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The Story Of Women And Art: Hunting the hidden artists

Charlotte Gittins

Assistant Producer

You don’t have to go back 500 years to find those who doubt women’s artistic capacity. 

Brian Sewell famously declared there ‘has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness.’ Georg Baselitz concluded ‘women don’t paint so well. That is a fact.’

Whilst much has changed in the last five centuries, certain opinions seem to have evolved very little.

This is not, however, a series about critics.  Nor is it a sorrowful tale of downtrodden women, victims of gender and circumstance.

Instead, we discover a long line of artists – painters, sculptors, designers – whose restless talent drove them to dizzying heights of creativity. 

Amanda Vickery standing on the edge of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence

From the Renaissance to the modern day, all faced obstacles on account of their sex, yet each produced works of stunning originality.

Delving through artists’ lives, we found ourselves irresistibly drawn into stories of luck, loss, penury, ego, attack and scandal – and that’s before we even got to the art. 

The works themselves proved as compelling as they were varied, from the fearless brushstrokes of Artemisia Gentileschi, and the unbridled extravagance of Rose Bertin, to the subversive liberation of Madeleine Vionnet, and the raw power of Georgia O’Keeffe.

As the assistant producer on the series, much of my time in the early days was spent hunting through books, archives and museum websites, many of them not in English.

My Italian is virtually non-existent, but I can now spot terms like ‘not on display’ from 1000 paces.

The Vasari Corridor: Why does Florence’s who’s who of art history have so few women?

 As part of a skeleton team, split between two cities, we all had to multitask wildly.

On location, I could often be spotted running off (usually literally) with our second camera, whilst our hugely talented directors and crew were hard at work elsewhere.
Whittling down the artists we could feature in the series, when there were so many deserving of our attention, was gut-wrenching.

With limited time and money, we had no choice but to restrict ourselves to a select few countries, so we could ensure we did each work of art we visited justice. 

We wrestled with the horrors of leaving entire continents unexplored, consoling ourselves only with the hopes that a different series might one day have the chance to pick up where we so reluctantly left off.   
Having thrown ourselves headlong into piecing together each woman's life, every cut was hotly contested, and losses keenly felt.

All of us were forced to abandon intriguing figures we had come to admire, such as Anna Maria van Schurman, Elisabetta Sirani, Mary Delany, Eleanor Coade, Edmonia Lewis and Suzanne Valadon, to name but a few.

Of the artists who did make the cut, it would be impossible to pick a lone favourite, but certain stories were especially striking.

Lavinia Fontana's subtle portrayal of dark family politics and sexual disillusionment, in what seemed at first glance to be an innocent family portrait, was breathtaking in its wit, scale and artful execution.

The Gozzadini Family: ‘A surviving record of a torrid and toxic family drama’

Fascinating too were the modern stories of those who work tirelessly to restore lost works of art by women to the public.

This series could not have been made without the help of countless experts - many, but by no means all, women – who so generously gave us their time, knowledge and insight.
The detractors may remain unmoved, resigned to their bleak opinions of women’s art, but this series gives another, very different perspective on the achievements of an extraordinary range of artists. 

In truth, the reality is far too rich and complex to sum up in one neat judgement, but in sharing the stories behind these works of art, we hope to give people a chance to make up their own minds and keep the debate raging.

Charlotte Gittins is the assistant producer of The Story Of Women And Art.

The Story Of Women And Art is on Friday, 16 May at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD, or you can watch the series on BBC iPlayer. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

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Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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