International Women’s Day with Kate Bryan

Celebrate International Women's Day in the West End through Art with Kate Bryan

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Celebrate International Women's Day in London's West End through an art-led itinerary with Kate Bryan

Itinerary Info

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Art through a new lens

Getting around

Green Park Station, Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross, Leicester Square

International Women’s Day

Women have been a vital force in arts and culture for centuries, and this International Women’s Day gives us an important opportunity to celebrate the incredible contribution made by women artists.

When I first started working in the art world in 2004, International Women’s Day wasn’t something that gained much traction, thankfully this has now shifted and we are making huge progress in terms of not only recognition, but for equality for women artists.

Together with Art of London, my itinerary celebrates both contemporary women who are working with great agency and urgency right now and historic female artists who did it first and have been reclaimed from obscurity - despite great fame and accomplishment in their lifetimes. London’s West End art institutions all have great women artists on display, here are some of the highlights of my latest Art of London itinerary for International Women’s Day.

The Royal Academy of Arts

I started my tour honouring great women at the Royal Academy by focusing on two pioneering artists. Although working in Britain centuries apart they both have something to say about disrupting traditions and blazing a trail for women artists.

Firstly, a long-awaited look at a founding member of the Royal Academy, Angelica Kauffman (ticketed exhibition). Along with the other founding woman artist Mary Moser, Kauffman belonged to a select group of artists who in 1768 endeavoured and succeeded in promoting visual art in Britain, elevating it to the status it enjoyed in France and beyond. Despite women not being able to join the life drawing classes, Kauffman nonetheless was a key figure in 18th century painting. The exhibition shows the range and depth of her work, not just portraying the leading social figures of her era but also rethinking the way mythological and historical women were depicted.

In the Burlington Gardens end of the RA, the Collection Galleries are showing a focused presentation by Lubaina Himid. 'Naming the Money paperworks’, part of the is a set of 20 quietly powerful pieces relating to her immersive Turner Prize winning installation. Himid describes Naming the Money as "the story of the slave/servant, but also of the leper, of the émigré, of the refugee, of the asylum seeker". These works are powerful in their own right, but also act as a generous behind-the-scenes look at how Lubaina composed her installation and birthed these figures. Works by Lubaina Himid are also featured in ticketed Entangled Pasts exhibition at The RA showing until 28 April.

Before leaving I had a pit stop in the RA’s beautiful Academicians’ Room which is open to House Members. I was drawn into a seductive display by another wonderfully inventive contemporary woman artist, Cornelia Parker RA.

The National Gallery

Onto The National Gallery with a woman artist who has become a touchstone for a new era where we are not only asking where the women artists are, but demanding to see them. Artemisia Gentileschi is a powerhouse of an artist and was active in the 17th century. She rose to great prominence creating paintings for various elites, working beyond her native Italy for individuals like Charles I, King of England, which demonstrates how renowned and respected she was in her lifetime. As is so often the case with women artists, Gentileschi was written out of art history and when she was reclaimed most of the attention focused on the sad facts of her biography rather than her artistic greatness. The remarkable painting of the artist in the guise of the martyr Saint Catherine was rediscovered in 2017 and subsequently acquired by The National Gallery, which had long wanted to add masterpieces by historic women artists to its holdings. I love how Gentileschi lavishes every aspect of the painting with detail, showing off her skill at rendering the cold sharp spikes of the wheel, the pearls on the crown and the subject’s luminous skin.

Another key name on display from the same century is the Dutch painter Rachel Ruysch, who continued her artistic practice well into her eighties and commanded huge sums for her highly sought after paintings. Ruysch was a leading figure in the development of the floral still life genre and kept painting even after her husband and her won the lottery! This example is beyond sumptuous, the flowers are almost hyper-real and remind us how fetishised and luxurious they were in this period.

Despite being custodian of great pictures of Western art pre-1900, the gallery is still actively commissioning artwork and has incorporated an enormous wall painting by one of the UK’s most respected artists, Bridget Riley, which you can’t miss as you exit the building. Inspired by Constable’s clouds (which he called Messengers - and is borrowed as Riley’s title), the wall painting stretches 10 by 20 metres and in Riley’s signature fashion, reduces colour, light, and form to their bare essentials, leaving an optical after-print in our vision. I left the building with my eyes literally swimming from a great woman artist’s vision.

National Portrait Gallery

Next door, the National Portrait Gallery has recently reopened following major redevelopment with the galleries having not only been reconfigured architecturally, but every display carefully considered, resulting in more inclusive and varied displays. You can always expect to see plenty of work by women artists on the walls, especially in light of the Reframing Narratives: Women in Portraiture project, a three-year endeavour looking to enhance representation of women in the gallery.

The project is in partnership with the CHANEL Culture Fund and has conducted research into women artists and sitters in the collection. The initiative also works on changing exhibition space which right now includes a powerful presentation of self-portraits by contemporary artists such as Sarah Lucas and Issy Wood, both of whom challenge traditional values associated with the genre of self-representation by including objects which might undermine an expected seriousness such as a face mask or a toilet. They sit in happy juxtaposition with equally introspective works by women working in an entirely different era, such as Barbara Hepworth and Maeve Gilmore whose more sedate presentations of their identity date from the 1950s.

I was also excited to be seeing two brilliant but long overlooked British surrealists, Ithell Colquhoun and Eileen Agar, who are thankfully becoming better known to us through recent exhibitions and books. Many of the works curated here by the National Portrait Gallery are united by how they challenge traditional notions of female imagery and then overturn the male gaze. This is perhaps most succinctly seen in Gluck’s powerful- almost sneering - presentation which feels lightyears ahead of its time in its undoing of binary gender standards.

You can also delve into contemporary female artists from the African diaspora in The Time Is Always Now, and make sure to take a note of a key exhibition opening on 21st March, the Francesca Woodman and Julia Margaret Cameron: Portraits to Dream In exhibition will feature over 160 vintage prints celebrating the groundbreaking contributions of two of the most influential women in the history of photography.

Lunch at Larry’s

Lastly, a chance to take in the day and sit down at Larry’s. I visit this underground restaurant and bar at The National Portrait Gallery so often, it works for brunch, lunch, dinner, or just for a cocktail. Larry’s is a woman-owned operation, and the details are impressive. The vaults of the gallery have been lovingly restored into this distinctive café bar and the result is a space that feels decadent and safely hidden away from the busy streets above. Although it is a destination in itself, Larry’s is strongly tied to the gallery - the walls are covered in over 100 portraits of the famous faces of the West End and even the cocktails are named after famous artists and sitters. I loved the Yevonde cocktail, named after the pioneering woman photographer who spearheaded colour photography in 1930s Britain. The brunch menu was ridiculously good and feel free to let yourself be tempted back in the evening by the free live jazz every Wednesday – Saturday from 8pm.

And why not make a night of it? Enjoy more world-class culture with London’s legendary theatre district offering stellar performances by female leads - such as the inimitable Sarah Snook at the Theatre Royal Haymarket- and explore Burlington Arcade, home to stand out female designers like Anya Hindmarch and Lalage Beaumont.

It’s vital to not just be asking where women artists are, but demanding to see them, and it feels like every year London gets better at answering this call. I encourage you to follow my itinerary across the West End and discover the incredible women who have shaped art and culture. Here's to elevating women's voices and talents in every form!