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Katy Hessel (C) Luke Fullalove
Katy Hessel

Read this book if you can’t name more than 10 women artists

Katy Hessel, the writer and founder of the @thegreatwomenartists Instagram, talks us through her contentious but vital first book, The Story of Art Without Men

Several years ago, Katy Hessel graduated from the University College London where she studied art history. Despite the course awakening her to the depth and breadth of art of all forms, it lacked one thing: women. Wondering where all the women were – or why she, and many around her, couldn’t name more than ten women artists – Hessel set out to educate herself. In 2015, she started the now notable Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists to bring the rest of the art world along on the journey.

In the years since, Hessel has garnered over two hundred thousand followers, started a podcast, curated exhibitions at galleries like Stephen Friedman, sat on panels globally, and has just published her first book, aptly titled The Story of Art Without Men – which traverses the 1500s to the present day, covering the movements and developments throughout, and generously illustrated with photography. For many, the idea of writing an art history without men is contentious, even impossible. Yet Hessel ascertains that this isn’t about erasing men; it’s about uplifting and celebrating the women whose achievements and contributions have been overlooked or left in the shadows. 

Growing up in London in the 90s and 00s, Hessel recalls visiting museums and galleries from a young age, but, she says, these shows were always focussed on men – Anish Kapoor, Picasso. Frances Morris taking the helm as Director of London’s Tate Modern was a turning point for her, a moment where she finally saw women stepping into the fore.

The book is admittedly for anyone regardless of age or level of comprehension, with Hessel fed up with the academic writing that often surrounds art education. It’s also supported by an exhibition at London’s Victoria Miro, titled The Story of Art as it’s Still Being Written, which brings to life the book’s final chapter – those defining the 00s onwards – featuring Tracey Emin, Zanele Muholi, Deborah Roberts, and more.

There is obviously much further to go until women have an equal footing. We have only just begun to challenge why most museum collections overwhelmingly consist of white men or why women still pale compared to their male counterparts at auction, but Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men feels like a touchpoint for a new generation who will go on to define the future of those exhibitions, collections, and auctions. If anything, it’s a book that begins the extensive task of filling the gaps so that fewer women will fall through them in future. Below, Hessel tells us more.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this book is so comprehensive. I would have also loved this when I was younger.

Katy Hessel: That’s what I really want it to be: for 90-year-olds but also for 13 or 14-year-olds who might have never even stepped in a museum before, but they quite like the title because it looks funny, and then they have a look. For me, I didn’t understand why loads of movements happened or why they came about – so it also helped me piece together art history.

You have a podcast, a very successful Instagram account and gallery shows, so why did a book feel like the next thing?

Katy Hessel: It feels like a natural progression from (@thegreatwomenartists) Instagram and podcasts, and a book is something permanent. Instagram is great, but you can only do so much, you can only write so much. My Instagram is more like a diary, and I got this opportunity and just thought, let’s go for it! I don’t want to do a disservice to overlooked or marginalised artists, so I thought creating quite a significant, substantial book would hopefully change the way people look at it. I’m totally standing on the shoulders of so many people that came before, and the book is a result of so many conversations. It’s been a dream to make, really.

As you say, you would have loved it when you were younger, I would have loved it too. It’s really written for a 21st Century audience, and you don’t have to have any artistic experience to understand it. I was so fed up with reading academic essays for my university and being so lost, I can’t tell you. 

So for the people who aren’t so familiar with @thegreatwomenartists, why have you decided to do a history of art without men?

Katy Hessel: It’s very much tongue in cheek [and] related to [E.H.] Gombrich’s Story of Art – a book I love, and loved growing up because Gombrich writes in a way that is accessible. He compares movements to movements, artists and everything and really brings it alive, like a story. At the end of the day, [art is] all about storytelling. 

“I was so fed up reading 170-word bios of women artists, where people would mention men like seven times. It’s like yes, Dora Maar went out with Picasso, but it’s not relevant to her practice” – Katy Hessel

I’m sure the title is quite contentious to some people.

Katy Hessel: The only person [who didn’t like it] was a cab driver recently, and he was like ‘not another one of those’. I was like, OK fine, [people] can think what they want, but [then you can] tell them about the stats, like how one per cent of the National Gallery’s collection is made up of women artists. Or [ask] how many women artists they can actually name? Like, the facts are real. 

I know you said you have an art history background, but where else do you go about gathering all this information and knowledge you have in this book?

Katy Hessel: I’ve always been completely obsessed with art, since I was really young. I‘m the youngest of four kids and my oldest sister, who’s nine years older than me, was really into art history, and she used to take me to museums. If you’re six years old and hanging out with your 15-year-old sister you’re like, ‘sick. I'm gonna like what she likes’. So essentially, it stemmed from me copying my sister. 

The first time I took the tube by myself, I went to see Chris Ofili at the Tate Britain and I’d go see Christian Marclay's The Clock at White Cube. I just loved art, I lived and breathed it.

When I started the Instagram, I had a really boring reception job and I had loads of time to Google stuff. Now with the podcasts, I’ve done nearly 100 episodes interviewing some of the most famous artists in the world or academics. But there’s such a wealth of knowledge out there undiscovered. The book is really a fraction of the story of art without men, and I can’t wait for someone else to write another version. 

Maybe you’ll do volume two. 

Katy Hessel: Yeah. Maybe.

So, writing a book on art history without men. How do you navigate that? Because they’re obviously involved… 

Katy Hessel: Women did their own thing. Because these women weren’t getting as much recognition, they were actually way more experimental. Some of these artworks are wild. But men are mentioned sometimes when it’s necessary.

I was so fed up reading 170-word bios of women artists, where people would mention men like seven times. It’s like yes, Dora Maar went out with Picasso, but it’s not relevant to her practice! It might be relevant to his practice, so let’s talk about how she influenced him, not how she was his muse. I was just fed up, so I wanted to put women first. 

It’s interesting how just a few words can dismantle the power dynamic. @thegreatwomenartists started at a pivotal moment for fourth-wave feminism. How have you seen the reception change since starting it?

Katy Hessel: There are so many like-minded people who are doing similar things. I’m a little, tiny thing in this. It was such a big deal that Frances Morris became the Director of Tate Modern, the first female, major director of the museum. When you put people who aren’t white men in charge, you’re going to have such a different programme. As a result, we’ve had these incredible, experimental exhibitions and survey shows. When I speak to 21-year-olds, they’re actually like, ‘I grew up going to see Yayoi Kusama shows’, or whatever. Whereas I grew up going to like Anish Kapoor and Picasso. All the exhibitions I went to weren’t by women. We also have to root these people in context: they might not be as technically skilled as some of their male counterparts then, but you’ve got to think about the barriers that they had to overcome, and they’re still coming up against so many barriers.

Tell us about the exhibition opening to coincide with the book’s launch?

Katy Hessel: So, it’s called Still Writing The Story of Art, and it’s very much looking at the artists in the final chapter of the book. It’s bringing it to life really, that’s the whole point of it; to see these artworks in the flesh.

What comes next? Now you’ve done the Instagram, podcasts, exhibitions and a book…

Katy Hessel: I’d like to do TV. But who knows? Learning more, and hopefully writing more books and putting on more shows. TV, though, that’s my dream.

The Story of Art Without Men is out now. The Story of Art as it’s Being Written runs at London’s Victoria Miro until 1 October 2022