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 - Jasmijn Groot -

In recent years, collectives and individuals from all over the world have emerged to make it their personal mission to make art more accessible to the general public, especially art by women. The Dutch Kunstmeisjes are one of them. Since 2016 they have been writing, posting and talking about exhibitions in the Low Countries and about international artists and works of art that you should know more about. In their first book from 2019, they highlighted fifty of their favorite works of art and the intriguing stories behind them. Now they are back with their second book, More than Muse (Dutch: Meer dan Muze).  

More than Muse is a collection of essays by de Kunstmeisjes themselves – consisting of Mirjam Kooiman, Nathalie Maciesza and Renee Schuiten-Kniepstra - and by other art historians, art lovers and professionals from the Dutch art world. Their articles are categorised under the four themes of Maker, Muse, Social Manoeuvres and Power. Under these headings, the writers make the reader think critically about the place of women in art history in intriguing new ways.  

Unlike some of their examples, such as the American art historian Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) and the British art historian Katy Hessel, who have been objective and eloquent in articulating the historical shortcomings that have condemned women artists to obscurity, a number of writers open with somewhat less nuanced passages. In the Muse section, the simplified "everyone used to be sexist apparently" comes along, and some of the essays sometimes convey the sense that the men in these historical women's stories are all bad guys. Thankfully, it's only a minor bump. 

Indeed, de Kunstmeisjes do deliver what they promise. A book full of essays on female artists, muses and tycoons, most of whom I did not know before reading it. And most of whom I am highly unlikely to forget either. Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), the main character in an essay by Maartje Knepper, will stay with me for quite some time. She was the first woman to paint herself nude in a pregnant state in 1906. Knepper explains with her razor-sharp sense of drama and humour why this painter did so when she was not pregnant at all (yet).   

Mirjam Kooijman uses the oeuvre of artist Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010) - or at least her series on Paul Rosano - to address the hypocrisy surrounding male nudity in modern art with a delicious dose of dry wit. With these seductive portraits, Kooijman highlights the historical opposition between the male gaze on female nudes and the female gaze on male nudes. Sylvia Sleigh managed to make her female viewers fall in love with her male muse, but incur the wrath of men by switching perspectives. It is a very relevant topic today, as Florida recently ruled that David's noble parts have to be covered in educational materials to protect the children. Michelangelo is certainly turning over in his grave. 

The writers of the essays clearly have great know-how. They not only find interesting new perspectives on historical women, or gender-historical topics to address. They also choose to cite overlapping themes that connect several women at the same time. For instance, Nathalie Maciesza talks about the mystical world that Hilma Af Klint (1862-1944), Marian Spore Bush (1878-1946) and Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980), among others, immortalised on the canvas, and why that was such a revolutionary move. Renee Schuiten-Kniepstra talks about the shadow of famous husbands that artists Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) disappeared into for a long time and how they blossomed when they were able to step out of it. She also writes about the love for the arts the phenomenally wealthy Catherine the Great (1729-1796), Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) and Helene Kröller-Müller (1869-1939) possessed and how they laid the foundations for a number of important art museums.   

All writers have the very admirable skill of being able to put the spiritual considerations, intentions and visual expressions of all these historical women into words. It should not be underestimated that making this comprehensible to a wide audience can be a challenge. Here and there, this is also necessary. Indeed, some works of art are mentioned or described that are not accompanied by images for reference. This is a shortcoming. Of course, this may not necessarily have been a choice of de Kunstmeisjes or the writers themselves. Perhaps cost or size had to be considered. Or perhaps I am just a little too eager to see more of Paul Rosano's penis. 

A growing amount of works about women art history are now being published, a development of which de Kunstmeisjes are all too aware. Their More than Muse does stand out for its alternation of essays on individual women and the connection between more than one, but certainly also for the dramatic structure and humour that the writers employ to reveal theinteresting, shocking, and thought-provoking stories of their favourite artists. 


Image: Jitske Schols (2019) Portrait De Kunstmeisjes.


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