Dangerous Women! — A fascinating look at the fearless females who shaped the art world

The Russell-Cotes Museum’s dazzling display of “Dangerous Women! From Kauffman to Emin” debuted this past Friday, 17 October. It showcases some of the most magnificent masterpieces from all over the world with one thing in common—they were all created by women.

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Dangerous Women! brings together a collection of impressive paintings, sculptures, ceramics, short films, a bedspread and more by women dating from the eighteenth century up to today’s artists.

But it isn’t called Dangerous Women! just because they paint. It’s because they painted, sculpted, sketched and drew against the odds, working in the shadows, selling their art for a much lower price than their male counterparts, but ultimately building an inspiring legacy that empowered women and helped change the art world. These women had a passionate fire that could not be extinguished.

The exhibition takes you on a journey as you experience different eras of female artists from the early innovators during Victorian times to contemporary game-changing artists who still face an uphill battle in today’s world.

The first section, titled ‘A Woman in a Man’s World’, features spellbinding works from artists such as Angelica Kauffman and Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun. Some of these female artists were disenchanted with the little artistic academic opportunities available to them at the time, so they found their way into artistic circles through the men they knew.

One of the most well-known painters from the 1700s, Lebrun, was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint a portrait of the famous Marie Antoinette, but this was only after Lebrun had married her way inside the social circle with a French painter and art dealer.

In the same section, the magnificent portrait attributed to Angelica Kauffman is a point of contention as it was recently identified as a Kauffman work by one historian, yet others are refuting it. A golden opportunity for audience engagement as the museum asks visitors, “Fake or Fortune? You Decide!” The next section, ‘A Lady-like Art’, continues with Victorian era artists and their exquisite works.

You might wonder why there’s a queen-sized bed sitting in the middle of a museum exhibit cordoned off with “Do not touch, sit or lie on” signage. The giant words “Tracey Emin, Here to Stay” are embroidered on the bedspread and they reflects Emin’s feelings toward today’s landscape of artists. This along with other modern works from contemporary artists comprise the ‘Here to Stay’ section.

As you move to the second room, the section named ‘Challenging Convention and Expectation’, a small group of chairs faces a television set playing a short film on a loop, “Why I never became a dancer”, also by Tracey Emin.  Displayed above the room is a quote by art critic John Ruskin: “I have always said no woman can paint”. Ironically, the room clearly showcases that women can paint, and paint well.

The collections are bold and daring, almost as if the women composed these pieces to spite a world that had attempted to suppress their creativity by limiting their options and imposing a low ceiling, while chaining them to the role of domestic housewife.

Many of these groundbreaking artists, such as Louisa Starr Canzini, were eventually accepted into art schools. Canzini was one of the first women to study at the Royal Academy in England. Her painting, “Kathleen and Maryanne, Daughters of Samuel Gurney Sheppard”, 1888, is an oil on canvas and features a striking portrait of Gurney’s two daughters in white dresses posing in the middle of a forest, one with a book and the other looking away, yet still contemplative.

All of the works of art from the exhibition are part of the Russell-Cotes collection.  The artwork showcased here empowers women and brings forth issues of equality and gender roles in the field of art.

These “dangerous” women broke through barriers to bring these artworks to life. It may have been dangerous  for them to paint back then, but it would be more dangerous now to ignore their place in the art world.

“Dangerous Women! From Kauffman to Emin” is on exhibit at the Russell-Cotes Museum until 3 March 2015.

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