Exploring the lives and work of women who deserve to be recognised aside from their relationships with well-known artists
You might have heard of the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock – famous for his large-scale canvases splattered with coloured paint – but have you heard of his wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner? Despite making significant contributions to the American art movement herself in the 1940s, Krasner is still largely recognised for her relationship with her well-known husband, rather than for her own collection of vibrant paintings.
Throughout art history, many other female artists have also been overshadowed by the work of their famous partners. Pablo Picasso became renowned for his cubist portraits, while the work made by the mother of his two children, Françoise Gilot, has often been forgotten. Virginia Woolf, author of Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, has been widely praised for her contributions to the literary world, while her lover Vita Sackville-West has never received the same recognition for her writing. Although many of these female artists refused to be mere muses, their art is still not as celebrated as many of their partners’ works
Previously highlighting the work of artist-couples who defined the 20th century, the Barbican’s Modern Couples exhibition last year gave an intimate glimpse at the intertwinement of modern art and love. Now, the London art gallery is giving Lee Krasner and her vast collection of work the recognition it deserves through the latest retrospective exhibition Lee Krasner: Living Colour. In light of this show, Dazed looks at the work of Krasner and other female artists who should have been as celebrated as their famous partners.
LEE KRASNER, WIFE OF JACKSON POLLOCK
As an abstract expressionist painter living in post-war New York, Lee Krasner’s work captured the energetic spirit of the city in which she resided. The artist once said: “I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point,” and this sense of vitality and liveliness seeps through Krasner’s large-scale paintings.
Although often known as the partner of famous painter Jackson Pollock, Krasner was a pioneer of the abstract expressionist movement in her own right. She created impressive abstract works, vibrant self-portraits, and a collection of Little Image paintings made in the late 1940s, which were criticised for using the same technique of dripping paint that her husband was known for. Looking at the similarities within Krasner and Pollock’s large-scale works, it is evident that both artists influenced each other creatively and they even exhibited their work together in the show Artists: Man and Wife at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York in 1949.
However, the painter and teacher Hans Hofmann previously ‘complimented’ Krasner on her work, while she was his student, saying: “this is so good you would not know it was done by a woman”. Comments like these are evidence that, despite gaining later recognition for her artistic talents, she was still held back by being a woman in the 20th-century art world. Finally, thanks to her latest Barbican retrospective, she is starting to gain the recognition that she deserves.
MARCEL MOORE, PARTNER OF CLAUDE CAHUN
Marcel Moore was a French illustrator, designer, and photographer, also known as the romantic partner of photographer Claude Cahun – the radical surrealist who challenged gender norms through her self-portraits. Similar to Cahun – who had previously changed her name from Lucie Schwob – Moore adopted the gender-ambiguous name, after being born as Suzanne Malherbe.
Moore and Cahun’s lives were intertwined since childhood, becoming lovers while still at school, and later becoming stepsisters after Moore’s widowed mother married Cahun’s father. The couple later left Paris for the island of Jersey and this is where they created a lot of their collaborative work. Moore can even be seen to have helped Cahun take some of her photographs – with her shadow visible in a few of her partner's images – and she also became the illustrator for several of Cahun’s poetry books.
However, Moore should be celebrated for her own art career, as she became a more established designer and illustrator in the early 20th century. Beginning in Paris, Moore created fashion illustrations that were published in the French newspaper Phare de la Loire, as well as working with another writer Marc-Adolphe Guégan to create illustrations for his books. Despite both artists producing their own bodies of work, the couple’s romantic relationship kept them close – so close in fact that they were buried together under the same headstone after both of their deaths.
VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, LOVER OF VIRGINIA WOOLF
Although not as well known in the literary world today, Vita Sackville-West became a successful poet, novelist, and journalist in England throughout the early 20th century. By her death in 1962, the writer had achieved a longstanding column in the British newspaper The Observer, published over a dozen novels and poetry collections, and was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature twice.
Despite these literary achievements, Sackville-West became more commonly known for her relationship with writer Virginia Woolf. After meeting in 1922, the two writers engaged in a three-year affair and this influenced Woolf’s queer fiction, with Sackville-West providing inspiration for the protagonist character in Orlando: A Biography.
As Woolf seemingly became more interested in her writing than in her relationship with Sackville-West, the love affair between the two started to break down. Nevertheless, the pair remained friends until Woolf’s death in 1941, allowing them to focus on creating their own great collections of writing.
LOLA ÁLVAREZ BRAVO, WIFE OF MANUEL ALVAREZ BRAVO
As a Mexican photographer in the 20th century, Lola Álvarez Bravo once said: “If my photos have any value, it’s because they show a Mexico that no longer exists.” Her work captured the country at a time of post-revolution regeneration and she used her lens to document the people and cities in Mexico.
However, it was Álvarez Bravo’s husband and photographer Manuel – who she married in 1925 – who initially showed her how to use a camera as his darkroom assistant. Although it may seem like she followed in her husband’s footsteps, her own collection of work should not be overshadowed by his career.
As Álvarez Bravo developed her skills, she started photographing other well known Mexican artists, including Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Even after her relationship with Manuel ended, Álvarez Bravo continued to use photography to make her living and had her first solo exhibition in Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts in 1944. She also went on to become the director of the National Institute of Fine Art in Mexico and it wasn’t until her eyesight started to fail towards the end of her life that she gave up her career as a photographer.
ANA MENDIETA, WIFE OF CARL ANDRE
Ana Mendieta was a Cuban feminist performance artist, known for her work that moulded her naked body into the earth to create land art. Using the landscapes that surrounded her in Iowa and Mexico, Mendieta pioneered the 1970s and 80s American earth art movement, creating over 200 performative works.
Her most famous series Siluetta (1973-80) showed the artist bury her naked body in the earth, including the work “Creek” (1974), where Mendieta peacefully floated face-down in a pool of water. These works play with the links between human and nature, and the complexities of life and death.
Sadly, Mendieta faced her own death after falling from the window at her apartment in New York at the young age of 36. Her husband and minimalist sculptor Carl Andre was convicted of the murder after telling 911: “My wife is an artist, and I am an artist, and we had a quarrel about the fact that I was more, eh, exposed to the public than she was.” Despite her husband claiming that his work was more exposed that hers, Mendieta’s feminist work is hugely celebrated today for testing the limits of the human body and challenging expectations on the female form.
FRANÇOISE GILOT, MOTHER TO TWO OF PABLO PICASSO’S CHILDREN
At 97-years-old, the French author and painter Françoise Gilot is still very much alive and creating art. However, to this day, she is still most famously known as Pablo Picasso’s muse and mother of their two children.
Gilot’s love affair with Picasso only lasted from 1943 to 1953 and it was after the pair split that the French artist’s career started to take off. In 1973, Gilot became the Art Director at the publication Virginia Woolf Quarterly and she later became a board member for the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California. Throughout the 1990s, Gilot also used her creative skills to design costumes and sets for productions at the Guggenheim museum in New York.
Just last year, Gilot released a three-part collection of watercolour drawings that were inspired by her travels with her second husband throughout the late 1970s. Capturing her memories from India, Venice, and Senegal in travel books, Gilot accompanied her often incomplete drawings with handwritten text. These sketchbooks give an intimate look at the life of Gilot, whose work was often overshadowed by the fame of her partner.
ELAINE DE KOONING, WIFE OF WILLEM DE KOONING
Elaine de Kooning lived and worked in post-World War II New York, taking her surname from her marriage to painter Willem de Kooning in 1943. Although her husband became famous for his abstract expressionist paintings, de Kooning also created a great body of abstract and figurative work.
The pair exhibited their works together in the Artists: Man and Wife show in New York in 1951, alongside other artist-couples including Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. However, de Kooning recognised that her contributions to the exhibition were not as celebrated as her husband’s, saying: “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but later I came to think that it was a bit of a put-down of the women.” Despite often being overshadowed by the success of her husband and feeling that the 1951 show “sort of attached women-wives to the real artists”, de Kooning did get her first solo exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York a year later.
Alongside becoming more involved in the New York art scene, de Kooning also developed her writing portfolio and became an Editorial Associate for Art News magazine in 1948. Even after separating from her husband in 1957, de Kooning continued to write, teach, and develop an impressive collection of art, despite still being associated with her husband’s fame.
JO HOPPER, WIFE OF EDWARD HOPPER
Jo Hopper – born as Josephine Nivison – became a successful artist while living and working in New York city in the early 20th century. At the age of 41, Jo married famous American realist painter Edward Hopper, but her interests in art started long before.
While studying in New York, Hopper started performing and drawing under the teaching of Robert Henri – a leading figure in the American realist movement – and it was also at art school where Hopper met her husband. As her partner started to become a more established artist, Hopper became known for modelling as a figure in many of his famous paintings – notably recognised as the customer leaning on the bar in “Nighthawks” (1942).
Although Hopper started out selling her work to newspapers – including the New York Tribune, the Chicago Herald Examiner, and the Evening Post – she did go on to exhibit her paintings in exhibitions alongside Picasso, Modigliani, and Man Ray. However, after her husband’s death in 1967, Hopper gave both her and her partner's collection of over 3000 works to the Whitney museum in New York, where many of her paintings have sadly been discarded from since.
Lee Krasner: Living in Colour runs until 1 September 2019 at London’s Barbican art gallery