate the womb, as Germaine Greer elevates the vagina. And however much you dislike the extension of the idea of male-female polarity or however much you see the progress of mankind as a cerebral conquest of biology, you have to admit that women have always defined themselves, seen themselves, even painted themselves, in relation to men.

There may be something about our "woman-ness" which has to be  defined in its own terms, not by reference to maleness. There is this feeling around that the female principle needs to be established, not so much to free women from subjugation as to save a world threatened by male destructiveness. As the Arts Manifesto puts it "The Earth is scorched and crumbling the Earth-Mother is dying and so are all her creatures that crawl and fly and walk and run, and so is all her vegetation."

I don't find it altogether easy to laugh that one off, in spite of its high-falutin' language. What does make me laugh is the thought that the people (women as well as men) who over years have called professional women like me pseudo-men and asked why we can't be content to "fulfil ourselves as women" are likely to be even more affronted by the women like Monica Sjoo, Beverley Skinner and Ann Berg who want to do just that.




Published originally in The Guardian 2/12/71