Recent (mixed) reviews of Stanford art historian Alexander Nemerov’s new biography, Fierce Poise: Helen Frankenthaler and 1950s New York, have been calling out the author’s use of the artist’s first name throughout his book. Some reviewers merely mention it — an oddity — while others are either supportive or annoyed. Regardless of opinions, critics have uniformly utilized Frankenthaler’s surname in their reviews of Nemerov’s book. Surnames, it seems, imply seriousness.
Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, sees Nemerov’s use of “Helen” as a kind of anti-stuffiness strategy, one of which he approves. For Gopnik, it is an example of when “a distinguished scholar says, in effect, to hell with being a distinguished scholar — I’m going to write like a human being. Nemerov refers to his subject not as Frankenthaler but as Helen — very much against the grain of current biographical practice.” But others, like Jed Perl writing in The Wall Street Journal, are irked by it: “Mr. Nemerov describes one of the stranger aspects of this biography — the decision to invariably refer to his subject by her first name — as ‘a token of the proximity I feel.’”
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Later, Perl adds: “Doesn’t he realize that even as he prepares to salute Frankenthaler as a painter he’s turning her into a feminine cliché? Reading this book, I found myself wondering whether Mr. Nemerov would be on a first-name basis with his subject if the artist were a man.”
Interesting. Because he likely wouldn’t. (Perl points out that Nemerov’s earlier book on Lewis Hine utilizes “Hine” throughout.) But still: Why should a woman’s given name be “a feminine cliché”? No one, presumably, feels that way when referencing, let’s say, Beyoncé. In fact, women’s first names have often been preferred by feminist historians and others — like Nemerov — out of disparate motives, but not least because there are multiple problematic reasons why surnames do not serve women artists well. Nor women in general. Not in art, not in history, and especially not in art history.
In her recent book, Artemisia Gentileschi and Feminism in Early Modern Europe, art historian Mary Garrard refers to the Baroque painter by her first name in the book’s first paragraph. It’s not until several pages in that Garrard offers any explanation for the choice: “Throughout this text, I call the subject ‘Artemisia’, as do most scholars nowadays. I used to explain that when writing about the artist, I called her by her first name (something often seen as patronizing to women) simply to distinguish her from her father. But as Artemisia approaches twenty-first-century superstardom, it is right that she is now known by one name, just like Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio. After all, her gravestone was reportedly inscribed simply ‘Haec Artemisia’ — that single given name standing to attest her fame in her own time.”
So — not the un-scholarly choice, but the scholarly one (“as do most scholars nowadays”) and also the historically accurate one. History, obviously, is essential. Because art by women has too often been overlooked, lost, or folded into the oeuvres of male artists, whether fathers, husbands, teachers, or simply better-known men of the same era. Who knows how many important women artists are still unknown to us.
And this isn’t about the distant past either. For example, Out of the Cage, a new biography by Tate Britain curator Carol Jacobi, aims to recover the artistic legacy of Isabel Rawsthorne, an artist instrumental in bridging the intellectual and aesthetic worlds of Paris and London post World War II. Google “Rawsthorne” and you’ll get a Wikipedia page for Isabel Nicholas, the name she was born with, but not the name she used as an adult, when she went by Margaret Epstein (it’s complicated), Isabel Delmer, Isabel Lambert, and finally Isabel Rawsthorne. All surnames of men she was born to, involved with, or married to. It’s certainly for the best that she never took the name of her lover, Alberto Giacometti, but even so, the thread of her artistic life and work has been tangled and was overlooked due to the profusion of different surnames.
The same artist with different names can be confusing even if the change happens just once, as in maiden name (the term itself is rife with problematic patriarchy) to married name. It’s a historical hitch in tracking a person, but also a literary one. Just how should a biographer refer to a woman artist in her youth if she later married and made work under a different name? Using different appellations for the same person is strange, but so is describing a young girl with her later married name. Also complicated, in history and in writing about it, are two artists who share a name, such as the many artists who were the daughters and wives of artists, for example. Witness the aforementioned acclaimed Gentileschis, father and daughter. While Artemisia is now allowed the dignity of her given name (not a feminine cliché in this case, apparently), this is so rare as to be the exception.
As for married artists, like 19th-century Norwegian painters Christian and Oda Krohg, only one of them can go by Krohg in art history. I’ll let you guess which one. Same goes for Willem and Elaine de Kooning, where Bill gets the shotgun endorsement of a surname, while Elaine nearly always has her name affixed with his. What’s a contemporary biographer to do? In her celebrated history of five Abstract Expressionist artists, Ninth Street Women, Mary Gabriel simply calls her subjects by their first names (including Helen Frankenthaler). It is an elegant solution that The New York Times, in a positive review, described as “giving the book an intimate and even dishy feel.” I wonder, though, if a similar book on Jackson, Willem, Robert, Mark, and Franz would conjure the word “dishy.” Maybe it isn’t first names that are the problem, but simply women’s names, and all the belittling baggage that rides along with anything deemed feminine.
For that reason alone, it’s evidently to the benefit of women artists if they, like men, can sport a surname. It helps if they can hold on to the surnames they were born with (that is, anointed by their fathers). Imagine if Berthe Morisot had gone by her husband’s surname (brother of Edouard): Manet. Or if Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe, women married to male artists who were once far more famous than they, had changed theirs. Keeping their maiden names meant creating legacies apart from older men who may have opened some doors, but also overshadowed them and their work for far too long.
There are other kinds of erasure that might come with marriage, too. When Ruth Asawa kept her name (on the advice of her friend, photographer Imogen Cunningham) after marrying architect Albert Lanier, it meant foregrounding her Japanese heritage in her life and work in the years following WWII, and beyond. Some women have insisted on even further control via self-creation, as with Judy Chicago, Valie Export, and Senga Nengudi. In a celebratory profile on Nengudi last fall, the The New York Times described how, “After becoming a mother, she decided to change her name from Sue Irons to Senga Nengudi. ‘Senga,’ she was told, meant something akin to a sage in the Bantu language Lingala.” Certainly Nengudi is sage in seizing language to fashion for herself what others might want to choose for her. Such self-naming serves as a hopeful prophecy of how things should be, and a clear-eyed acknowledgment of things as they are.
In 2017, French novelist Marie Darrieussecq’s succinct biography of early 20th-century German painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, Being Here Is Everything, was published in English. In it, Darrieussecq calls her subject Paula, while the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was her friend, is called Rilke. When asked about this disparity in The Paris Review, Darrieussecq was blunt, “It’s the truth about men and women. It still is. It’s hard to have a name when you’re a woman.”
Yes, it’s hard to have a name when you’re a woman. But it shouldn’t have to be.