Tag Archives: Art

The Trope of the Body and its Gendered Representations- PART ONE by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

“Our understanding of the body, our reading of it, is only possible with a concurrent reading and understanding of gender.”[1] The construction of the naked female body in the history of Western art has created a social and cultural emphasis on difference and gender. This female body when translated into the language of art is no longer simply ‘naked’ but elevated to the higher, superior status of the ‘nude’. However, the gestures and attributes of the female nude are often idealised, flawless and perfected (or on the other hand, monstrous and grotesque) working as a site for the masculine gaze, for fantasy, desire and fetishization. The Venus Pudica is a classical figural pose that has been passed down in the history of art and has worked to create an ideological notion of ‘femininity’ and the ‘feminine.’ This gesture sees a naked female with one hand covering the vagina, drawing the spectator’s eye to the point being hidden. Therefore, is this gesture covering or pointing- is it inviting the masculine gaze or endowing the female body with shame?

Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538, is perhaps one of the most famous examples of the Venus Pudica pose, although here we see her reclining horizontally instead of vertically. It is possible to note many iconographical features in this allegorical painting- the notion of loyalty and fidelity expressed the depiction of a dog connoting marital love and desirability, however, what is most apparent is the use of the Venus Pudica pose, her left hand placed over her groin that transforms the spectator into a voyeur. Venus gazes directly into the eyes of the viewer, a slight, flirtatious smile playing across her face. She becomes the object of the gaze, her central position and dominance of the frame inviting the (masculine) viewer to fantasise about her unblemished, sexually clean body. The gaze focuses ultimately on the covering hand, inviting the masculine imagination to contemplate what we do not see. What we do not see becomes eroticised, the image of the vulva itself. There is a complete blank denial of the female form, it is simply erased and ignored. The female form is reduced to an object of masculine desire, a repository of male fantasy that does not express the daily reality of their bodies that women experience.

The female body is idealised and distorted, the clean, smooth perfection portrayed becomes naturalised. Women artists working in the 1970 saw this construction and representation of the classical body, of the Venus Pudica, of Titian’s erotic and sexually inviting Venus and worked to reclaim female subjectivity, taking the cultural heritage presented to them and attacking it, reversing it, using it for their own purpose.
Part Two will focus on a specific reading of an artwork that serves to  deconstruct this trope…. coming soon…. !

[1] Hilary Robinson, “Border Crossings:Womanliness, Body Representation” in New Feminist Art Criticism edited by Katy Deepwell (Manchester University Press, 1995) p. 138-146: p. 138

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The Lakes.

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A FEMINIST INTERVENTION- Analysis of Two Works; PART TWO by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

In her autobiography, Judy Chicago explains the inspiration behind her overt lithograph Red Flag. The idea stemmed from her private conversation with four other women about menstruation, who realised they had never openly discussed the subject before nor had seen it addressed in art or literature. In fact, the subject was completely absent, a taboo, an ignored mark of ‘otherness’ connoting inferiority in women. It was seen as vulgar and disgusting, qualities that women are not expected to conform to in our culture. Yet, it is a natural bodily that process women experience, why could it not be discussed with dignity and sophistication in art? Chicago states how she wanted to validate female subject matter by using the ‘high art’ form of a handmade lithograph in order to challenge male reactions.
Red Flag depicts a woman’s hand pulling a bloody tampon from her vagina. We can only see the tops of her thighs, the hand and the tampon which is seen directly in the centre of the piece, the main point of focus and reference. Chicago also stated how she tried to make the tampon as overt as possible, down to the naturalistic tone of the blood so that it could not be interpreted as a penis. It just proves how culturally conditioned we are to visualising phallic shapes, rather than realising what is right in front of our eyes: the reality of living in a woman’s body. Red Flag is also an extremely important image for women; it takes a bodily process out of obscurity and validates it as art, installing women with confidence and pride in their bodies. Therefore, it opens up possibilities for discussion on a subject that women felt anxious or scared to talk about, and honest discussion can only lead to a greater awareness of such processes both anatomically, socially and culturally. The fetishization of women is acceptable in our society but this image, a mundane, everyday act is considered obscene and offensive. Why? It rejects the normative patterns of domination and submission in our social order; women are no longer hiding behind the conventional, yet restricting, veil of modesty. This piece also corresponds with Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection, that discuss a state situated outside the cultural world concerning repulsive objects that we try to cast away such as blood, rot and excrement. Facing these repulsions, here blood and menstruation, blurs the clear boundaries we sustain between nature and civilised society. This lithograph exposes this reality for open consideration, necessarily flouting ideals of good taste and feminine respectability in order to reclaim women’s own sexual and cultural power. Such a feminist intervention is necessary in its overt nature in order for public perception to grasp its true meaning and to explore the internalized taboos presented. Red Flag is not a white passive flag of surrender, admitting defeat and powerlessness but a soaring, passionate and colourful flag of defiance and strength.

Hannah Wilke was another artist involved in feminist arguments during the 1970s, deconstructing feminine stereotypes often through the use of her own body. By focussing on one of her most important works, titled Pink Champagne, I would like to argue how she successfully achieved a powerful feminist intervention that challenged notions surrounding the profane secrecy of women’s sexual organs. Like Chicago’s Red Flag, I believe Pink Champagne equally and radically investigates notions of the public and private. However, whilst Red Flag urgently dissolves the taboo of menstruation, Pink Champagne actively confronts taboos concerned with female sexual pleasure. Pink Champagne is a seven foot wall sculpture made of overlapping, undulating layers of latex. Liquid latex was poured onto a wide plaster bed and pulled into thin layers in order to create the layers, which appear like rippling, sensuous waves when mounted together. The wet, shiny material of the rubber alongside the fleshy appearance connotes the labial structure, opening outwards powerfully, suggesting erotic sensations. The colour, pink, is often associated with conventional ‘femininity’ and the conditioning of gender roles- young girls are dressed in pink in childhood, but here Wilke reclaims the colour from its restricting binary and uses it to create an aesthetic, organic effect. The ripples of rubber also connote petals, the soft curves alluding to flowers, specifically roses. Again, a cultural symbol of femininity reworked consciously, allowing Wilke to gain control of her own representation. The vagina is also representing sexuality outside of its maternal or reproductive function. Even the name, Pink Champagne, suggests an overflowing experience of glamour and extravagance. Champagne is a decadent, bubbling and pleasurable drink that should be savoured and enjoyed. I believe Wilke is claiming the same notion for women, addressing them directly to savour, relish and enjoy the sensuality of their own erotic experiences. Wilke introduces a positive image of the female genitals, expressing its capacity for pleasure in a feminine language, not a masculine ideology of female sexuality and fantasy. This sculpture works to transform negative associations of the vagina into a positive, expressive and beautiful form. It is therefore a valid version of feminism that Wilke invites the viewer to embrace, “Feel the folds; one fold, two folds, expressive precise gestural symbols. Multi-layered metaphysics below the gut level, like laughter, making love, or shaking hands.”

To read more about artists of the 1970’s, check out these following links:

Through the Flower: http://www.throughtheflower.org/page.php?p=40&n=3

Womanhouse: http://womanhouse.refugia.net/

Clips of Judy Chicago speaking: http://judychicagoandthecaliforniagirls.com/judychicago.html



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High Heels and Gravestones.

Model: Christy O’Donnell. Photography by Marianne.

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A FEMINIST INTERVENTION- Women Artists of the ’70s; PART ONE by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

I recently took a module with the wonderful art historian Griselda Pollock where she introduced me to the idea of a Feminist Intervention. Although Pollock applies this theory to the realm of art and art historical criticism, I think it is an idea that can be projected on to all areas of life: cultural, social, political or economical. Below is a short extract of writing I did during the module that I would like to share with you all. What do you think about a Feminist Intervention? Do you feel it is a concept that can be, and should be, applied to areas of our contemporary society? And if so, how?

A feminist intervention in at’s histories is a critical approach that challenges the ideologies and systematic hierarchies embodied in the traditional canon of Western art. When studying this naturalised version of the history of art, a narrative is assumed that breaks down and divides works into movements conditioned by style or form, for example cubism, modernism, abstract expressionism. A feminist intervention is used to question art history as an organised discipline, one that is primarily a masculine discourse, centred on the notion of the individual, gifted creative ‘genius.’ It is a representational practice that actively contributes to the structuring of gender roles, sexual difference and power relations. We are conditioned to appreciate the greatness of art, the astonishing realism, how the rendering of paint can create movement, shadows, juxtapositions between light and dark, texture and atmosphere. What is needed, however, is a study of the social, cultural and political relations surrounding art in a particular society and the ways these work to determine and condition our opinions and experiences. Most importantly, a feminist intervention exposes the dominant paradigm of sexual construction within this institution and how it has marginalised women. This construction of sexuality is primarily implicated in looking and the gaze- men are allowed to actively look, fantasise, speculate at a woman’s naked body in art, the woman becomes the passive reciprocator of the gaze, the object of desire. This creates a gender hierarchy of structured sexism and a production of difference. Women are seen by these academic disciplines as different, Other to man so she can therefore be controlled and restricted.

Women are erased and omitted from this version of art history, as Linda Nochlin argues in the 1971 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? ” She calls for a paradigm shift for a feminist critique but warns against getting into a ‘no- win game’ of simply adding women into the story of art. Adding is not the same as producing. It leaves the masculine boundaries intact and acceptable. A feminist intervention in art’s histories raises awareness that there could be one than one single approach when talking about art. It firmly locates gender relations as a factor in cultural production and makes the question of gender central to the argument, emphasising that the art of the past are merely representations, coded in hierarchical, rhetorical structures. The spectator needs to become aware that he or she may be identifying with illusory, fictional worlds. An intervention questions the entire system and institution. It places art on a continuum with other economical, social and political practices. A deconstruction of this system then allows questions to be raised about a diverse variety of prejudices that it imposes on gender but also race and class.

A deliberate grounding of feminist art in socialised and subjective experience led to the most innovative and provocative works of the 1970s. The widespread use of the Pill partially began to allow women to explore their own sexual pleasure, however, cultural idealisations of the female form- in advertising, the media, pornography and art, were still dominant and degrading. As Lisa Tickner argues (Tickner, L 1978) women’s bodies were used to sell to men, they were available as a commodity for fantasy, an articulation of masculine sexuality and desire. No comparable tradition of erotic imagery was addressed to women or celebrated their own sexuality and experiences. Our own sexual experiences, as women, are differentiated from those of men, but equally as valid and important. Furthermore, the female genitals were completely absent in the traditional Western canon of art; smoothed over, erased, hidden from view behind the Venus Pudica pose. Alternative imagery of the female genitals did exist, enticing and perpetuating male voyeurism in the pages of Penthouse and other pornographic publications. The feminist critic Germaine Greer argued that due to this erasure, both men and women have a fear and genuine loathing of the female sex organs, which ultimately had an extremely negative effect on women’s perceptions of themselves, or in her words “the universal lack of esteem for the female organ becomes a deficiency in women’s self-esteem.”

What was needed was a rupture of the patriarchal litany that defined artistic and aesthetic values, a refusal of sexist ideology and a re-integration of the female genitals into art as a political, self-conscious gesture. An affirmative exploration of female sensuality through celebratory imagery of the female genitalia, asserting women’s ability to become makers of their own meanings.

A group of artists such as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneemann began experimenting with a new visual language with which to express women’s experience. This visual language is often labelled as ‘central-core imagery’ or ‘cunt art’ and aimed to replace connotations of inferiority with positive, assertive images. These artists even reclaimed the word ‘cunt’ which is arguably the most offensive and degrading word in our language, in order to create a positive feminist intervention. They explored notions of cultural ‘femininity’, often consciously using pinks, pastels or aesthetic images of the vagina and vulva as an act of defiance and a connection to a common awareness of the political Women’s Movement. The traditional doctrine of ‘separate spheres’ where women belonged to the private, not the public, world was examined and the personal became political. A woman’s body, and genitals, was a site of knowledge on her own terms. As Joanna Freuh states, these images spoke directly and primarily to other women, for arguably the first time, “we do not need to make vaginas in our art, but our making of representations as sophisticated, smart and blatant, as full of ridiculous beauty as the phallus, would contribute to the sexual, gender, and aesthetic purity that I believe women need.” This intervention conceived a new language of desire and proclaimed that living in a female body is different from looking at it, contesting the canons of modernism and formalism taught in art schools at the time. This type of art remains as valid and necessary today as it did in the 1970s.

P.S. I’ve included some images from the Guerilla Girls that sum up perfectly the hierarchies of art history (plus, that’s quite a lot of text to read !)

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