The term Old Masters conjures up an image of a very specific figure – one that is male and European.
There are the Italians: Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, Leonardo.
There are the Dutch: van Eyck, Bosch, Durer, Bruegel; and a handful of French, English and Spanish painters, too. And the people who coined the term were themselves male and European. Much of art history skews to the West, even in places outside these confines.
For years, the notion of Old Masters has been criticised by art historians, curators and art enthusiasts, citing its sexist and racial overtones. It is also limiting, as most of the artists on this list are painters working between the Renaissance and 1800.
Yet our recognition and acceptance of this label is ingrained through schools, museums, the media and even the art market. Auction houses, for example, are quick to jump on the phrase Old Masters as a marketing tool for their lots.
“The subject of how we name and identify great works of art is a prickly and complex one,” says Maya Allison, founding director of New York University Abu Dhabi’s art gallery and the university’s chief curator. “The term is symptomatic of a larger question of how we identify ‘canonical’ works and the idea of ‘the canon’, in which there is a single group of Old Masters with one particular perspective on the world.”
Reindert Falkenburg, an art historian and professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, says he does not use the term or adhere to the concept. However, he says he does acknowledge the debate around it.
“Old Master evokes notions of exclusion, such as exclusion based on gender and ethnic profiling. It is entirely understandable, therefore, that the term, in this regard, is critically being debated now.”
So what should we do with a phrase like that? To start with, questioning such a term can unravel so much of what we have been taught and conditioned to revere when it comes to art and culture. But analysing it is only a small step.
In 1971, American art historian Linda Nochlin wrote an essay titled Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, in which she holds institutional forces up as culpable for the historical hindering of female artists' professional success.
“There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse … any more than there are black American equivalents for the same,” she says.
“Things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education,” she wrote.
For Nochlin, historically, it wasn’t that women lacked the talent or creativity to gain recognition, but rather that they have been excluded from art education and discourse because of larger societal and patriarchal forces.
The erasure of female narratives in history is, sadly, nothing new. Many female artists from the same period as the Old Masters, though garnering praise during their time, were disregarded after their deaths. Their works were also misattributed to their male counterparts.
Museums have tried to address this centuries-old discrepancy with exhibitions dedicated to forgotten female Old Masters and Old Mistresses. These women include Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola – the last two were the focus of an exhibition at Madrid's Museo del Prado, which ended in February.
These measures help correct some of the ignorance and injustices of the past, but how long can we keep making up for bad history? Continued acknowledgement of these artists does have value, particularly from a western art history perspective, but we should focus our efforts on the wider question of what we have been taught to value in art and why.
Create a new term, or is that not enough?
To go back to the debate around the term Old Masters – is it necessary to replace it entirely?
“I would definitely recommend a new term. One that captures the cultural frame, and the time period, that feels contextualised and thus relative instead of absolute,” says Allison.
She is right. There is an immovable, definitive quality to the word “master” that leaves little room for critical thought. It also implies a certain standard of artistic work that must be adhered to, an idea that artists have constantly defied.
But it does seem uncertain to me that a new term would do away with the issue of exclusion in art education and the art world altogether. Unfortunately, many museums have simply acted as gatekeepers of patriarchal, racist and colonial legacies.
A newly minted phrase won’t do much to change that.
Today, female artists and artists of colour continue to be overlooked by institutions. This practice mirrors much of what takes place in society, which still favours those who are white and male.
Think of the toppling of statues and monuments in the UK and US in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. The painful truth behind these figures – colonisers, slave traders, oppressors – and the fact they remained standing for so long, reveals how much of history has been whitewashed and mythologised.
It is a gaping failure in our education, and it happens in both the West and the East.
Until we recognise how our histories, including art history, have been altered to serve a specific segment of the population, then the stories of women, minorities and the poor will continue to be forgotten. Institutions and educational systems must diversify the narratives they teach us and then compel us to pick apart what we have learnt.
The term Old Masters is merely a symptom of violent historical erasure.
Its revision won’t be the cure.