Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men is a revision of art history, taking the focus away from male artists. Spanning from the 1500s to the present day, it shows the inventive ways women artists overcame obstacles keeping them from pursuing art or gaining recognition.
It also gives a real sense of how art moved with changes in society, and how artists interpreted the political atmosphere of their time. And it explains how the different life experiences of each artist—and the restrictions they faced—led them to introduce new subject matter their male contemporaries couldn’t.
The sheer number of artists covered in The Story of Art Without Men speaks to the extensive research behind it. What stands out is the work made by LGBT+ artists, especially those who were non-binary.
These artists were working around 100 years ago, making art that went against the straight and cisgender standard, and living openly in their personal lives as well. LGBT+ artists are generally left out of teaching and reading art history. So it’s good to see them here, and even more so considering discussions around sex and gender today.
Though The Story of Art Without Men focuses on European art history, it does acknowledge how some early 20th century artistic styles were influenced by objects stolen from colonies. But, when dealing with Ukiyo-e woodblock prints from Japan, it doesn’t make a connection between them and Post-Impressionism—a European movement that was influenced by Ukiyo-e.
Another thing I thought was missing was that Benedetta Cappa Marinetti, a key figure in the Italian futurist movement of the early 20th century, was a fascist. Her somehow managing to be a woman, a high-profile avant-garde artist and a fascist is something I think is worth discussing. As is how her politics influenced her work.
While it may not mention everything, a book like this is still a great thing to have. The Story of Art Without Men shines a light on those who are usually less celebrated, and in some cases completely forgotten.
But it’s also a reminder that art wouldn’t progress without the contributions of non‑male artists, and artists with a range of perspectives and from different backgrounds. Art history should reflect all the people who lived through it, so keeping it exclusive only leaves it incomplete.
When we opposed the National Front
An imagined revolt in Port Talbot