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Why the Prado’s Show on Women in Art Is Facing Accusations of Misogyny

Critics say the exhibition, centered on the Spanish art world between 1833 and 1931, echoes “the very misogyny it has sought to expose”

The show features 60 works by women and 70 by men, including Carlos Verger Fioretti's Phalaena (1920). (Museo Nacional del Prado)
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It’s no secret that women are consistently underrepresented in the art world. Last year, a joint investigation conducted by artnet News and In Other Words found that between 2008 and 2018, works by women constituted just 11 percent of acquisitions and 14 percent of exhibitions at 26 major American museums.

A new show at the Museo del Prado in Madrid aims to help redress this imbalance by spotlighting women’s role in Spanish art. But as Sam Jones reports for the Guardian, “Uninvited Guests: Episodes on Women, Ideology and the Visual Arts in Spain (1833-1931)” has been mired in controversy since its opening, with some female artists and academics arguing that the exhibition echoes “the very misogyny it has sought to expose.”

Perhaps the most egregious example cited by critics is curator Carlos G. Navarro’s inclusion of a misattributed painting actually created by a male artist. Per a statement. the museum removed the work—Adolfo Sánchez Megías’ La March del Soldado (c. 1895)—from the exhibition after a scholar pointed out that it was not, in fact, a scene by female artist Concepción Mejía de Salvador.

The statement, as translated by ARTnews’ Claire Selvin, adds that the Prado “regrets this setback” and acknowledges “the need to continue research on women artists from past centuries.”

“Uninvited Guests” is the museum’s first major show since its reopening in June. Made up of 130 paintings, including 60 by women and 70 by men, the exhibition features such female artists as Portuguese-Spanish painter María Roësset Mosquera; French miniaturist Sophie Liénard; and Aurelia Navarro Moreno, who later succumbed to societal pressure and abandoned her creative career to join a convent. Male artists’ often idealized or aspirational depictions of women also appear.

Multiple paintings in “Uninvited Guests”—which is divided into 17 categories ranging from “The Patriarchal Mold” to “Nudes” and “Ladies Rather Than Painters”—center on themes of female agency. In Full Body Self-Portrait (1912), for instance, Roësset confronts the viewer by meeting their gaze and standing assertively. Dressed in floor-length black clothing, she offers a stark contrast to more scantily clad depictions of women in art history.

By presenting women’s work alongside contemporary male artists’ representations of women, the exhibition strives to highlight the cultural norms that governed acceptable expressions of femininity—and the difficulties faced by artists whose work failed to conform to bourgeois ideals.

As Navarro tells the Guardian, the show explores “how the state—and the middle classes—came to fix on and publicly value certain images, prototypes and cliches that eventually became a collective imagination in which women were always represented in certain ways.”

Some artists, critics and academics argue that Navarro’s attempted contextualization of 19th- and 20th-century art history undermines the exhibition’s revolutionary goals by “replicating that era’s misogyny” and overemphasizing male artists to the detriment of female artists, writes Nina Power for the Telegraph. In Power’s words, the competing views represent a “battle between two distinct ideologies: [I]s it art’s responsibility to present the world as it is (or was), or as we would like to be?”

Full Body Self Portrait
L to R: Baldomero Gili y Roig, Pride, 1908, and María Roësset Mosquera, Full Body Self-Portrait, 1912 (Museo Nacional del Prado)

Speaking with the Guardian, art historian and critic Rocío de la Villa describes “Uninvited Guests” as a “missed opportunity.” Expanding on this line of thinking for Spanish magazine El Cultural, she notes that more than half of the exhibition is dedicated to context; of the women who do appear, many are “relegated” to traditionally feminine genres such as still-life and portrait miniatures.

At least two major women’s art organizations—La Red de Investigación en Arte y Feminismos and El Observatorio de Mujeres en las Artes Visuales (MAV)—echoed these criticisms, arguing in separate statements that the exhibition does not go far enough because it fails to encourage institutional change, according to El País’ Claudia Vila Galán.

Navarro, for his part, maintains that extensive contextualization is key to “Uninvited Guests”’ argument. Rather than serving as a “standalone showcase” for women artists, the Guardian notes, the show aims to contextualize the environment in which these individuals lived and worked.

“For me as a curator, the biggest problem female artists had in the 19th century was how they were treated by a state that protected, promoted and indulged male artists and left them totally passed over,” the curator tells the Guardian. “It reduced them to decorative elements like still-life painters and flower painters. I think contemporary criticism doesn’t get that because it can’t contextualize the process of a historical exhibition.”

Uninvited Guests: Episodes on Women, Ideology and the Visual Arts in Spain (1833-1931)” is on view at the Prado through March 14, 2021.

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