In: Frida Kahlo

During my last year of university, my Contemporary Art professor completely changed my views on art history. On the first day of class, she asked us to think about the artists we had studied in depth during the previous three years. How many women could we remember? The answer was simple: not a single one. A few had been mentioned briefly, often as this or that artist’s wife. The next question seemed to follow naturally: Why have there been no great women artists? This was precisely the title of a 1971 ground-breaking essay by Linda Nochlin, then a Professor at Vassar College, where she questioned the whole intellectual structure upon which this inquiry is based.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1965.

Yoko Ono’s 1965 performance Cut Piece examined in a very simple way the role that the female body has played in art throughout the ages: that of a passive object. In art history, women appear mainly as models or muses. For centuries, the work of those few women that had access to artistic training has been considered to be inferior and secondary compared to that of their masters, fathers, brothers, husbands or lovers. Misleading categories such as “Genius” and “Great Artist”, reserved only for men, have been intrinsic to the discipline of art history for a long time and were not really challenged until the 1960s and 1970s by scholars like Nochlin, who stated that doing so “would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual-glorifying, and monograph-producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based”.

The immediate effect of Nochlin’s essay was to increase the interest of scholars in recovering the work of those women that had been forgotten by history. This idea crystallised in the exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, which included works by more than thirty artists from different periods, such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Rosa Bonheur, Gwen John and Lee Krasner.

Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974–79. Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York. © Donald Woodman.

The flourishing of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s prompted not only art theorists but also artists to re-discover lost role models for women and attack the male-centred version of history that had always passed as legitimate. Perhaps the most important work in this sense was Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), an installation where the names of thirty-nine notable women from history (most of which still do not appear in any history textbook) were represented by embroidered textiles and porcelain plates, artistic expressions that have traditionally been considered “women’s work” and have therefore been excluded from the category of “high art”.

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975. (Watch a clip here).

It is important to remember, however, that not all art produced by women is necessarily feminist or aimed against patriarchy. In opposition to the initiatives that simply sook to lessen the effects of discrimination, such as women-only exhibitions, important voices like that of feminist scholar Griselda Pollock urged for a more political model of feminist interventions. Rescuing the work of women who have been excluded from art history is not enough; in order to undermine patriarchal society, it is necessary to explore and deeply question the social structures that have led to this process of exclusion.

Many female artists have brought awareness to the oppression, marginalization and violence that women have suffered for centuries through their art, particularly after the 1960s. One of the most iconic pieces in this regard is Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a video performance in which the artist not only criticised women’s roles within the home, but also the culture of frenetic consumption fostered by capitalism.

Frida Kahlo, My Birth, 1932. Private collection.

Frida Kahlo, My Birth, 1932. Private collection.

The female body, very often the artist’s own body, became a key tool for visually expressing a multiplicity of issues that directly affect the lives of women, such as menstruation, maternity, sexual violence, gender roles, and body image. For me, one of the most interesting examples of this is Frida Kahlo, who in the 1930s depicted her own birth in a way that finds no parallel in the history of art. This unusual image is still shocking today, as is any that deals frankly with female genitalia, often erased by male painters in their idealised depictions of the female body. In the 1970s, artists like Chicago, who insisted on the existence of a distinct “female sensibility”, scandalised audiences and generated controversy in feminist circles with their use of vaginal imagery.

Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974. New Mexico Museum of Art.

Judy Chicago, Peeling Back, 1974. New Mexico Museum of Art.

Sexual violence against women was (and still is) a very prominent subject in feminist art. One of the projects that first prompted a social dialogue around this important issue was Suzanne Lacy’s Three Weeks in May (1977), a three-week performance that took place in a shopping centre and exposed the amount of rapes reported in Los Angeles during that period of time.

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977.

Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May, 1977.

A few years before, Ana Mendieta had addressed sexual violence in a very powerful manner, presenting her own body as that of a rape victim in a performance that took place in the artist’s apartment.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973. Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection.

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973. Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection.

Finally, I want to mention the work of Cindy Sherman. From the beginning of her career she has photographed herself in many different roles and scenarios, reminding the viewer about the important role of stereotypes in modern society. I find her striking images fascinating because they seem to highlight what Judith Butler has called the “performative” character of gender and the instability of identities.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #479, 1975. © 2012 Cindy Sherman.

Just as there is not just one way of being a woman, there is not only one feminist approach to art. The introduction of feminist perspectives in art history is important because it puts into question the discourse centred on the white, Western, heterosexual male gaze, opening up the discipline to criticism and new points of view.

The development of what has been termed the Feminist Art Movement is greatly indebted to the work of the aforementioned artists. Although most of my examples come from the United States, similar expressions simultaneously appeared in the rest of the world. Still, the question that the feminist collective Guerrilla Girls posed in the 1980s, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, is, as their ongoing project shows, still relevant today.

Guerrilla Girls, 2012.

I highly recommend reading Pollock’s recent article “The National Gallery is Erasing Women from the History of Art”. Sadly, in 2016 many museums and cultural institutions are still way behind art theory and practice when it comes to ending discrimination and promoting inclusiveness and diversity.

It’s basically impossible to narrow London’s top modern and contemporary galleries down to 10. With the wealth and vibrancy of the arts scene in the British capital, there are too many to mention. Indeed, London has long been a global powerhouse in the modern and contemporary art world, so much so that this list simply sums up the starting points, merely scratching the surface of the city’s endless offerings.

We’ve created two lists examining galleries in London. This first one will guide you through London’s classic and long-established names such as the Tate and Serpentine, whilst the second will focus on London’s more recent additions to the modern and contemporary scene like Blain|Southern and Victoria Miro.

1. Tate Modern

In a nutshell: The Tate is one of the most famous art institutions in the world and, undoubtedly, a force to be reckoned with. Its neat “family” of four British galleries show its dedication to demonstrating the scope of the arts – old and new – and has thus become a household name across the globe. The Tate Modern is arguably its most impressive offering. Housed in the former Bankside Power Station, the building was repurposed into a gallery by architects Herzog & de Meuron who decided to reinvent the structure rather than demolish it. Now, with its chimney intact, the Tate’s commanding physical presence on the bank is symbolic of its prevalence in global culture. Its brilliant permanent collection includes world-class works such as David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash (1967) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). The Tate Modern is known for exhibitions that spectacularly transform its interior such as Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth (2007) which took the form of a long crack in the floor of the gallery’s Turbine Hall. Don’t miss the Thames-view café and the superb bookshop.

Where: Bankside, SE1. Open 10am-6pm everyday with late closing at 10pm on Friday and Saturday.

2. Whitechapel Gallery

Whitechapel Gallery facade, with the Tree of Life by Rachel Whiteread.

Whitechapel Gallery facade, with the Tree of Life by Rachel Whiteread.

In a nutshell: Cited by the Independent as “the place to promote a new belief in the good of art”, Whitechapel Gallery was actually one of the first publicly funded galleries in London, and its history is one of education and outreach. What’s more, it organises exhibitions according to local interest. This loyalty to locale make it uniquely personal when considering its international renown. With a penchant for catching up-and-coming artists and catapulting them to recognition, the Whitechapel has premiered the likes of Frida Kahlo and Mark Rothko. It even brands its history as one “of firsts”, having also been the only British gallery to exhibit Picasso’s Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and the first one in the country to produce a major survey of Jackson Pollock’s work. So, you might see the next big thing, perhaps the polar opposite…or something completely unexpected. Such is the Whitechapel, and it is not to be missed.

Where: Tower Hamlets, E1. Open 11am-9pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.

3. Saatchi 

The Saatchi Gallery at the former Chelsea Barracks in London, UK

The Saatchi Gallery at the former Chelsea Barracks in London, UK

In a nutshell: As the urban legend goes, major British art patron Charles Saatchi apparently accidentally destroyed one of Marc Quinn’s legendary Self sculptures – consisting of the artist’s head cast and frozen in his own blood – when the freezer in his house was unplugged during construction works. Saatchi’s reputation precedes him, his name being one so powerful that an attempt to rename the gallery the Museum of Contemporary Art for London in 2010 completely flopped, ‘Saatchi’ enduring as before. Anyway, you must be doing something right if you’ve got a  in your freezer and Saatchi’s art empire is no weak feat; he opened a gallery in order to showcase his personal collection. The gallery boasts its temporary exhibits nearly always being by artists that no-one has heard of, providing a “springboard” to launch careers.  In a similar vein, the Saatchi is currently showing the rare effort of an all-female exhibit – Champagne Life.

Where: King’s Road, SW3. Open 10am-6pm everyday.

4. Gagosian Galleries

Gagosian

In a nutshell: Larry Gagosian’s art empire spans continents and, unsurprisingly, holds a firm base in London with no less than three galleries in the capital. While the galleries roots are in New York and Los Angeles, London was the first international location that was opened by Gagosian. Although that gallery on Haddon Street is now closed, three more have risen from the ashes including one on Britannia Street which started in 2004 with an exceptional opening exhibit of paintings and sculpture from Cy Twombly. Gagosian’s empire is publicly active and always expanding; in Sothebys’ recent Contemporary Sale, the gallery purchased Yves Klein’s Untitled, Anthropometry (1960) for a cool £1,025,000.  Expect a constantly evolving program of contemporary art in sensitively curated interiors from all three galleries which are all located within reasonable distance of each other. And, of course, all three galleries are commercial, so all the art is for sale…

Where: Britannia Street, WC1 // Davies Street, W1 // Grosvenor Hill, W1. All three galleries are open 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.

5. The Hayward

Hayward

The Hayward Gallery facade, London, the Uk

In a nutshell: Located on London’s vibrant South Bank (as part of the SouthBank Centre) amongst many other major arts centres, the Hayward’s Brutalist concrete exterior looks like it popped straight out of one of Orwell’s dystopian narratives. The Hayward doesn’t house a permanent collection, however, it hosts three or four major exhibitions each year; one of its many iconic shows having been Martin Creed’s What’s The Point of It? (20140 and Carsten Höller’s Decision (2015). Whilst its output is largely contemporary, the Hayward brands itself as embracing visual arts from all periods and has, in the past, shown work from Leonardo DaVinci and Edvard Munch. The gallery is well-known for doing ‘survey’ shows of contemporary art, including How to Improve the World: 60 Years of British Art from the Art’s Council Collection. The SouthBank centre location sees it sharing a setting with some of London’s other cultural epicentres, such as the Queen Elizabeth Concert Hall, and these make the area the arts hub that it is. As if that weren’t enough, it is adjacent to the Thames and on top of the famous (and luckily still-standing) Undercroft Skatepark so you shouldn’t be stuck for things to do once you finish in the gallery.

Where: Southbank Centre, SE1. The gallery re-opens in 2017. 

6. Serpentine Galleries

Serpentine_Gallery

Serpentine Gallery facade, London, the UK

In a nutshell: With two galleries that are within walking distance of each other in the coveted Kensington Gardens of Hyde Park, the Serpentine Galleries are an extremely popular tourist destination. Named after the Serpentine Lake which separates the galleries, you have to cross a bridge to get from one to another if the romance weren’t already enough. They both showcase diverse contemporary art programs, and each space is housed in Grade II listed 19th and 20th century buildings: the original Serpentine in a former tea pavilion (it doesn’t get any more English) and the Serpentine Sackler in an ex-gunpowder store. Every summer the Serpentine commissions a leading architect to design and erect a temporary summer pavilion to be built on its lawn. Each building stays up for three months and, in previous years, has been designed by Pritzker Prize-winning names such as Jean Nouvel – famous for designing numerous iconic galleries worldwide – and Zaha Hadid to name a few.  

Where: Serpentine, Kensington Gardens, W2 // Serpentine Sackler, West Carriage Drive, W2.  Both galleries are open 10am-6pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.

7. ICA

ICA

Institute of Contemporary Art facade, London, the UK

In a nutshell: The Institute of Contemporary Arts is a cultural centre that houses galleries, cinemas, a theatre, a bookshop and a bar. And, located just off Trafalgar Square, it is as geographically central to London as it is to the city’s arts scene. It is a membership institute that promotes and encourages an understanding of radical contemporary art, initiated in 1947 by Londoners in an attempt to endorse an approach that went beyond the traditionalism of the Royal Academy. In the ’70’s the ICA was known for its anarchism, this period is marked by an attack on the director of exhibitions at the time – Norman Rosenthal. In a demonstration of their alternative spirit the ICA decided to keep Rosenthal’s bloodstain and it remains at the institute today, framed and preserved under glass and affectionately signposted ‘This is Norman’s Blood’. Historically, The Independent Group began meeting at the ICA in 1953 which ultimately lead to the launch of British Pop Art. The ICA’s association with events such as this, combined with its history of anarchy (and nonchalance) have made it one of the more exciting, forward-thinking institutions in London today.

Where: Pall Mall, SW1. Open 11am-11pm Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.