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Why the art world is finally waking up to the power of female craft skills

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Lizzie Pook
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The art world has long undervalued female artists and their skills, but things may finally be changing. Lizzie Pook investigates…

The artwork on the left was painted by a man, Mark Rothko. The work on the right was woven by a woman, Anni Albers. Both were abstract artists working in the early part of the 20th century, but Rothko is globally famous and Albers is not. It’s part of a bigger problem that centres on gender and artistic mediums. For decades, work produced using craft skills (weaving, sewing, pottery and so on) has been undervalued in the Western world. But why?

Anni Albers was a pioneering abstract textile artist and printmaker. A student and then teacher at the world-famous Bauhaus art school in Germany, she exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1949.

But while other early 20th-century artists – the likes of Rothko, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian, even Albers’ own Bauhaus contemporaries Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee – are still world-famous, she’s largely forgotten. Her work wasn’t even valued as art by her own family.

“There’s one piece of hers, a very fragile silk weaving, that she described as one of her masterpieces,” says Ann Coxon, curator of international art at Tate Modern.

“She gave it to her mother, who draped it over the piano and plonked a vase of flowers on it. Because that’s what you do with a piece of material, right? People didn’t see these things as art, they didn’t respect them like you might a painting.”

One could argue that they still don’t.

Anni Albers in her weaving studio at Black Mountain College, 1937

The art world has given little respect to artists, often female, who use craft skills. It wasn’t until 2003 that a potter won the prestigious Turner Prize. And that was Grayson Perry – he’s brilliant but he is still a man defining craft as art. Painters, sculptors, photographers and conceptual artists get acclaim, but those who weave, sew, make pots or do anything seen as domestic are often side-lined.

So why have crafts, particularly those produced by women, been overlooked? “The short answer is misogyny,” says Ben Eastham, art critic and editor of The White Review. “Albers only took up textiles because women were discouraged from studying other artistic disciplines in the Bauhaus.”

“It’s a vicious circle: women took up disciplines that men ignored, and then the men in charge of deciding what is art ignored those disciplines because they were practised by women.”

But historically crafts haven’t always been seen as inferior – just think about the significance of pottery in ancient Greece, the sumptuous tapestries of the medieval era, or the illustrious guilds of master craftsmen in the middle ages.

Nor does the art/craft distinction apply in non-European cultures – weaving is a vital part of cultural development in South America (in fact, textile arts are a hugely important among indigenous peoples across the Americas), and master craftsmen are revered in certain African countries too.

Anni Albers hand-woven piece Intersecting, 1962, is currently on display at the Tate Modern 

In Europe, however, the notion of crafting as ‘lowly women’s work’ has a lot to do with the way women and women’s roles have been viewed. In the Eighties, books and articles – including Women And Craft by Su Richardson and Rozsika Parker’s landmark The Subversive Stitch – examined the hierarchical division of the arts into fine arts and craft as a major force in the marginalisation of women’s work. They asked about the value (or lack of it) derived from women’s assigned status as ‘other’ not ‘artist’.

Most of the blame, it seems, falls on the Victorians. “When women started to have leisure time and were supposed to be confined to the home,” says Coxon, “there emerged a whole class of women with hours on their hands who would spend their time crafting.” Embroidery, knitting and needlework became seen as something that women filled their afternoons with. It sure as hell wasn’t art.

Craft’s bad rep is just another example of how women’s contribution to culture is not rated as highly as men’s. When women write about domestic issues, for example, it is branded as ‘chick lit’. But when a man – Jonathan Franzen, say – does it, it’s a literary masterpiece. 

So too with fine art. Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Met Museum are women, yet 85% of the nudes are female.

“Grayson Perry is brilliant, but he is still a man defining craft as art”: Perry with his tapestry The Tomb Of The Unknown Craftsman, 2011

What is art anyway?

“The exclusion of certain disciplines from museums founded in the 18th and 19th centuries doesn’t mean that they are not art,” says Eastham. “Those museums were organised by white European men, who put into them whatever fit with their own perspective on the world; hence there were so many scenes of war and so few of domestic life.

“The line separating art from craft is purely a semantic one, and people should be aware of who is policing it.”

Novelist Tracy Chevalier, who curated an exhibition of quilts in 2013 at the Danson House Gallery in Kent, argues that they should be seen as art.

“The difference between art and craft is about context,” she says. “Make a quilt, use it on a bed, and it’s craft. Hang it on a gallery wall, light it well and give it a label, and it’s art, right?”

But things are starting to change. Tate Modern’s latest landmark retrospective displays a lifetime of Anni Albers’ work, showing how she used weaving to speak the artistic language of the time. “I heard [Paul] Klee speak and he said ‘take a line for a walk’, and I thought, ‘I will take thread everywhere I can,’” she said.

Albers used her loom to create intricate, geometric woven pieces of art – a riot of squares, rectangles, irregular patterns and kaleidoscopic colours. Her aim was to “let threads be articulate again and a form themselves to no other end than their own orchestration, not to be sat on, walked on, only to be looked at.”

The Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A features the artist’s crafts 

Changing of the guard

The Tate isn’t the only gallery recognising the importance of celebrating traditional crafting activities as respected contemporary art forms. The V&A’s current Frida Kahlo retrospective features her crafts (including rainbow chainstitch embroidery and fine paint-splattered jade jewellery). Brooklyn Museum’s recent Radical Women show explored the ground-breaking contributions to contemporary art of Latin American and Latina female artists with craft works alongside multimedia projects, activist art and sculpture. 

Exhibitions dedicated to textiles have grown – from Soft Pictures at the Museum Re Rebaudengo in Turin, and Decorum at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, to Art & Textile at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg. 

Another exhibition entitled Beyond Craft is running now at Tate Modern, exploring how artists in the Sixties used weaving and knotting to integrate craft techniques into fine-art practice.

Coxon believes this recognition is long overdue. “Anni and the other weavers at the Bauhaus were fighting against the belief that painting is the great art medium and weaving isn’t,” she says.

“Because textiles are something that we all wear; fabric is something that we live with every day, it has this slightly different, lower status. Nearly 100 years ago these women were making art through thread and through weaving. It’s just taken us until now to catch up.”

Here’s hoping this change lasts. “There are more women curators and art historians now than ever before, and they are having an impact on what qualifies as art in the 21st century,” says Eastham. “That there are more people of colour in positions to influence those discussions is also having an effect.”

We’ve been asking ‘What is art?’ for centuries, and the definition always gets broader. Now it’s time to welcome craft into the galleries.

Anni Albers runs 11 October 2018 – 27 January 2019 at the Tate Modern; Bankside, London, SE1. tate.org.uk

Images: Courtesy of Tate Modern / Getty Images