La Puissance—Dibutades and the Power of the Female Perspective in Art

According to Pliny the Elder, the world’s first painter of sorts was in fact, a woman. The Roman writer, natural philosopher, and Como local of circa first century AD penned the tale of a Corinthian potter named Butades and his daughter: on the eve of her lover’s departure, she traced his silhouette on the wall, capturing the sleeping sailor’s shadow line in the lamplight.

In his writings, Pliny left his lamenting and innovative lady illustrator nameless—but she’s generally referred to as Dibutades, the doting Corinthian maid. This poetic piece of Western mythology became famous in the 18th and 19th centuries rendered regularly in art as the momentous origin of painting. Whether the story is fact or fiction, momentous or trivial, Dibutades the artist, and a generous portion her non-fiction feminine successors across time have been so scarcely championed, their work rarely remembered and adequately recognised.

“The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters,” Georgia O’Keeffe famously remarked in reference to her outright seminal work. “When people know nothing about you except one thing, you have to talk about that,” 96-year-old Francoise Gilot told The Guardian in an interview last year. The painter, best-selling author, and art critic is generally only known as Pablo Picasso’s mistress of ten years, and the mother of his children Claude and Paloma.

German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffmann infamously barked “this is so good you wouldn’t know it was done by a woman” in blatant appreciation of a female student’s work. He was referring to work by Lenore ‘Lee’ Krasner—an iconoclast in the narrative of American abstract-expressionism and 20th-century art. Despite her career and her work, Krasner tends to be noted first and foremost as the widow of Jackson Pollack. She’s one of only a handful of women to have had a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

And so it’s an unhappy truth that women’s powerful and important contributions to our greater cultural antiquity, and our artistic past and present, are so often passed off or diminished in art canon. In the 70s, Lucy R Lippard put together what may have been the first all-female exhibition, a group show to cap off a 5-year series titled The Number Shows. Titled 7,500 the exhibition was a landmark move for Lippard and a powerful, pioneering act in support of femme artists act that cemented her as a leading figure within feminism in the arts. Her visit to Australia in 1975, and the lecture she delivered at Sydney University—the Power Lecture—is considered legendary, reaching almost mythical status.

Lippard’s initiatives led on to later powerful art groups like the Guerrilla Girls—a masked collective who collate ‘weenie counts’ in grand institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art to present alarming gender stats. Things like—the sale price for O’Keefe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, the most expensive work sold by a female artist. It’s about $135 million less than the most expensive work ever sold—Les Femmes d’Alger by Picasso. The pricey Picasso is a series of 15 cubist renderings of Algerian women, a version of Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 canvas, and enough to incite the famed 1989 Guerrilla Girls slogan: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?

In creating La Puissance alongside PAR FEMME in 2017, Sydney based artist and curator Finlayson says “Female artists are so important—our voices, our opinions, our views. They need to be shared and nurtured, not pigeonholed and stereotyped.” Finlayson has compiled a group of 14 female artists—a cross section of her local peers—to represent powerful, important female work. “I think providing a safe and inclusive ground for female artists to show, grow, and develop their works is crucial to the cultural growth of a city,” she continues. “La Puissance is our small contribution to an attitude of embracing all views of women and their incredible power.”

Finlayson’s artists present a mighty vision of their own—women as women see themselves. Among them is Kitty Callaghan, who will present a collaborative series with Australian designer Kym Ellery. “All of my work is about women, and it's from a female perspective,” Callaghan says. Artist and founder of The Rough Trade Noni Cragg will show a portrait titled Shenay Bundjalung/Gumbaynggirr. “I wanted to capture ‘la puissance’ or the power I feel Shenay has as a proud First Nations woman,” she says.

“We are celebrating women and our female forms, we are turning from being somewhat of a surveyed 'object' to something that is deeper and more powerful; a celebrated work of art,” Finlayson adds. “These works are so varied and diverse, which represents our sexual diversity, and something that should be championed.”


La Puissance includes work by—
Dina Broadhurst
Kitty Callaghan
Jess Cochrane
Anouk Colantoni
Noni Cragg
Madison Davies
Amy Finlayson
Jodee Knowles
Tanya Linney
Cloudy Rhodes
Rachel Rutt
Myf Shepherd

La Puissance appeared in Sydney from June 15—17 at Comber Street Studios, in Paddington in Sydney. Part proceeds from these sales went towards The Rough Period, an organisation who help homeless women on the streets of Sydney with their hygiene and sanitary needs.

This piece first appeared on the PAR FEMME blog, 13 June 2017. 

Image, Kitty Callaghan x Kym Ellery, The Origin of the World, 2017.