Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Countering Memory Loss through Misrepresentation: What Does She Think Feminist Art History Is?

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Countering Memory Loss through Misrepresentation: What Does She Think Feminist Art History Is?

Article excerpt

Countering memory loss through misrepresentation: what does she think feminist art history is? Review of: Julie M. Johnson, The Memory Factory: The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900, West Lafayette, IN.: Purdue University Press, 2012, 438 pp., 136 b. & w. illus. £27.00 pbk, ISBN978-1-55753-613-3.

In December, 1999,1 was in Vienna on a fellowship at a research institute to present a series of lectures on my latest concept in feminist interventions in art's histories, Differencing the Canon. My lectures went badly. The younger scholars at the Institute found little to interest them in feminist studies. The general view even amongst the young women was that there really was no need now for feminism, which they considered in very limited terms of social attitudes towards women rather than as a serious theoretical project tackling a range of major cultural issues. They told me that they had everything they wanted and saw no obstacles ahead. Disregarding the struggles that had been necessary for these confident young Europeans to feel so positive about their open futures, the young scholars felt no anxiety about possible obstructions such as glass ceilings or other hidden prejudices abundantly documented by real research and which filled me with anxiety on their behalf.

What I was there to present was not a campaign for job equality and consumer egalitarianism but a reminder that there is still work to be done to secure inclusiveness in our cultural histories now and to ensure that what women do now automatically becomes part of cultural memory for the future: to ensure the redundancy of corrective recovery by integrating feminist thought so fully that we actually make the playing field definitively plural. To 'difference the canon' is not create special categories that segregate women from men, but to formulate ways to write inclusive histories of art that at the same time acknowledge differences that function as signs of the creative plurality of the human condition, as Hannah Arendt has taught us to think post 1945.

There was in Vienna at that time an exhibition of special interest to me and relevant to this review. Part of the imminent millennial celebrations, the exhibition was curated at the Vienna KunstForum by Ingrid Brugger and titled Jahrhundert der Frauen: Von Impressionismus zur Gegenwärt: Österreich 1870-bis heute [The Century of Women: From Impressionism to the Present: Austria 1870 to today]. It was thus a show about women artists from or working in Austria specifically during the modern period, the period when French modern art set several new agendas between 1870-1930 while Vienna and other Central European centres, Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden, Amsterdam, Prague, Lodz, and Munich, both noted what was happening in Paris and created their own singular modernist cultures in the other modernizing capitals, such as Vienna at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (until 1918). The Century of Women was an exhibition showing works by many of the artists featured and analysed in Julie Johnson's substantial book reviewed here and was indeed part of the memory work of recovery of 'forgotten women artists' that forms its major research question. The Memory Factory is the latest, and perhaps in English, the most substantial study to date of the three generations of women modernists centred in Imperial and then post-Hapsburg Vienna, the home to its own efflorescence of modernist consciousness in art, architecture and the decorative arts. The bibliography shows that the work of initially restoring the Künstlerinnen, artists who are women, began after around 1970 and produced major research texts during the 1990s, notably by Sabine Plakholm Forsthuber.1

I visited the Jahrhundert der Frauen show in the context of ever wanting to know ever more about any artists who are women, and to know more about art in Vienna, but also to understand why this kind of basic recovery exhibition of 'women artists' was still happening almost a quarter of a century after Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris had created in 1977 a major survey Women Artists 1550-1950 which they hoped would be the last of its kind to be necessary, so powerful would the single gesture of restoration of knowledge of the women artists of the western tradition since the sixteenth century. …

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