David Bailey’s bewitching exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, ‘Bailey’s Stardust’, closed this past weekend. Unusually, Bailey himself curated the show, and it was replete with tantalising insights into worlds beyond my (and probably many other visitors’) reach. Here is east London in the 1960s; here is a shot of the Rolling Stones backstage; here is a room full of intimate and stunningly beautiful photographs of Catherine Bailey, Bailey’s wife of 28 years.
When I came to the set of portraits titled ‘Artists’ my heart rate raised a little. I am an artist, and I suppose I felt that here were ‘my people’, certainly more so than the fashion models and 1960s ingénues. I looked forward to seeing images of the image-makers – my idols, Bailey’s peers. I began to make my way through the portraits: Man Ray, in a shot so close his pores look like a Lichtenstein reference; Bruce Weber with a camera, surrounded by a troupe of fabulous, braying dogs. But after a while, I felt a bit sick. The section included no women. Presumably Bailey had found among his archives not a single portrait of a female artist that he deemed as successful as his photographs of these 26 men.
To a degree that surprised and upset me: so, here we aren’t again. David Bailey, don’t you know any of us? Well ok, them? Marina Abramović; Phyllida Barlow; Louise Bourgeois; Sophie Calle; Judy Chicago; Corinne Day; Tacita Dean; Tracey Emin; Nan Goldin; Mona Hatoum; Jenny Holzer; Lee Krasner; Annie Leibovitz; Sarah Lucas; Ana Mendieta; Mariko Mori; Yoko Ono; Cornelia Parker; Faith Ringgold; Jenny Saville; Carolee Schneemann; Cindy Sherman; Kiki Smith; Rebecca Warren; Gillian Wearing; Rachel Whiteread – really, none of them?
I’m genuinely curious, but maybe it’s simpler than that. Last Friday night the third episode of Amanda Vickery’s illuminating series The Story of Women and Art aired. It has cast light on a wealth of female artists who have been denied their due, and has also shown that history has an ingenious knack for writing us out: denied access to the male nude, her anatomical skill was found to be lacking; sponsored by the court, her work has remained in private ownership and lacks proven market value, etc.
The beautiful exhibition that was ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ need not answer for the accumulated oversights of history. But as we praise the many insights it gave into rarefied, sometimes lost cultural worlds, we should take heed. Even today our strongest female artists may yet be lost to history if we are not actively involved in the documenting of it.