Male artists have dominated Madrid’s art world for centuries. But now—ahead of Museo Nacional del Prado’s second-ever exhibit to highlight only female artists—it’s clear that women are its future.
Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado first opened its doors to the public in 1819, displaying the Spanish royal family’s extensive art collection. Its 235,000 square feet of grand, muffled halls are filled with the world’s most comprehensive collection of Spanish paintings and European masterpieces, from antiquity through the 19th century (the nearby Museo Reina Sofía picks up where the Prado leaves off).
Some of the Prado’s most famous pieces in the permanent collection include “Las Meninas” by Velázquez, Francisco de Goya’s “The Family of Carlos IV,” and “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, to name a very few. But the museum is also renowned for rotating exhibits featuring works from the world over.
Discarded red panties on canvas.
In 2016, the Prado presented its first-ever show to be entirely dedicated to a woman, 16th-century Flemish painter Clara Peeters. And this winter, from October 22, 2019, to February 2, 2020, the Prado will open its second exhibition with a spotlight on female artists: “A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana.” That comes to two shows dedicated to a total of three female artists in the museum’s 200-year history.
About That Picasso Guy…
Try searching online for “female Spanish artists.” You can browse about one page before the content predominantly swaps to their male counterparts. Now look up just “Spanish artists.” You may see Frida Kahlo pop up (she’s Mexican, not Spanish, by the way) or perhaps Remedios Varo, but among the listicles of the “10 Most Famous Spanish Artists” and “11 Spanish Artists That Are Not Picasso,” you’ll be hard-pressed to find a woman.
Sure, one could argue that this particular career has been available to men for many centuries longer than to women (not that it’s an excuse), but you’ll also find the Wikipedia pages and biographies of women in the art world to be less robust, with fewer details and less documentation of their work.
Performance | Video & photo documentation.
Speaking of Picasso—easily Spain’s most famous and prolific modern artist—his own relationship with women was problematic at best. He was once quoted as saying, “For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.” In case you need any more convincing, he also cheated on his two wives many times with mistresses a third of his age. He verbally and physically abused them.
“Try searching online for ‘female Spanish artists.’”
Dora Maar, Picasso’s partner, muse, and victim for over ten years, was an accomplished painter and photographer in her own right. Once, Picasso forced her to physically fight his other lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, while he looked on. Picasso painted Maar as “The Weeping Woman;” her work was never exhibited until after her death.
Watercolor on black-and-white photograph.
“Being a woman today is perhaps less impossible than thirty years ago, but in any case the work of women is always under the spotlight and under greater demands than [the work of] men,” says Paloma Navares, a multidisciplinary artist from Madrid. She began her work in the late ’70s, first as a painter, then as a sculptor, photographer, video artist, and performer. Today, with more than 100 shows under her belt, Navares’s work incorporates many mediums and materials at once, including contemporary dance and large-scale installation. She is known for exploring social themes, particularly in regard to the female condition.
“The influence of being a woman in my work is great and important,” says Navares. “Since my beginnings I have been interested in the female role, in the physical presence or the physical and intellectual body of women.”
Watercolor on black-and-white photograph.
Watercolor on black-and-white photograph.
Likewise, visual and performance artist Pilar Albarracín often references women’s place in society in her work. “I am interested in women in general. Scholars and housewives, mothers and daughters, the rich and the poor, the lesbian and the transexual… I learn from them all,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Seville in 1993, Albarracín has focused many of her installations, photographs, videos, and performances on exploring gender inequality and female archetypes from her native Andalusian culture, regularly using parody and humor to deconstruct serious issues.
“I am interested in women in general. Scholars and housewives, mothers and daughters, the rich and the poor, the lesbian and the transexual.”
“Unfortunately there are still remnants of machismo and patriarchal society that hinder, but do not stop, our work,” says Albarracín. “In some countries, demands for gender equality began earlier than in ours, but ever since democracy was established in Spain many efforts have been made; some have borne fruit and others have not. But the struggle must go on.”
This willingness to struggle and to peel back the layers—and cliches—of Spanish society has earned Albarracín a spot at the table. She regularly exhibits her work around the world and represented Spain at the 2005 Venice Biennale.
Installation of photographs and light.
Confronting Gender (Or Not)
But in a sphere where male artists tend to receive top billing, a certain level of androgyny or mystery is perhaps wise. At least, that’s what photographer Bárbara Allende Gil de Biedma banked on when she christened herself with the genderless name Ouka Leele in order to devote herself to her art without discrimination. For a while, she was able to hide behind it, before the press revealed her true identity and started seeking her out for interviews.
Her formative years as an artist took place during the Movida Madrileña, a hyper-creative countercultural movement in Madrid that pushed back against societal norms and the traditional confines of the former regime (think: California in the ’60s) following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. Leele blossomed, creating work that was bold and surreal and irreverent—portraits that she staged and photographed in black-and-white, then painted over with watercolors only to photograph that colored image for the final product. Even now, gender doesn’t overtly factor into her process.
“I think we are complete people on the inside. That we each have a male and a female part.”
“I think we are complete people on the inside. That we each have a male and a female part, and that gender doesn’t matter,” says Leele. “It seems to me that art emerges from the most feminine side of each artist, whatever the genre. The most intuitive, most creative, telluric, mediumistic side of themselves is the one that artists use to create. Certainly not the most masculine side. And ultimately, what is masculine and what is feminine, anyway?”
“Being a female artist in Spain is, unfortunately, not very different from being a female artist in other countries.”
Acrylic on canvas.
The artists above cite inspiration from the likes of Yayoi Kusama, Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Sally Mann, Lita Cabellut, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun—a list of women who have paved the way for today’s female creatives—and it feels like there’s hope for the next generation.
“Instead of taking this fact as an obstacle, I take it as a challenge.”
Madrid photographer Cristina Otero discovered her love of art in a very Millennial fashion: watching “America’s Next Top Model.” She taught herself how to apply elaborate makeup and work a camera, leading to a collection of deeply personal self-portraits that range from playful to melancholy. In 2010, at the age of 15, Otero became the youngest artist to ever exhibit solo at an art gallery in Spain.
For Otero, being a woman has yet to be an obstacle. “I feel very fortunate to have been born in Spain at a time when the feminist movement has been going on for many years and is only getting stronger,” she says. And while she acknowledges the lack of representation of female artists in commercial galleries and museums, she doesn’t intend to let that stop her. “Instead of taking this fact as an obstacle, I take it as a challenge,” she says.
Acrylic on canvas.
It’s Not Just a Spain Problem…
The art world’s lack of representation of women and minorities won’t surprise anyone who’s ever been to a museum pretty much anywhere. In the U.S., a 2019 survey by the journal PLOS One of more than 40,000 works in 18 top museums found that 85% of the artists are white, and 87% are men.
“Of more than 40,000 works in 18 top museums, 85% of the artists are white, and 87% are men.”
“Being a female artist in Spain is, unfortunately, not very different from being a female artist in other countries,” says Madrid-based painter Eva Navarro. Her work features portraits at unexpected angles of people she’s seen pass by, placed on colorful, abstract backgrounds to “let them tell us their stories, or sometimes ours.” She’s been outspoken about the imbalance in Spain’s art fairs and museums, joining a movement of female artists at the 2017 ARCOmadrid contemporary art fair to proclaim “We are here!” when the number of women artists included in the fair proved to be insignificant.
Even Leele, whose creative process is less influenced by ideas of gender, scoffs at a certain tokenization of female artists. In particular, during Women’s History Month, she’s been invited to show her work by Spanish institutions that only aim to highlight female artists for that one month per year. She refuses to participate.
“I feel very fortunate to have been born in Spain at a time when the feminist movement has been going on for many years and is only getting stronger.”
For its part, the Prado is at least perking its ears up. “A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana” features the two 16th-century artists, both Italian-born, who were revolutionaries of their time.
Fontana (1552–1614) was one of the first women to paint female nudes (take that, male gaze) and went on to become the official painter of the court of Pope Clement VIII and Paul V. She created over 100 documented works, and 25 more have been attributed to her since, making her official body of work the largest of any female artist before the 18th century.
“In our time, the women of the Spanish art world are a force.”
Anguissola (ca. 1535–1625) was known for paintings that elevated the objects and activities of the everyday. Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary of both artists, said in The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects that Anguissola “has laboured at the difficulties of design with greater study and better grace than any other woman of our time.”
In our time, the women of the Spanish art world are a force, laboring at the difficulties of design (and of representation) with grace and vigor. And while it is encouraging to see Madrid’s movement toward artistic inclusion today, it’s important to remember its forebears. That for every Picasso, there’s a Dora Maar. For every Velázquez, an Anguissola. One thing is sure, there certainly aren’t any doormats here.