Byline: BRIAN SEWELL
THERE are times when I despair of art historians.
Their academic discipline was once founded on dates and documents, the painstaking dryness of this approach leading to factual reliability, excitement occasionally driven by eyes that saw connections improbable, probable and possible, and the consequent adventure in setting out to prove them.
When Communism in Russia and National Socialism in Germany became absolute regimes, this scrupulous study was for the first time subject to political distortions that were derided and deplored by my first post-war generation of students; they were, nevertheless, a warning demonstration of how easily the truth can be corrupted if the lie is told with the assumption of authority, and no matter whether that authority is political or academic. It is thus with some distress that I see the Courtauld Institute of Art, once the guardian of purest scholarship, in mounting an exhibition of the paintings of Gabriele M'nter, trumpet her as a woman who "played a vital role in the development of German Expressionism - in the forefront of a group of highly influential avant-garde artists - who redirected the course of German modernism and shaped Expressionist aesthetics -" That the subversive cant of old Communism has survived in art history as it is taught in the new ex-polytechnic universities should surprise none of us, but to find the new claptrap fascism of the feminist movement being preached at the Courtauld, once the haunt of the honest academic great, is utterly deplorable. It is now, even there it seems, politically incorrect to say anything of a woman painter that is not unalloyed praise, no matter what her generation. In the wider world it has been so for many years: when the shrewdly sceptical Sickert observed the best part of a century ago that "- a great deal has been written, and I doubt if they will leave off, about women with a capital W, in art with a capital A", he may well have been looking back as far as the later 16th century, when Giorgio Vasari (the very first art historian) was foolish enough to praise the "breathing likenesses" of Sofonisba Anguisciola as though she were a second Titian.
Modern women art historians wilfully have it that women artists have invariably been put down by men, their talents hindered and hampered, suppressed, denied, ignored and expunged, but this is far from true - on the contrary, many women artists between the 16th century and this hardly earned their reputations but were given them simply because they were women.
This was, no doubt, patronising in that most men who praised women painters saw them as so handicapped by their gender that even the smallest evidence of skill appeared to be as phenomenal as a monkey playing Rule Britannia on the penny whistle that any ordinary simian would have inserted in its anus; it was thus that they were given generous handicaps in the quality stakes, just as would have been the case had they been racing against men with eggs and spoons. They were not few in number and any fool among us could, from memory, name a hundred of them without venturing into the nest of vipers that is contemporary art. That indefatigable scribbler Walter Shaw Sparrow wrote observations on more than twice that number in his Women Painters of the World, published exactly a century ago, without including one single living woman painter whom we might recognise as modern; with those he proposed to deal in an even larger volume devoted to "the thousands of ladies who now win a place in the art exhibitions of Europe and America".
Sparrow subsequently found it easier to write bad books on British sporting painters rather than this mammoth sequel, but I wonder, nevertheless, what he might have made of Gabriele M'nter in 1905, then a woman of 28, of comfortable independent means, with eight years of art school training behind her and three of sharing the bed of Wassily Kandinsky. …