Arte Povera: Female Artists, Male Space

By: Brooke Claflin

            Arte Povera, which translates literally to Impoverished Art, was an Italian movement in the late 1960s. The name of the group, which consisted mainly of male artists, originated from a comment made by the art critic Germano Celant in 1967. Artists of the movement utilized everyday materials to create their sculptures, and they worked to formulate messages on Italian society through their artwork. They also attempted to transform the relation between the viewer and the artwork by, at certain times, integrating the two. In general, Arte Povera was an important innovation in Italian art through its combination of the classical and the new. However, the focus has often been on the work of Mario Merz and other male figures of the movement. It was only recently that Mario’s wife, Marisa, gained her own recognition at the age of 90. The Met Breuer installed an exhibition, “Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space,” documenting her 50 years of work.

            Other female artists, like Lee Krasner, also experienced being stuck in the shadow of an artist husband. Krasner often put aside her own work to help Jackson Pollock with his career, and, thus, insured her spot in his shadow. Plus, there have always been other limitations to the recognition of women in the art world. For example, things like quilting, sewing, and pottery which, although depending on the culture and time period, were traditionally the work of women are often seen as more practical than artistic. Although many stylistic choices and skill went into all of these activities, they have very rarely been recognized as art. Plus, there is a common misconception that women cannot be artists and mothers because both require a person’s full attention and passion. Yet there are plenty of women who have in fact done both, so why do myths like this persist?

            The National Museum of Women in the Arts recently challenged people to name five female artists, something that sounds easy at first but soon proves itself to be a challenge. In general, there seems to be a stigma around women as artists, perhaps because there is an accepted canon of great artists. This canon includes Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and many other men; I am not saying that these men do not deserve the distinction they have received, but I do think that their recognition has contributed to the systematic exclusion of women from the art world. Moreover, this historic exclusion has made the current lack of female artists seem unproblematic. So what can be done?

            In my opinion, this problem can be solved, at least partially, by continuing the work the Met Breuer has started. We need to acknowledge female artists that were previously ignored despite their exemplary work in order to normalize the presence of women in the art world. The addition of women to the largely male canon could go a long way in creating a space for female artists in the current world free of stigma.