WRITER AND ART CRITIC LUCY R. LIPPARD ONCE SAID THAT FEMINIST ART is not just a style or a movement, but also “a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life.” It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when a range of shared opinions and collective experiences became the movement we now know as feminism, but most consider the 1960s and 70s as the height for feminist art, with trailblazers such as Judy Chicago, Martha Rosler and Barbara Kruger making waves in the male-dominated art scene. This doesn’t mean that women artists didn’t exist until the latter half of the twentieth century, though. They were, however, brutally marginalized and relegated to the fringes of history. Thanks to the feminist art movement, there has been a gradual decline of gender discrimination in art, but there is still more work to do. In honor of these fabulous females, we take a look at five works that made feminist art the movement it is today.
Femme Maison – Louise Bourgeois, 1946-1947
Although practicing long before the feminist art movement, French artist Louise Bourgeois explored traditional feminine roles in a variety of ways. The founder of confessional art, Bourgeois’ work follows a personal narrative. Although mainly inspired by her childhood memories, she also documented her experiences as an adult, and her stories are relatable on a wide scale. She is best known for her spider sculptures. However, it is her Femme Maisons, or Woman Houses, that are so powerful they reduced art critics to tears. Femme Maisons are a series of paintings depicting nude female figures whose heads have been replaced with houses. The faces are obscured by the architectural elements, symbolising how traditional duties can isolate women and create a sensation of lost identity. The artworks are inspired by Bourgeois’ marriage and her struggle to adapt to domesticity. Bourgeois viewed her new role as wife and mother as a barrier to her artistic voice.
Cut Piece – Yoko Ono, 1964
Known by most as the artist who married John Lennon, in the art world Japanese artist Yoko Ono is renowned for her performance art, in particular Cut Piece. An early example of feminist art, Ono casually sat on stage and invited audience members to cut off pieces of her clothing. The performance was an exploration of the notion that women are little more than sexual objects, as well as gender subordination, sexual violence and invasion of personal space. It was originally presented in Tokyo, but the follow-up performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall is more famous due to the aggressive behaviour of the audience. At the start of the show, Ono’s face is blank and she remains motionless. But as the performance progresses, she clearly becomes uncomfortable and eventually the dress is left in tatters. This performance ended when a man cut the straps on Ono’s bra, forcing the artist to hold it up with her hands to prevent her breasts from being revealed.
The Dinner Party – Judy Chicago, 1974-1979
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party is a milestone in twentieth century creativity. Tired of women being omitted from history, the American artist produced a massive ceremonial vulva-themed banquet table, consisting of thirty-nine uniquely crafted place settings, each commemorating a fascinating mythical or important woman from history. The triangular table has three “Wings,” each dedicated to a different era of history, and each distinct place setting (the majority of which are styled in vagina-esque form) is composed of a table runner embroidered with the woman’s name, images and symbols relating to her accomplishments. As well as celebrating individuals, the installation also commends traditionally female talents, such as the textile arts of embroidery, sewing, weaving and the “craft” or domestic art of china painting. The Dinner Party is now considered by many to be the first epic feminist art work, and when it was first completed in 1979, it fought art world resistance to tour sixteen venues in six countries, eventually reaching an audience of 15 million. Since 2007 it sits as part of the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
Branded – Jenny Saville, 1992
Credited with reinventing the self-portrait, Jenny Saville’s paintings do not conform to the Western beauty ideal. Instead they question its values, interrogating not only standards of attractiveness in fine art but also in society. Using thick brush strokes and layers of oil paint, Saville gives dimension and character to various interpretations of her body. Turning the concept of the male gaze on its head, she enlarges, distorts and mutilates her image on the canvas. A recurring theme is the grimly realistic representations of plastic surgery patients, before and during surgery, showing the horror of extreme beauty. Others are more abstract, distorted in a style similar to that of Francis Bacon, covering the entirety of the frame as not to be ignored. Branded (1992), one of Saville’s earliest paintings, is a depiction of Saville’s face on an obese frame, portraying the opposite of the anorexic-looking models seen on magazine covers. With an arrogant smirk on her face, Saville grips the folds of skin on her stomach, seemingly showing off her excess fat to the viewer presenting an in-your-face breakdown of reality and imperfection.
Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? – Guerrilla Girls, 1989
American activist group the Guerrilla Girls are self-proclaimed “feminist masked avengers.” Since the punk heroines formed in 1985, the gorilla has been their signature, and appears in the majority of their protest posters. The group exposes sexism, racism and corruption through the visual language of advertising, drawing attention to inequalities in contemporary culture. Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? (1989) highlights the disparity between the number of men and women in art galleries. An image of classic nude Odalisque With Slave by Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres (1842) in a gorilla mask, the poster is inscribed with: “Less than five percent of the artists in Modern Art Sections are women, but eighty-five percent of the nudes are female.” Today, their work is in the collection of over sixty cultural institutions, and last year the Whitney Museum acquired their portfolio of eighty-eight posters.
My Bed – Tracey Emin, 1998
The most controversial readymade since Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Tracey Emin’s My Bed not only broke taboos about female suffering and sexuality, but also taught young woman that they are not alone in harboring these feelings. Through empty vodka bottles, rumpled sheets and bloodstained underwear, Emin not only portrayed the pain of her own emotional breakdown, but that of a generation. Emin was as shocking and enticing as the piece itself. Few artists have so readily disclosed their emotions, their sexual adventures, the pain and chaos of their lives. This March My Bed returned to London’s Tate Modern, where it was first shown sixteen years ago. Many claim the piece has lost its shock value, but whether or not it has, My Bed still challenges societal norms and the idea that women cannot make artwork that stands the test of time.