No Great Women Artists?

A part of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz will be a retrospective of the LRK oeuvre—a fancy way of saying that I’ll be looking at each of my twenty books, a week at a time.  We begin with A Grave Talent, the first Kate Martinelli novel, published January 1993 (Edgar and Creasey awards for Best First Novel.)

Why have there been no great women artists?

A Grave Talent was not the first book I wrote, it was the third.  However, it was the first one that the publishing world decided to nibble at, five years after I’d begun to write novels more or less full time.

The book had its beginning with two ideas: Can I write a novel in which the protagonist does nothing? And, What would Rembrandt look like if he were a woman?  The question of women in what are generally assumed to be men’s roles was one I had been poking around for years, although for the most part in the world of theology rather than crime fiction—in 1984 I wrote a MA thesis exploring the feminine aspects of the God of the Old Testament, and during my time as a graduate student had co-led a seminar in Women in the New Testament.  First-century women rabbis, the influence Moses’ wife had on the future of Judaism, God as Mother, were all topics I had explored.  To say nothing of the practical applications of The Feminine, since I also had small children at the time.

So, the seed: Artists are people possessed by their vision of the world and their need to give it expression.  And it often seems that the greater the artist, the more possessed by their art, the more impossible they are as human beings: egomaniacal, manipulative, and devouring every scrap of energy in their vicinity.

And mostly male.

Whether by nature or by upbringing, women are less likely to be possessed by this near-pathological sense of self-importance making it impossible to see the world except as a resource.  But if a woman were to be of this sort, and if she were to possess the inborn talent that goes far to justifying the artist’s egomania, what would she look like, and how would it shape the world around her?

Or as the question is often put: Why have there been no great woman artists? The question put in A Grave Talent is rather, If there were a truly great woman artist, how would the world react?

And because I appreciated the formal aspects of crime fiction, the bones on which a story can be hung, I shaped the story of Vaun Adams, my female Rembrandt, as a mystery: Unthinkable crimes occur in her vicinity, yet she goes on with her work.  Is that because she has committed them?

Into her orbit swings a young homicide inspector from San Francisco, who has a good few secrets of her own in the background.  As she and her (older, male) partner begin to peel away the layers of the artist’s life, layers of their own are tugged away: At the center of any good crime novel is not the crime’s solution, but its effect.

Vaun Adams is a force of nature.  Her raw and uncontrollable talent, her utter fixation on the canvas at hand and the resultant blindness to those around her, changes everything she comes near: Like a black hole, the intensity of her presence tugs everyone else out of their given orbits.

As such, Vaun is both the book’s central character and a character totally apart from the action.  She—her talent—forms the central axle of the story, and all the other characters—neighbors, lovers, the police, the murderer—spin madly around the solidity of her presence.  Yet she does act, at the very end: She abandons her aloofness, comes out of her extreme retreat, and plays a role.

And when she does, the shock of her motion throws those spinning around her to the four winds.

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  1. Lisa Campbell on December 28, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    The term “artists” can have varied meaning. In this reference you refer to painting, whereas I see “artist” on a broader spectrum. For example, I would see Eleanor of Aquitaine or Emilie du Chatelet as artists. While they may not have held a brush or chisel, they held all the qualities you listed above and then some.

  2. Anastasia on December 29, 2009 at 8:24 am

    I suspect you are using the question, “why have there been no great women artists?” as bait. I’ll bite: What the hell kind of question is that?! There have been plenty, and continue to be plenty. Go to any art gallery or show and you’ll find women well represented. If it’s a historical question, then that’s another story, and one for social and art historians to answer. Life in general has been male dominated for many centuries. If you mean, why have there been so few FAMOUS women artists, then that’s another question and you should have worded it that way. Or is the question why aren’t YOU more famous and highly regarded as an artist? But the question itself it highly insulting and negates the women who have accomplished much in the arts, absolutely ludicrous and really quite odd. But I will forget about it by tonight, when I go to see my friend’s opening of HER most recent award-winning sculpture.

  3. Laurie King on December 29, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Heather Neill has a very learned and thoughtful response on her blog, where she invites fellow artists to respond to the question.

    And yes, Anastasia, the question is bait. But it is also serious, because of the general assumption that “Women aren’t real artists” (akin perhaps to “Mystery writers aren’t real writers,” but let’s not get into that now.) Which is the reason I topped the post with a self portrait by Artemisia Gentileschi, a far superior painter to her better-known father and a person who was badly stepped upon by the patriarchal structure of her society. Had she been free to do her work, supported by a spouse who took care of everything for her, able to enter without hindrance into contracts and studios, where might her name stand in the pantheon of great artists?

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  5. Alexandra on March 17, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    Also, take the sculptor Rodin and his pupil Camille Claudel, who was not allowed to gain the same status when her talent was at least equal, if not superior. When did she at least was recognized?
    As for women writers, not all were able to write in the same conditions as did Jane Austen and could have expressed themselves if only they had A Room of One´s Own.

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