Interview with Sibylle Zeh

»Women in Art History«: A book project makes a clean sweep

The work of visual artist Sibylle Zeh is multifaceted: her portfolio encompasses a wide spectrum of artistic expression, from paintings and drawings to book objects, photo series and collages to textile objects and installations. The Berlin resident usually concentrates in her work on the representation of the »absent« or the »repressed«.

by Bettina Röhl, December 27, 2021
Sibylle Zeh at work
©Thomas Eirich-Schneider | KobersteinFilm
Sibylle Zeh working on her project series »Women in Art History«.

The visual artist Sibylle Zeh's most significant project, Women in Art History, could not be more topical: While the public discourse on the gender pay gap and female quotas in politics and society has only really gained momentum in very recent years, she has already been working on her feminist book-object series since 2000, focusing on exactly this thematic spectrum. The relevance of the art project is reflected not least in the fact that Zeh was also featured in the ARTE documentary Lost Women Art. Ein vergessenes Stück Kunstgeschichte by Susanne Radelhof (2021).

The basis for Women in Art History is formed by art historical encyclopaedias that portray important people in the art world - even while browsing through her later primary work Reclams Künstlerinnenlexikon, Sibylle Zeh noticed that quite few women were represented in the original version, the Reclams Künstlerlexikon from 1979. But the artist wanted to be sure and decided immediately to paint over all the male names in white. The result was unsurprising: blank pages dominated the book from then on. We talked to Sibylle Zeh about the project and her motives and learned interesting facts about the past and present of the industry at first hand.


Ms Zeh, you were certainly aware in advance that the proportion of women in the encyclopaedias that served as the basis for Women in Art History would be low. To what extent did the result of your work surprise you?

The first work I revised for my Women in Art History series was the 1979 Reclams Künstlerlexikon. In the first edition of this encyclopaedia there were 4,500 entries on visual artists of all times and periods. However, only 79 of these entries were about female artists (68 short biographies and 11 mentions of groups or artistic movements). When I was invited to an exhibition with the resulting Reclam's encyclopaedia of women artists, I decided to paint over a later edition because I thought the subject had »settled down« in the meantime, but the proportion of women was still missing. In the third edition of 2002 there were now 5,200 total entries, but only 169 about women artists (154 short biographies and 15 mentions in groups or artistic movements). Six of these were about couples. Among the 180 illustrations, there were just eight works by female artists, three of them by artist couples. The 700 entries that had been added since 1979 were mainly male, contemporary artists who had managed to be included in the canon of art.

When I painted over Das große Lexikon der Graphik (Westermann), I also found it very surprising that most of the male painters were also considered graphic artists; this was not the case with women painters. It was also interesting to see how »meaning is produced« through the distribution and number of pictures. This starts with the cover: On the dust jacket of the Malerei Lexikons von A bis Z (Honos) (Painting Lexicon from A to Z) there are 57 small illustrations of works of painting. Not one illustration shows the work of a female artist.

»Besides gender pay and show gap: gender picture gap«.

So in the artist encyclopaedias and art historical survey works, there is a »gender picture gap« in addition to the »gender show and pay gap«. This can be seen quite simply in the questions of who receives an illustration at all, and if someone receives one, whether it was printed in black and white or in colour, how large it is, to whom several illustrations are dedicated at once, and who gets on the cover. In the already mentioned Malerei Lexikons von A bis Z (Honos) there are 1,200 illustrations, of which only 21 show works by women artists. Only two women artists receive a full-page illustration.

In Das große Lexikon der Graphik (Westermann) (engl. The Large Encyclopaedia of Graphic Art), there is a section explaining the history of graphic art and techniques- There is no illustration of female art at all. In the section, where keywords and terms are explained, there is only one picture of a woman's graphic work. The total number of images in the whole encyclopaedia is six out of a total of 700.

Lost Women Art, formation process
©Thomas Eirich-Schneider | KobersteinFilm
Male artists are painted over.

 How did you come up with this form of project and the subject matter? What inspired you to do it?

The subject matter inspired me already during my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in and at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. There were more female than male students, but there was a period of time, namely between 1992 and 1995, when not a single female professor led a so-called »master class«. After my diploma (1996), a generational change slowly took place and the proportion of female professors increased. Moreover, during my studies I worked as a supervisor in all the major Viennese museums. Only a handful of works came from female artists at that time, and those were mostly on loan.

»Survey among friends served as a starting signal for the project«.

Another occasion for painting over the encyclopaedia was a survey among friends for my project Wanted, a series of portraits of female artists, with which I responded to Gerhard Richter's work Forty-eight Portraits. I asked friends to give me ten names of female artists they found good and important. Although the people had all studied art, hardly anyone was able to give me a list of ten names at the first go. For the series, I then used the few names that had been listed. As I used reproductions from exhibition catalogues, which I traced with blueprint paper. Over time, the drawings faded.

And then how did it really get started?

I found the first work, the Reclams Künstlerlexikon, by chance at a junk dealer in Vienna. When I first leafed through it, I realised how few women artists it contained. From a woman's perspective the book was almost empty. There was only one picture of Käthe Kollwitz in the whole encyclopaedia. To make this perception clear to others, I came up with the idea of painting over the entire book with white paint and leaving only the entries about women. This is how Reclams Künstlerinnenlexikon (Reclam's encyclopaedia of women artists) came into being, in that countless blank pages have to be turned over until a readable text, the biography of a woman artist, appears again.

As far as the form of the project is concerned, encyclopaedias have always fascinated me. The »omission to make something visible« was a method I had already discovered for myself: For the 1993 Ecology Art Prize, I carefully cut out all the illustrations of the plant and animal world from a nature encyclopaedia and handed in the book empty. This is how the book object came into being: »The New World Order«.

Lost Women Art, blank pages
©Thomas Eirich-Schneider | KobersteinFilm
The blank pages illustrate how few women are represented in the encyclopedias.

 In your Women in Art History series, you focus on issues from a time span of 1979 to 2009. What has changed since you began your work? Has something generally changed in the distribution of women in art? What is your impression?

There has been some movement recently. The topic of »visibility of women in the arts« and the demand for more diversity are finally being discussed more broadly and implemented better. There are more female professors at art academies, female museum directors. In the galleries, at the documenta, at biennials, art fairs, etc. more women artists are shown. In November 2020, the Nigerian-Belgian artist Otobong Nkanga received first place in the Capital's »Stars of Tomorrow« ranking. Research, publications and actions on the gender show gap and pay gap by various initiatives and associations such as the bbk, fair share!, kunst + kind, NGBK, Gedok, Frauenmuseum Berlin, Institut für Strategieentwicklung (IFSE) and more show: A foundation has been laid, but there is still much to do.

»A foundation has been laid, but there is still a lot to do.«

Various major exhibition houses have recently dedicated exhibitions exclusively to women artists and have taken works by women out of storage. The London museum Tate Britain shows only female positions in its permanent collection Sixty Years and focuses on more diversity. In Paris, the Musée du Luxembourg held the exhibition Peintre femmes this year with female painters from the 18th century, who are hardly known in France. In the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, there is the exhibition Close-up, which traces the development of portrait painting with pictures by women. In the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, there was not a single solo exhibition dedicated to a woman artist from 2000 to 2020, but in 2019/2020 there will be the event: Kampf um Sichtbarkeit - Künstlerinnen der Nationalgalerie vor 1919 (engl. Struggle for Visibility - Women Artists of the Nationalgalerie before 1919). The reopened exhibition collection of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin now includes 22 works by women artists.

However, this raises the question of whether the exhibition houses will permanently change their exhibition, acquisition and staffing policies, and thus finally change their policies. A setback was Franziska Giffey's refusal to accept the most recent appointment of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth in Germany, about financial support for the Gabriele Münter Prize. The prize is no longer offered, even though it offered an opportunity for women artists over 40 to re-enter the art market.

Although there are 30 years between 1979 and 2009, the years of publication of the underlying reference works, the results of your works look similar. In your estimation, is this really due to the lack of (successful) female artists in art history? Would there be enough female artists to be presented in a work of art history?

Of course, there were not the same number of successful women and men artists at all times. Women were only allowed to study much later than men and, for example, to draw nudes. Before that, they only gained access to the industry if their fathers or husbands (sometimes even sons) were artists. Nevertheless, they have caught up – which makes it all the more important to show the positions of women who »have made it«.

Lost Women Art, blank pages
©Thomas Eirich-Schneider | KobersteinFilm
You have to browse for a long time until you can find a female artist in the books.

A good indication against the lack of successful female artists and for the lack of visibility is my book object 60 Jahre, 9 Werke (60 Years 9 Works). For it, I published the exhibition catalogue »60 Jahre, 60 Werke. Kunst aus der Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1949 – 2009« (60 Years, 60 Works, Art from the Federal Republic of Germany 1949 - 2009), which was published in 2009 on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name in the Martin Gropiusbau. In this exhibition, women were clearly underrepresented. Just seven works by female artists and two works by couples were shown there –  from a period from 1949 to 2009, in which there was certainly no shortage of successful women artists in East and West Germany.

Do you plan to continue the Women in Art History series in the future and document changes, if necessary?

(Artist) friends who love my Women in Art History project gave me various encyclopaedias and exhibition catalogues that are still waiting to be edited – so definitely yes!

As a female artist, did you yourself ever experience belonging to the »repressed«? If so, would you like to describe them?

No. I can't complain about repression. But here's a little comparison: If a painter plays in a band, he is a multitalented person and a genius! If a female painter plays in a band, everyone thinks she's stopped painting.

What about your own »role models«: Do you have more female role models yourself? Did they change in the course of your career?

I had and have about the same number of female and male role models.

Is there a female artist who impressed you lastingly? If so, which one is that?

Agnes Martin.

From your point of view today, which advice would you give to young female artists?

Read Agnes Martin's Writings and keep going.Art.Salon

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