Some of our favourite art by women

Cambridge Girl Talk committee (cover art by Anna Curzon Price)

Inspired by the amazing women’s art in the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Fitz, the inspiring New Hall Collection talk given by Katy Hessel (founder of the Instagram account, @thegreatwomenartists) on women artists 1550-1945, and especially by the announcement of our exciting upcoming art exhibition in Murray Edwards bar (the location of many of the best pieces by women in the world), the Cambridge Girl Talk committee decided to collate some of our favourite art by women. Here are our selections and what we have to say about them.

Bea on Alice Palser’s figures:

Alice Palser, who sadly passed away in 2015, was an extraordinarily talented artist who trained at the Slade school of art then went on to teach in schools in Suffolk. Amongst watercolour and oil paintings, she crafted figures of African women, using clay and resin, inspired by her childhood in Africa. These women sit or stand tall with disproportionately long bodies and longer feet.

Growing up, I didn’t see the appeal of her sculptures that my parents would be tempted into buying each time we ‘nipped in to’ Craftco, an independent art shop in Southwold. I have since grown particularly fond of them. They are simple but not understated and hold their own in our sitting room amongst bright coloured walls and furniture. Her work is clever and poignant and she imparted a sort of strength into her figures. They feel like a physical representation of powerful women and, particularly to me, of the inspiring women in my family.

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Image source: thestudio-gallery

Blanca chose the 1801 Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers:

I had seen this portrait before as a child in the Met and in passing on art journals and collages. I remember always being pacified by the glow and calm in this woman’s private space, with the subtle determination in her somewhat innocent look.

However I only found out its turbulent history at Katy Hessel’s 20th October talk on women artists. For a long time this painting was attributed to Villers’ mentor and contemporary, Jacques-Louis David, and was only recognised as Villers’ work in 1995 when Margaret Oppenheimer convincingly proved that it was by her, and was maybe even a self-portrait.

This story infuriates me as it is just one of many examples of the tendency for historical narratives to write over women, and of the general lack of women artists displayed in major galleries. Yet the conclusion also gives me hope for women’s power in supporting each other, and for the history and future of women’s art – this piece is wonderful in its luminosity and its beautiful strength.


Image source: Wikipedia

Julia on why she identifies with 1979 Untitled Film Still #48 by Cindy Sherman:

I chose this work by Sherman because there was something about the way in which the girl was looking out at an uncertain, unclear landscape, which I immediately related to. A moment of change is being represented here, and for me, that moment of change seems to be the time in which we, as girls slowly turning into women, become aware of our bodies and presence. We grow confident with ourselves as we change or we attempt to shroud parts of our form. The thoughtful way in which the woman in the photograph is standing, her hands drawn back in a reserved manner and her head turned towards the darkness, surveying it, pervades a curiosity without any inclination to follow the white line on the tarmac as it snakes into greyness. What I like about this is that it focuses not only on the comprehension that girls standing on that brink of change understand that their bodies will change and the way that they are viewed will alter as time goes on, but it puts a greater emphasis on that individual girl’s very thought process. It is not her body which is the focus but rather her head as the viewers imagine what she is projecting in her mind on to that landscape. It reminds us of what we hoped and feared for, and still do, in those periods of transition. Sherman allows us to stand in her place, for it is a photograph of the artist herself, for a second and imagine with her what lies beyond- our experiences are linked to hers for that short snippet of time.


Image source: The Tate

Anna writing about Mie Olise:

Mie Olise combines sculpture, monumental painting, abstract impressions of places and drawings on site. A lot of her work is based on her visits to failed utopian spaces – such as The Pyramid in Russia. She makes the process of how we carve out inhabitable spaces for ourselves and create domestic environments look magical. And she does this by creating work on the monumental scale which is normally associated with male artists such as the American Abstract expressionists.

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Keeping an eye on the depths (2009) – source:

Phoebe and Work in Progress by Jann Howarth:

American pop artist Jann Haworth’s accreditation has waned over time, likely due to her decision to focus on her family instead of her art – a decision every woman is entitled to. Her most famous work, however, is incredibly famous, being the sleeve art and album cover for the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ (1967). The artwork is often solely attributed to her husband, Peter Blake, despite it being a collaborative design. Haworth, however, has continued to re-examine and rework the piece. In 2005 she redesigned the piece as a mural in Salt Lake City, changing the crowd to include 50% women and racial diversity. Then, on the dawn of what was supposed to be the election of the first female President of the United States, Haworth created another re-working of the collage that depicts 180 women who have shaped the world through a variety of fields – ‘Work in Progress’. (She says she’s far more proud of her redesigns, and no longer listens to the Beatles.)

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Image source: Deseret News

And lastly, Alicia chose a video work by Martha Rosler!

Martha Rosler is an eminent artist and theorist, as well as a leading voice within feminist critical discourse. In her renowned video work Semiotics of the Kitchen Rosler takes on the role of an apron-clad housewife and parodies the television cooking demonstrations popularized by Julia Child in the 1960s. Standing in a kitchen, she goes through the alphabet from A to Z, assigning a letter to the various tools associated with women’s domesticity and work. Wielding knives, a nutcracker, and a rolling pin, as she goes along her gestures sharply punctuate the rage and frustration of oppressive women’s roles. The violent gestures demonstrated by Rosler link to the sense of pent up anger and frustration felt by women trapped in constrictive and gendered roles and can also be seen as relating to domestic abuse.  Rosler was interested in the dichotomy between public and private video and confronts the public image of the happy and fulfilled housewife with this video. Her violent persona serves as a foil to the false nature of TV cooking programmes such as Julia Childs. Instead Rosler reveals the real experience of many women in the role of housewife, voicing the frustrations of confinement and the experience of domestic abuse.

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