Katy Hessel Is Rewriting Art History—Without the Men
“I could just talk about art all day,” says Katy Hessel, grinning as she sips her tea. We’re at the Morgan Library in Manhattan on a beautiful spring day, discussing, yes, art—and all the ways Hessel has integrated the lives of artists into her multifaceted career as the creator of the beloved The Great Women Artists Instagram account and podcast, and, most recently, as the author of The Story of Art Without Men, which is published in the U.S. on May 2.
As the book’s title, a nod to E.H. Gombrich’s classic tome The Story of Art, suggests, Hessel traces art history’s movements from the Renaissance to the present with a sole focus on women artists. “This book is not the definitive art history. It’s a story of art. If anything, it’s like a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a fraction,” says Hessel, 29, who was born and raised in London.
Still, it’s a radical premise, rewriting history and upending the dominance men have held over so much of our culture. (She includes sections on queer artists and artists of color, too.) Reading the book, I felt almost giddy as I reached each art-historical moment without the usual suspects mentioned. “When we think of the canon, whatever ‘the canon’ is, it’s Giotto, it’s Caravaggio, it’s Leonardo, it’s Rothko, Pollock, whatever. But there were women too!” Hessel effuses. In fact, women were often at the forefront, but then forgotten.
Making our way through Nina Katchadourian’s fantastic “Uncommon Denominator” exhibition at the Morgan, Hessel was a font of knowledge, stopping at a Vivian Maier photograph (Maier’s in the book, page 214, and would soon be a subject of episode 104 of the podcast) and a newspaper clipping that reminded Hessel of an Anna Atkins cyanotype, a type of photographic print Atkins pioneered in the mid-19th century (pictured on page 85 in the book). It’s clear Hessel’s devotion to women artists is deeply seated.
After our walk through the exhibit, we sat down to discuss Hessel’s early interest in art, why we need to stop placing women in the context of men, and how one’s opinion on art can change over time. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Vogue: Have you always loved art?
Katy Hessel: Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by art. I don’t come from an artistic family, but my parents were always very encouraging of museum visits. I remember the first time I ever took the Tube myself, I went to go see the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain. Also my elder sister was really into art history, and so I basically just copied her. [Laughs.]
Do you remember the first piece of art you loved?
It was the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, so more of an art space, really. I remember when I was about six seeing the Louise Bourgeois spider there, and thinking, like, What is this? And I realized it was up to me to decide what I thought. No one was like, Oh, this is Louise Bourgeois and she’s French American and this this this… It was more like, Here’s this spider, how does it make me feel?
How did you come to start The Great Women Artists Instagram account, the precursor to your podcast?
It was 2015. I had just finished university, and I went to this art fair and looked around me, and suddenly realized that there were no women artists. First of all, how are there no women artists? And second, how have I never thought about this? Essentially, have I actually been looking at art history from a male perspective? I honestly had to check myself.
I remember taking myself off to the British Library and tracking down Linda Nochlin’s book, the catalog of her exhibition from 1976, “Women Artists: 1550–1950,” and being like, Oh my goodness, women have been artists for centuries.
And the reason why I chose Instagram, I always say: Use all the resources that you have at your disposal. As a 21-year-old, I had Instagram. So I just did it every single day. And it did require quite a lot of research, but then you just get into these rabbit holes of more and more artists. I was just sort of addicted to finding out about all these women’s lives.
Speaking of Linda Nochlin, where’d the name of the Instagram page and the podcast come from?
It pays homage to Nochlin’s [1971 ArtNews] essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” I cite her on the first page of the book, I love her so much. She’s had a radical impact on my career.
When you decided to write a book on art history without the men, how was the deletion process? Did you write the whole rubric and then remove them, or…
Not even. It was, like, not hard. I’ve read Gombrich’s The Story of Art, but it’s like…it’s really not difficult to remove the men.
Was it surprising to you that it wasn’t difficult?
I think it’s surprising to other people. To me, it felt normal because I’ve been in this world [of women artists] for so long. And I was like, Well, with the Surrealists, like, who? Dali? Magritte? No, no, no. [Laughs.] To me, it’s more [Leonora] Carrington, [Leonor] Fini, [Remedios] Varo, all these amazing artists. To me, I’m not thinking that Lee Miller was married to Roland Penrose or Lee Krasner was married to Jackson Pollock. I’m just like: It’s Lee Krasner.
This reminds me of the column you wrote for The Guardian a few months ago in response to a London gallery’s wall labels that placed some female artists in the context of the men in their lives. What inspired that piece?
It was an exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery that was on abstract art across the globe from 1940 to 1970. And I remember looking at a 50-word placard, and it was like, Yeah, she was a contemporary of Mark Rothko or Willem de Kooning, you know. Four names [of men]. And I was like, You’ve got 50 words. Are you really going to contextualize this woman by who she knew? How in 2023 are we still contextualizing [women this way]?
I say this in the book’s introduction, but I was so fed up with women being seen as the wife of, the muse of, the daughter of, the sister of. Dora Maar’s career, especially before she met Picasso, was absolutely extraordinary. Let’s talk about her as a street photographer. Let’s talk about the fact that she went to London and Barcelona by herself and had a handheld camera.
This is totally not to discredit men. It’s just saying, There was also this whole other side to the story. And the women had to work 10, 15, 20, 100 times harder to get to where they were, and to be remembered in art history.
And as you write in the book, women were often shut out of art schools, from life-drawing classes. They were barred from an institutional level for so long.
Yes. And women still massively suffer in the art world, even though we think so much has happened and so much has progressed. Where’s the support for mothers who are artists?
The tone of your work is generally enthusiastic. What about artwork you encounter that you’re maybe not totally crazy about—how do you approach that?
What’s interesting is that it is work that speaks to me. I’m not a critic, so I wouldn’t necessarily cover a show that I don’t [love] because I don’t have to. But what’s fascinating is that many of these artists, I didn’t “get” for years. You come to it later on because you see it in a new context. You’re like, Ohhh! And that makes something shift in your mind.
I remember thinking [about this] when I was writing the book, with Mother With Dead Child, Käthe Kollwitz’s print. I just know when I have a kid, that picture is going to speak to me in a completely different way. I love visiting artworks in different parts of my life: You go through grief in your life, you go through love, you go through heartbreak.
Did you find the creative approach to writing the book similar to prepping for a podcast episode?
Massively. You know, I might look like an expert, but I also feel like I come to [art history] from a layperson’s perspective, which I think helps because I’m not so “in” it. It’s just about these, like, original thoughts. I remember writing about Tracey Emin’s My Bed in this book, and being like, What do I really think? And it kind of reminds of the Baroque. The [bed sheets] remind me of a marble-like fabric, and that’s just what I thought in that moment. And similarly when I write my podcast scripts, I write them very instinctively. I start with, How do I actually feel when I’m seeing this work?
I wanted to ask you about being painted by Chantal Joffe. How did it feel being on the other side of the art world, now being painted as the subject?
Insane. [Laughs.] It’s such an honor and privilege for Chantal to do it. She’s become such a good friend. I worked at Victoria Miro gallery, and Chantal was an artist there. We got to chatting once. Her studio is just up the road, and she was like, “Why don’t you come be painted?” And I was like, Oh, my God. The first painting of me, I just look so excited. My eyes are just so wide. And it’s really cool because that first painting is from when I was 24, and I’m now 29. In those five years, so much has happened—politically, socially, but also so much has happened in my life.
The best was when me and Antonia [Showering, the artist] were painted by her. Me and Antonia have such a special friendship, and so do Antonia and Chantal. Antonia was about to give birth. We would take these walks every day talking about baby names, all these things. And Chantal caught all that [in the painting].
Has the experience of sitting for all those portraits made you think differently about your work, when you interview artists or write about art?
Definitely with someone like Alice Neel, because, actually, she’s painting a conversation, and an encounter. It’s not actually a picture. It’s so much more than that. I think there’s something so beautiful about just being like, What’s your interpretation of this moment, of me?
With all your work, you’ve chosen more of a mass-audience approach versus going the academic route. Why?
The Instagram and podcast are free. That’s so important. For me it’s not just about breaking down the gender imbalance, but also trying to remove the stigma around elitism in art, and saying: Everyone can be part of this. And a book does cost money, but you can get it at the library. All these resources, it’s for the next generation, I hope.
One of my favorite writers is Hilton Als, and [I think of] him writing about how as a child he saw Alice Neel’s work, and as a result, we’ve got Hilton Als! The power of what artwork can do for kids—like, that’s what I want, is for a 13-year-old to pick this up in their local library and see themselves in it.
At the end of the day, I really think anyone, of any art-historical knowledge, from a PhD to never having stepped foot in a museum, can pick up this book and get something out of it.
Originally Appeared on Vogue