Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Constituting the 'Woman Artist': A Feminist Genealogy of Aotearoa New Zealand's Art History 1928 - 1989

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posted on 2021-12-08, 19:22 authored by Kirsty Baker

This thesis considers the ways in which the figure of the ‘woman artist’ has been constituted in published sources in Aotearoa New Zealand’s art history, between 1928 and 1989. Most of the texts dedicated specifically to women artists in this country were written in the latter half of the twentieth century, and were produced with the intention of writing women artists back in to the histories from which they had been excluded. This thesis operates from a different perspective. Rather than assuming a starting point of women’s absence from a national art history, it traces instead those written representations of the ‘woman artist’ as they exist in the published literature. Through the construction of a genealogy of such representation, this thesis examines the ideologies which are both embedded in, and perpetuated by them. In doing so it makes evident and interrogates the gendered power dynamics which have shaped the writing of Aotearoa New Zealand’s art history.   This thesis is structured chronologically, charting the formation and expansion of a coherent national arts discourse against shifting notions of national and cultural identity. The trajectory of this discourse was shaped by a canonical impulse, constructing an unfolding narrative which centres upon a succession of key artistic figures. This thesis argues that the structuring of this – largely male, Pākehā – narrative, acted to subsume gendered difference, rendering women increasingly peripheral within its pages. The model of subsumed difference is also apparent in feminist critiques of this dominant art history, which are critically interrogated in the latter half of this thesis. As women sought to challenge the relative exclusion of women artists from this dominant narrative, they also perpetuated their own exclusions, often in terms of culture or sexuality.   Through discursive analysis of both ‘mainstream’ art history, and the feminist writings which addressed it, this thesis presents two significant arguments. First, that stereotypical representations of women artists play a structural role – to marginalise women – within Aotearoa New Zealand’s art history. Secondly, that feminist interrogations of such histories failed to account for the multiplicity of women’s subjectivity. I conclude by instantiating and calling for an alternative approach that challenges the subsuming of such difference within a single, homogenous narrative. Such an approach will produce histories that interrogate, rather than perpetuate, the gendered and cultural power dynamics embedded within society.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Art History

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Barton, Christina; Batchen, Geoffrey