A series on women who broke the mould and changed the world
When someone mentions that Kevlar was invented by Stephanie Kwolek, people are often surprised and amused that such a “manly” invention was in fact created by a woman. Or that CCTV originates from an idea of Marie Van Brittan Brown, that the Earth’s solid core was discovered by Inge Lehmann, and that the original abstract painter is Hilma Af Klint – all of this makes people go “wow!”… Yet, when you mention a man discovering or creating something it is taken as a given, as expected. There is a difference in the way we see women groundbreakers as opposed to men groundbreakers.
This work explores this dichotomy of perceptions between feminine and masculine breakthroughs whilst going on a journey to discover women’s achievements through various fields in the arts and sciences. The collection comprises 33 women groundbreakers who created, invented or discovered things that changed our lives, each painted in oil on silk stretched over a shaped frame. The choice of frames pays tribute to non-conformity, to the desire to see something extraordinary and explore off-the-beaten paths. The portraits don’t just hang there plainly and complacently; rather they penetrate through space, drawing you in through the lines of the canvases, the imperfect angles directing the eye from one part to another.
Anya Vero unveiled the collection at a special event at Area 1070 Gallery in Vienna on 8th March 2023, to mark International Women’s Day with a series of mini-talks and performances exploring the lives and works of these groundbreaking women.
Inspired by a passage of ancient Chinese literature (from which her name, coincidentally, was taken), Youyou isolated the active ingredient of sweet wormwood, now known as ‘artemisinin’, to develop a cure for malaria that saves millions of lives every year. She and her team won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015, showing the value in preserving the old for the sake of the new.
Oil and mixed media on silk; approx. 87 x 72 cm
Kahlo’s legacy extends beyond the iconic, arresting self-portraits that made her widely considered to be one of Mexico’s greatest artists of all time. More than simply a talented artist, she embodied the ideal of an artist willing to fight through adversity, suffering and misfortune – whether an early contraction of polio, life changing bus crash injuries, miscarriages or tumultuous relationships – to create, no matter what. Even after her death in 1954, her work continued to flourish with the rising tide of feminism in the 1970s and her status as a symbol of women’s creativity.
Oil on silk; approx. 80 x 95 cm
Gellhorn was a prolific war journalist who dedicated her life to narrating conflicts around the world. Her seminal book, The Face of War, includes first hand accounts of the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnam War, the Finnish battleground in World War II and conflicts in Central America.
Oil on silk; approx. 101 x 66 cm
This painting of the artist’s mother is a tribute to all mothers throughout the world, and to all those who couldn’t, cannot and chose not to be mothers. It’s a tribute to womanhood and motherhood, the origin of life, incredible strength. It’s a thank you to the painter’s mother who has been a continuous support, unconditionally loving and caring.
Oil on silk; approx. 98 x 85 cm
Bath developed a treatment for cataracts using laser technology that has lifted thousands of people out of blindness and became the first African American woman to be awarded a patent for a medical invention. Her life’s work was inspired by her observations interning at Harlem Hospital, showing a higher rate of blindness among the black community, and in particular the extremely high rate of glaucoma.
Oil on silk; approx. 77 x 69 cm
Few people did as much to support the Civil Rights Movement and lives of 20th Century Black Americans as the prolific writer and poet, Maya Angelou. In a career that spanned over 50 years, she wrote seven autobiographies, a stream of books, poems, TV shows, plays and films, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, won three Grammys for various spoken word albums, and was invited by Bill Clinton to recite one of her poems at his inauguration.
Oil on silk; approx. 95 x 82 cm
Immersing yourself in the world of Yayoi Kusama feels like being dropped into a fairytale, with whimsical patterns and shapes, bright colours that trigger happy emotions, giving us a sense of adventure, awakening our imagination. However, once you look closer and examine the nature of those shapes, or the meaning of the colour, or an almost hysterical and soothing succession of patterns, you realise that there is more to this than meets the eye. There is struggle in this work. Deep inner struggle with the demons that began hunting the artist from childhood and grew into horrible beasts by the time she reached adulthood.
Oil and mixed media on silk; approx. 90 x 68 cm
Not only was Lamarr a famous actor with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and credited with simulating the first on-screen orgasm (in the 1933 Czech film, Ecstacy), she was also a brilliant inventive mind. Along with her friend George Antheil, she developed a frequency-hopping technology for Allied submarines that, while unused in the war, led to the development of modern day WiFi and Bluetooth.
Oil on silk; approx. 81 x 74 cm
For some people, the idea of ‘taking a bullet’ isn’t simply rhetorical, some thought experiment around willingness and sacrifice. Yousafzai champions education for all women in Pakistan worldwide and her journalism and activism, even after nearly dying from a bullet to the head aged only 15, has led to her becoming the youngest Nobel Peace Laureate in history at 17.
Oil on silk; approx. 76 x 83 cm
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, only the second female Supreme Court Justice in American history, was a fierce champion for women’s rights in the US, right up until her recent death aged 87.
Combining an argumentative flair with exceptional pragmatism, she leaves behind a legacy that will inspire generations of young American jurists to continue challenging the gender inequality she identified and fought throughout her illustrious career.
Oil on silk; approx. 85 x 73 cm
Goodall is famously the only human ever to have been accepted into a chimpanzee society. During her research (in Tanganyika, East Africa) she observed various behaviours thought only to be shown by humans, including laughing, kissing, hugging, and tool making. In 1977 she established the Jane Goodall Institute for the protection of chimpanzees and their habitats, which propagated the foundation of many other smaller organisations.
Oil on silk; approx. 95 x 89 cm
Holiday’s hauntingly beautiful voice captured the imagination of generations of jazz fans. After she was broadcast on WABC radio (one of the largest radio networks in New York), recognition of her talent exploded and paved the way for her seminal rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, first unveiled at the Cafe Society. Her rendition was all the more moving for the song’s imagery and meaning – it was inspired by a poem written by a Jewish teacher about lynching – which reminded Billie of her father’s death.
Oil on silk; approx. 93 x 84 cm
Hilma af Klint
Af Klint was a Swedish artist and mystic widely considered as one of the early pioneers of modern abstract art. Developing alongside her artistic contemporaries, a circle of female artists called “The Five”, she experimented with different ways of painting, including automatic drawing which, as the name suggests, involves taking out the conscious elements of creating a drawing, thus allowing the unconscious mind to channel ideas onto the page.
Oil on silk; approx. 85 x 86 cm
Kovalevskaya became the first female professor in Northern Europe in 1884 and the first woman to obtain a modern-day doctorate in mathematics. Arguably her most famous intervention involved the discovery of the “Kovalevskaya top”; in (very) simplified terms, it explores the movement of a spinning top by using algebra to predict its motion based on defined criteria including its centre of gravity. Her work thus forms a small part of the foundation of modern mechanics.
Oil on silk; approx. 40 x 45 cm
The simplicity of Abramović’s performance art is one of its most disarming qualities. Her most famous works include: The Artist Is Present (2010) in which Abramović spent two and a half months in the New York Museum of Modern Art and invited visitors to sit in front of her, sitting across from 1,545 different people and Rhythm 0 (1974), in which she placed 72 objects on a table – ranging from honey and olive oil to a whip, thorns, a gun and bullet – and invited audience members to do whatever they wanted to her using them.
Oil on silk; approx. 68 x 89 cm
Rita Levi Montalcini
Levi-Montalicini was a neuro-biologist who explored the nature of nerve cells and discovered Nerve-Growth Factor, linked with the brain’s ability to regenerate and create new cells throughout life, earning her and her research partner a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Her work extended beyond science as she served on the Italian Senate until her death aged 103.
Oil on silk; approx. 82 x 73 cm
Conway was a remarkable talent and a pioneer in computer science in her own right; whilst with IBM she was hired to work on a team of computer scientists tasked with building a supercomputer, on a project called “Advanced Computing Systems” which paved the way for technology used in modern day computer chips and microprocessors. But her professional achievements are all the more impressive when considered in the context of the battles she was forced to fight alongside them, dealing with her gender dysphoria and her fight to gain proper recognition and equal treatment for transgender people in science.
Oil on silk; approx. 48 x 49 cm
‘Hypatia’, as we know her, lived so long ago that her history exists only as fragments of hearsay, extracts from momentous written accounts. But more than anything, she is an ideal – that hundreds of years before we began to contemplate gender equality, a talented woman could fight the gender trend and work her way to a position of respect at one of the world’s most prestigious centres of learning: the University of Alexandria. In some accounts she is to be credited with developing a more efficient way of doing long division, the invention of the hydrometer, and the development of the astrolabe.
Oil on silk; approx. 80 x 66 cm
A nuclear physicist who explained nuclear fission and co-calculated the amount of energy it produces, Meitner was one of those responsible for the discovery of the element protactinium and nuclear fission. While working on radioactivity at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry in Berlin, she discovered the radioactive isotope protactinium-231 in 1917.
Oil on silk; approx. 119 x 117 cm
Curie was the discoverer of radium and polonium (the latter named for her Polish motherland) and the only person in history to have received Nobel Prizes in two distinct sciences. One of the best examples of someone sacrificing themselves for the sake of her work, she died in Paris in 1934 from aplastic anaemia (thought to result from lifeline exposure to radioactive chemicals), but only after she had changed the face of modern chemistry, coining the term “radioactivity” in the process.
Oil on silk; approx. 70 x 88 cm
Johnson has been dubbed a “human computer” for her genius in calculating space flight trajectories. In 1962, as the US prepared for the astronaut John Glenn to take their first orbital flight, Glenn personally requested that Johnson double check the maths as a condition of embarking on the flight rather than relying on the relatively untested IBM system in place for the mission. And seven years later, Johnson calculated the precise trajectories that would let Apollo 11 land on the moon in 1969 in one of the greatest collective achievements in human history.
Oil on silk; approx. 48 x 35 cm
Frank is one of the world’s most famous diarist’s, earning her the worldwide recognition as a writer that she dreamed about as she wrote her heart wrenching account of her time spent in hiding during the Holocaust. The Diary of a Young Girl is a stunning juxtaposition of external and internal struggle, as we see the geopolitical horrors of World War II through the adolescent eyes of a woman coming to terms with puberty and the weight of expectation of her family and co-habitants, trying to understand herself even as the world crumbles around her.
Oil on silk; approx. 53 x 53 cm
It’s hard to quantify just how many lives have been saved and injuries prevented by high-strength industrial fibres. In 1965, Stephanie Kwolek’s extraordinary hard work paid her back with the serendipitous discovery of a new type of material, whose simultaneous strength, lightness and stiffness gave it boundless possibilities for use in a range of products that would transform industries and improve countless lives. You may well have heard of the most famous of them – Kevlar® – for its use in bulletproof vests, helmets, fighter jets, Formula 1 cars, fireproof suits, tyres and many other products.
Oil on silk; approx. 99 x 72 cm
Tsukamoto is one of the pioneers at the front of the stem cell revolution. Her work touches, no less, one of humanity’s loftiest ambitions: finding a cure for cancer. An American scientist and researcher, she has worked with a gene called ‘WNT-1’ to develop what’s known as a “transgenic” representation of breast cancer. In layperson’s terms, this involves the natural transfer of a gene from one organism to a different one (usually, a mouse), resulting in change in the observable characteristics of that organism, allowing for examination and further study of how cancer works.
Oil on silk; approx. 42 x 38 cm
You have likely heard of Vitamin B12, an essential vitamin found mostly in meat and other animal based products. And you’ve probably also heard of Penicillin, an antibiotic, formed from mould, that has saved countless lives since it was first discovered in a London hospital in 1928. Now imagine shrinking yourself down to the size of an atom and walking through a city where these molecules are used as houses. In this example, you could say that Dorothy Hodgkin was the woman who discovered the architectural plans for them.
Oil on silk; approx. 44 x 44 cm
Flossie Wong Staal
Flossie Wong-Stall was a molecular virologist who saved countless lives through her dedication to research in the field of HIV studies and other viruses. She and her team were the ones to provide the molecular evidence for HIV, becoming the first to clone it and making other significant discoveries, therefore taking a huge leap in understanding HIV and contributing to finding treatments for it.
Oil on silk; approx. 39 x 47 cm
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
A ‘radio pulsar’ is a type of star; very small, very dense, and rapidly rotating in such a way that pulses of light signals can be detected as far away as Earth. Bell Burnell was the first to notice these signals on data captured on a radio telescope she helped design and build, in August 1967. She and the team went on to discover a second pulsar and earned a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 (though controversially Bell Burnell was not a named recipient herself).
Oil on silk; approx. 39 x 36 cm
Marie Van Brittan Brown
Anxious about the high incidence of crime in her neighbourhood in New York, Van Brittan Brown devised the first prototype for CCTV, by cutting peepholes of different heights in her front door, setting up a camera that could move between them, and linking the camera feed to any screen in her house before adding a two-way microphone system. On 1 August 1966 she put in her patent application based on her new designs and was rewarded with a feature in the New York Times four days later.
Oil on silk; approx. 45 x 42 cm
For decades, scientists had believed that the centre of the Earth was molten metal. But Danish seismologist Lehmann examined these inconsistencies and compared where the shock waves passing through the Earth after an earthquake were expected to surface versus their actual locations; from this shed theorised that the Earth had inner core. She built a mathematical model to prove it, overturning decades of scientific opinion. This inner core is a solid ball of metal roughly the size of Pluto.
Oil on silk; approx. 42 x 35 cm
Hopper developed a computer language called COBOL (standing for “COmmon Business-Oriented Language”) that simplified programming and enabled the development of modern day computing. Interestingly, her prime motivation was laziness: a desire to avoid the need for programming computer binary code from scratch and make computing more accessible for all. She was one of the first Harvard Mark 1 computers and the US Navy rear admiral.
Oil on silk; approx. 90 x 68 cm
In May 1952 Franklin took the famous high resolution Photograph 51 (using a technique called x-ray crystallography) which, for the first time ever, revealed the molecular structure of DNA. She unveiled her findings at a talk in London, attended by James Watson who, along with Francis Crick and her former colleague Maurice Wilkins, later won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for discovering the structure of DNA. Franklin’s exclusion from the prize has been the subject of much debate around women’s lack of equal recognition in the sciences.
Oil on silk; approx. 78 x 67 cm
Gertrude B Elion
Few people have done more to revolutionise our use and understanding of pharmaceuticals than Gertrude B. Elion. AIDS/HIV, Cancer, Herpes and organ transplant rejection are among the diseases and conditions that fell into her line of fire over the course of her career. At the time she began her research, drugs and treatments were generally devised through a painstaking process of trial and error. What she did was explore ‘Rational Drug Design’, a way of creating drugs that copied natural compounds that would trick cancer cells into self-destructing without affecting the healthy cells, playing an important part in developing a drug called AZT, one of the widest used in the first waves of AIDS epidemic.
Oil on silk; approx. 48 x 38 cm
Lovelace is often dubbed the first ‘computer programmer’ for identifying the potential to use numbers to represent broader concepts. She had a name for her style of thinking: poetical science. She believed in the power of intuition and imagination and gave as much importance to them as to the understanding of the calculations themselves. Perhaps the best example of this is music. She suggested that the machine could understand the relationship between different pitched sounds (musical notes) in the same way it understood the relationships between numbers, and thus be programmed to compose pieces of music.
Oil on silk; approx. 54 x 39 cm