In conversation with

Katy Hessel

Curator, Art Historian and Founder of The Great Women Artists

Katy Hessel Great Women Artists

Introduction

Introduction

Thanks to a narrative largely written and recounted by men, women have long since been forgotten in the history of art. While male artists were celebrated as pioneers of movements and have been written about in countless texts, women artists have been kept hidden in the background.

As an art historian, curator and founder of The Great Women Artists, 25-year-old Katy Hessel is on a mission to rewrite women into the canon of art history. Her Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists pays homage to the work of women artists from new graduates to old masters, while her podcast offers a new accessible medium through which to discuss art.

We sat down with Katy in her art-lined Hampstead home to talk about the women artists who inspire her and how their stories are unfolding over time.

Question and Answer

Have you always inspired by artists, even growing up?

Always! I remember going to the first ever exhibitions at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as a kid and witnessing the likes of Louise Bourgeois’s giant spider Maman, Anish Kapoor’s colossal Marsyas, and Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project when I was really small. I think it opened my eyes to how limitless art can be, and its ability to shift perspectives – even for someone so young.

When and why did you first become so enamoured with art, and specifically the work of great female artists?

Art is something I’ve been so fascinated by since I can remember. But it was four years ago that I went along to a major art fair in London and realised I hadn’t seen a single artwork by a female artist. I was genuinely shocked and immediately wanted to do something about it – but I was also shocked at myself not being able to count twenty women artists off the top of my head – so I went home that night and started my account @thegreatwomenartists that I’ve been posting on everyday since!

How do you think women tell their stories on canvas differently to men?

In many ways, there is no difference. However there is a big difference in how the story of art history has been told – predominantly from a male perspective. But now we are trying to make amends and rewrite that story. Women have every right to take up space in galleries and fill as many chapters in the history books as men.

Katy Hessel great women artists
Katy Hessel living room

Art famously draws upon literature and the stories of great heroes and heroines to visually represent a feeling, an emotion or a moment in time. What are your favourite pieces of work that tell a story which resonates with you?

Any work by Alice Neel. She was a portrait painter working amongst the Abstract Expressionists in mid-century New York and a storyteller of the communities who resided in mainly Spanish Harlem and the Upper West Side. A self-proclaimed collector of souls, Alice Neel painted portraits from her cleaner Judy and landlord’s son Benjamin, to art world stars such as Andy Warhol. She told the story of what it was like to live and be in mid-century America, no matter what race or status.

What story do you try to tell when curating your exhibitions?

I’ve curated a number of exhibitions and I always try a different story in each one. My first ever was back in 2017 when I gathered 15 female artists who used Instagram as a platform to forge their careers – from classically-trained artists to those who are self taught. This looked at how Instagram itself can act as a digital gallery space, however emphasise how important it is to see art in the flesh. Last year I curated In The Company Of at TJ Boulting, which looked at women artists past and present, pairing the likes of Juno Calypso with Lee Miller. My most recent exhibition was at Victoria Miro which looked at artists who rethink traditional genres to touch upon themes of migration, the workplace, and the gendered language of painting.

Who’s been a memorable guest on your podcast for you?

All of them! I love doing the podcast so much, as guests can range from the Director of Tate Modern (Frances Morris) discussing the great Abstract painter Agnes Martin, talking and laughing with the brilliant young photographer Juno Calypso, to hunting down great artists’ family members. A few weeks ago I went down to Farley’s Farm, the site of Lee Miller’s former home, and spoke to the great surrealist and war photographer’s granddaughter. I want the podcast to be accessible to any level of art history, so anyone can learn about these incredible women and their stories.

Katy Hessel Founder Of The Great Women Artists

Which female artists do you think are shifting the narrative in the art world right now?

The young artist Flora Yukhnovich is switching up conventions by reimagining scenes from the Rococo and painting them with a female lens; Somaya Critchlow for her depiction of the female nude; Antonia Showering for playing with memory in painting; and Juno Calypso for her very witty and clever takes on our narcissistic millennial society – she’s a very entertaining guest on the podcast.

What themes are you seeing in modern artists’ work at the moment?

It’s interesting to see plays on art history. So many young artists are really looking at the historical canon and going back to make amends. Recent episodes of The Great Women Artists Podcast have included discussions around the great artist Lisa Brice who re-appropriates women from the past – from unnamed women to Millais’s Ophelia – by immortalising them as women who can do what they want; it’s as if to make amends from an objectified male-gazed art history we have known for so long.

How important do you think it is that we have more discussions and conversations about great art and the people behind it?

It’s so important to have conversations about art that hasn’t been included in art history books. It’s often been said that the art should be removed from the person; but we have to know people’s stories in order to understand their work. For example, I interviewed the long lost cousin of British-born Mexican surrealist Leonora Carrington, and you have to know her story. At 15-years-old she was sent to London as a debutante, only to completely reject her family and head to art school where she ended up falling in love and moving to Paris to be with the surrealists. War was also imminent, so she found her way out of Europe by moving to Mexico where she resided until her death in 2011 – and so much of her story is in her paintings.

What have you been reading lately?

A lot of art history texts (!) but I try not to consume myself too much. I just finished Educated, and am reading Celia Paul’s memoir, Self-Portrait, right now.

[Top portrait by Luke Fullalove]

Katy Hessel Founder Of The Great Women Artists
"It’s so important to have conversations about art that hasn’t been included in art history books."

The Storylist

Katy's Storylist

Magazines

  1. Riposte
  2. The Gentlewoman
  3. The Sunday Times Style
  4. The New Yorker
  5. T Magazine
  6. Frieze

Newsletter

  1. Air Mail Weekly
  2. Breakfast With ARTnews
  3. Artnet
  4. The New York Times
  5. The Roundup By Women Who

Podcasts

  1. How To Fail with Elizabeth Day
  2. Desert Island Discs
  3. NYT’s The Daily
  4. How I Built This
  5. Fresh Air
  6. The High Low
  7. Daddy Issues
  8. Longform
  9. TalkArt
  10. Art Matters
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