When a woman artist looks for her forebears, she sees a void.
There are, needless to say, great female artists. There’s Tamara de Lempicka, queen of art deco. There’s Artemisia Gentileschi, forever in paintings, cutting off her rapist’s head. There’s love-ravished Camille Claudel, making the hands of her lover Rodin’s sculptures before being institutionalized for forty years. There are Mary Cassatt’s paintings of children. But it can’t be denied: the canon of Western woman’s art is nothing compared to the canon of Western woman’s writing.
Noted Audre Lorde, “Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.” While a writer may require only a room of one’s own, an artist needs years of training, muses, a studio, canvas, paints, patrons, and, fundamentally, a world that lets her be grubby and feral and alone.
Growing up, the women in art history who inspired me were primarily models: Victorine Muerent. La Goulue. Far from pampered, indolent odalisques, these are sexy, tough, working-class women, often with backgrounds in the sex trade. Notable contrasts to the genteel girls who studied flower painting along with piano and embroidery, my archetypes were flamboyant, glamorous self-creations, unabashedly employing themselves as their own raw materials in a world that would give them nothing else. I too worked as an artist’s model. For an artist, the job is a paradox: you’re clay for someone else’s creation while longing to make your own.
Of all the women who street-fought their way into the canon, my favorite, and almost certainly the most popular in the widest circles, is Frida Kahlo. Frida and her husband, Diego Rivera, were the golden couple of 1930s Mexico. Brilliant, famous, larger than life, they became concepts as much as people, and, in ways that have become clearer and clearer, concepts that represent with unusual neatness ideas of what a man’s art and a woman’s art should be.
Diego was Mexico’s greatest muralist, a classic god-monster of modernism. His passion for work was amoral, all consuming, all creating. He painted in fresco, a medium so demanding that if the plaster dries early you have to chip off the day’s work and start again. His murals in Palacio Nacional took six years. He was obese. He looked like a frog. From the scaffolding, he shot guns at people who showed up to protest his work. He slept with half of North America. His paintings explored giant themes: communism, colonialism, industry, Mexico, war. If ever art was macho, termed in scale, scope, and swagger, it is the art of Diego Rivera.
Frida, small and beautiful, famously adopted the dress of a Tehuana Indian. When she was a teenager, her back was broken and pelvis impaled in a street car accident, and surgeons alternately repaired and mutilated her for the rest of her life. Frida painted small, exquisite self-portraits in the retablo tradition, dealing with the intimate domestic theater of sex and love, disability and pain, her relationship with Diego, with Mexico. Take the cultural shorthand away and look at her work: it is unsentimental and lacerating. Frida was the type who would look at a disemboweled body unflinchingly, even if it was her own. Andre Breton called her painting “a ribbon around a bomb.”
The Communist Party considered easel paintings, as opposed to murals, bourgeois, because they could only have one owner. Nearly a century later, Frida’s paintings are the truly populist art. They’re the totems for the Tumblr age, tiny rectangles of infinitely reproducible emotion. To understand a mural, one must stand before it.
Of course, concepts are best cast in stark terms, as abstract representations of truth. People, not so much. Diego made his own ass the focal point of his mural at the San Francisco Art Institute. Frida’s communism was so fervent that one of her last paintings, done in a morphine haze after her leg was amputated, bears the title Marxism Will Give Health to the Sick. But history reads them along gender lines. Diego is masculine, intellectual, universal. Frida is feminine, emotional, personal.
This is not unusual. Women’s art gets to be about sex, family, love, body, pain. Men’s art can do those things, but also be about everything else.
When women paint themselves, it’s narcissistic. When men paint themselves, it’s the human experience. Autobiographical essays by women are confessional, T. M. I. Self-portraits are selfies. A male artist friend once complained about hot girls drawing themselves. I said it was a simple case of owning the means of production. We live in the freest time to be a woman artist, but still, the path we are supposed to follow is clear. We should endlessly dissect ourselves, our love lives and cellulite, our vaginas and hearts.
In my own art, I looked outwards. What’s called the male gaze is equally an artist’s gaze, a precise perspective that is consuming, rapacious, and unafraid of turning humans into objects. The man leering on the street corner is me trying to draw a hot young journalist in my sketchbook. I’ve drawn myself a half dozen times, and it never ceases to be jarring. Why look in the mirror when I can creepily stare at everyone else?
I’ve done several murals. Mural work is art at its most blue collar and most sublime: half carpentry and half metaphysics. You’re exhausted and filthy, wobbling on a rickety platform, but you’re creating a world. Anyone who enters a room you’ve painted does it on your terms. When I do murals, I feel as if I’m John Henry, racing the steam engine through a mountain. If I will die, it will be with a paintbrush in my hand.
Last year I started doing giant paintings about the revolutions of 2011. I was inspired by Diego Rivera.
If I have something to say to women, to artists, it’s this: Explore the radical possibilities of facing outwards. Take up space. Be big.
I want to give particular mention to two artists who, because of their scale and their social conscience, I see as the heirs to Diego Rivera. Kara Walker is an African American artist who does classic, black-paper silhouettes on a massive scale. Her intricate shadows offer treacherously beautiful looks at slavery’s horrors.
SWOON is a New York street artist. She makes giant, graceful woodblock prints of average people, and then risks arrest as she wheat-pastes them in public spaces around the world. She builds earthquake proof homes in Haiti, designs art centers in New Orleans, and had her punk friends build a pirate flotilla out of garbage and sail it to lay siege on the Venice Biennale.
The art of love and pain is powerful. But it’s not the only art. I want to see more men who paint like Frida Kahlo. I want to see more women who paint like Diego Rivera.
Molly Crabapple is an artist and writer living in New York. She learned to draw in a Parisian bookstore, and once sketched her way into a Turkish jail. Her latest project is “Shell Game,” a series of large-scale paintings about the revolutions of 2011 that will be on exhibition publicly in spring 2013. She writes a monthly column for VICE Magazine.