Growing up, I learned about famous artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Salvador Dali. I filled coloring pages of blank Picasso pieces in elementary school and took notes on Paul Gauguin’s expressive use of color during junior high.
I went on field trips to museums, where I ogled at the beautiful works of Andy Warhol and Da Vinci. I have recreated famous pieces in dioramas and drawn cartoons in the style of Roy Lichtenstein.
While these artists are all influencers in their unique sense, museums, art classrooms, and coloring pages can quickly turn from safe and expressive spaces to places of exclusion and violence.
As of right now, I have not mentioned one single female artist. It’s highly probable that you didn’t even notice this. And why should you? Women are incredibly underrepresented in the art field, making up only 14% of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums between 2008 and 2018.
Museums are the primary source of art education for those seeking to educate and immerse themselves. However, the diverse population that we live in is not accurately represented within their walls. When museums fail to include artists, people of color and women usually are the ones to fall through the cracks.
85.4% of the works in the collections of all significant U.S. museums belong to white artists, and 87.4% belong to men, one recent study found. While most can agree that minorities and women need to be represented in the art field, we must also confront the unsavory aspects of existing artwork.
All of the men listed in the first paragraph abused women. Pablo Picasso, the artist I held in such high regard, the artist whose works I have colored, was a rapist. One of his mistresses was quoted saying, “he first raped the woman, then he worked.” He also beat another one of his mistresses unconscious and has painted numerous depictions of his rapes. (The rape of sabine women, the rape under the window, the rape, the minotaur, etc.)
Vincent Van Gogh was also accused of raping one of his models. Salvador Dali had a masturbation addiction, threw weekly orgies, had an unhealthy obsession with necrophilia, and beat his wife. He was also a Hitler sympathizer, and racist.
In 1944, George Orwell wrote an essay on Dali and said, “If Shakespeare returned to the Earth tomorrow, and if it were found that his favorite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear . . . One ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being.”
Gauguin was a pedophile who took underage Tahitian girls to be his sex slaves. He then further used them as models for his future works.
Yet, even as we know this about these artists, their abusive tendencies are often downplayed or even ignored in the name of great art. So, how far can a man go? How many women can he harm, in the name of art?
There is a commonly used phrase when these questions come up. That is to “separate the art from the artist.” Artists are human, and humans do and say stupid stuff. But should I not feel bothered when looking at a Gauguin’s painting, knowing that the girls in it are underage teenagers in which he bought and raped? Should I not be disturbed when my future children show me their Picasso coloring pages, knowing that he believes “women are either goddesses or doormats.”
Maybe this separation of person and product works in certain mediums (though I find that hard to believe), but I cannot ignore the exposed and brutalized forms of fellow women who have faced emotional and physical abuse; their naked bodies forever immortalized by their abuser. Especially when we consider that they are surrounded by so many other frozen women with shared trauma, in a museum devoid of female perspective to counter this objectification.