Katy Hessel on Her Bestseller ‘The Story of Art Without Men’

Built upon Hessel’s The Great Women Artists account on Instagram and the podcast of the same name, the book goes on sale in the United States from 2 May.

Katy Hessel on Her Bestseller ‘The Story of Art Without Men’

Katy Hessel at The London Library. © Ameena Rojee.

Katy Hessel launched her Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists after a visit to Frieze Masters where she realised none of the artists were women.

Her book The Story of Art Without Men likewise takes inspiration from a conspicuous absence—EH Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1950), which included zero women artists when it was first published.

The London-born writer made it her mission to redress this imbalance by writing exclusively about women artists. Her book cover cunningly includes the words ‘Without Men’ in a ghostly white outline, as if men are vanishing from the face of the earth.

Because of the font, Hessel told Ocula Magazine, ‘People have thought it’s just called The Story of Art’, and that’s not the only confusion.

‘I’m constantly being told it’s The Story of Art About Men. And then someone called it The History of Art Without Women earlier,’ Hessel said over the phone from New York, where she is based for the book launch.

The U.S. book cover of Katy Hessel's The Story of Art Without Men.

The U.S. book cover of Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men.

True to its actual name, The Story of Art Without Men features women artists stretching back to the 1500s. Asked to name some of the most egregiously overlooked, Hessel said she could choose 300.

‘Artemisia Gentileschi is extraordinary,’ she said. ‘Working 400 years ago, she made works on the scale of her male counterparts’ at a time when ‘women weren’t allowed in the life drawing room, or even admitted to churches unchaperoned.’

Hessel also singled out German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon (1917–1943), who painted over 700 gouaches documenting her life—growing up, falling in love, and exploring the world as she found it—while on the run from the Nazis.

Hessel likened Salomon’s magnum opus, Life? or Theater?: A Song-play (1941–1943) to a graphic novel.

‘You can feel her energy’ in it, she said.

On her podcast The Great Women Artists, whose ninth season is sponsored by Ocula, Hessel has recently spoken with artists Sonia Boyce and Sarah Sze, and photographer and researcher Pamela Bannos, with whom she discussed street photographer Vivian Maier (1926–2009).

Louise Bourgeois, Spider (1996). Bronze. 440 x 670 x 520 cm. Photo: Edouard Fraipont.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider (1996). Bronze. 440 x 670 x 520 cm. Photo: Edouard Fraipont. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Boyce was one of the standouts at last year’s Venice Biennale, which was dedicated to women artists. Three women and one non-binary artist were also nominated for Britain’s most prestigious art award, the Turner Prize, in 2022, and over two thirds of art students are now women in the U.S. and the U.K.

While women artists are receiving far more attention than in past decades, the art market is one area where they are still significantly marginalised.

Louise Bourgeois‘ bronze sculpture, Spider (1996), is expected to fetch between US $30 million and $40 million when it goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s New York in May. If it sells for over $44.4 million — the price paid for Georgia O’Keeffe‘s Jimson Weed (1936) — it would be the most expensive work by a woman ever sold at auction. By comparison, the record for a work by a male artist at auction is US $450 million, the sum paid for Leonardo da Vinci‘s Salvator Mundi (ca. 1500) in 2017.

‘The art market acts as a microcosm for the way that we place value on genders in society. And the fact that a work by a woman goes for just 10% of a work by a male artist, on average, is despicable,’ Hessel said.

Ultimately, she argued that ‘we need art by a wide range of people otherwise we’re not seeing society as a whole. Art is an individual’s record of a time, it allows people in, and it comments on the world.’

‘It’s the most incredible thing in the world,’ she said. —[O]

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