If history is just one damn thing at a time, then art history is just one damn man at a time making things. Katy Hessel is not impressed either by the Old Masters’ boys’ club or by their followers like the German artist Georg Baselitz, who said: “Women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact. The market doesn’t lie.”
Research for the BBC, published in August, showed that the visual arts is one of the most unequal of all work environments, with men generating up to 10 times more sales than women. Among living artists, Jeff Koons holds the auction record of $91 million, while the highest achieved by a woman, Jenny Saville, is $12.5 million.
In 2015, shortly after Hessel graduated with a degree in art history, she attended an art fair and found that of the many works on display, none were by a woman. She notes that only 1 percent of the National Gallery’s collection comes from female artists.
Men have been writing art history since Giorgio Vasari’s classic account of Renaissance painters and sculptors appeared in 1550. it contradicts the bible of discipline, The History of Art by EH Gombrich. She writes: “It is a wonderful book, but with one flaw: its first edition  no women artists and even the sixteenth edition only has one.” She takes Gombrich’s title and adds the phrase “Without Men” before introducing the reader to a gallery of unknown or underrated women. It is an uncompromisingly revisionist portrayal of the artists’ lives.
Inequality in the arts stems from prejudices about how girls should be educated and about career opportunities for women. For a long time, female students were not allowed to work on nude models with their male fellow students in the living spaces of artistic institutions. But Hessel’s case isn’t so much that women have never looked into it; rather, their achievements were left out.
Marcel Duchamp famously or notoriously autographed a urinal and named it ‘Fountain’ (1917), creating the first ‘ready-made’ and birthing conceptual art in all its glory, but Hessel suggests that a woman did it. Duchamp apparently told his sister it was the work of one of his friends, and Hessel provides her name: Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who had been experimenting with found objects. “I leave the decision to you, but the exclusion of the baroness from art history seems absolutely unfair to me,” adds Hessel.
This campaign book – which started as the @thegreatwomenartists Instagram account – is a list of notable figures who, in Hessel’s case, are unfairly overlooked. In her commendable urgency to tell as many of her stories as possible, her book becomes study after study of one brilliant, mistreated woman. There is a danger that her pantheon will seem as distant and deified as the old guard she opposes. For my money, Hessel is at its best when her knowledgeable eye rests on a specific track and finds something new and insightful to say about Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” that’s well covered in more ways than one. Hessel compares it to “a baroque sculpture, with the marble-like folds of the sheet”.
This book is the latest in a growing shelf of recent titles about women and art, and some might think the author is pushing for an open gallery door. After all, 70 percent of students at art schools are women. Museums are trying to rebalance their permanent collections; some go so far as to sell men’s art and replace it with women’s work. Auction houses and major art exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale actively promote female artists.
Hessel’s blueprint for a fairer art world includes more awards for underrepresented artists and pressure on governments to promote art education. But liberal arts courses are being taken away rather than being multiplied.
The boom in non-fungible tokens — lines of code locked into the blockchain that provide encrypted proof of ownership — threatens to render connoisseurship obsolete, and even the well-established role of the expert in authenticating works is threatened. Art is increasingly traded like stocks for quick profits, and uncomfortable truths are bad for business. It is ironic that Hessel speaks mightily for forgotten women artists, while the same fate may also await art historians.
The history of art without men by Katy Hessel, Hutchinson Heinemann £30, 520 pages
Stephen Smith is the cultural correspondent for the BBC’s Newsnight programme.
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