In The Frame: How Did You Discover Feminist Art?

Not only is this guest blog about exploring who has made a contribution to feminist art, which movements embrace women and which galleries support it, but also how we all encountered (and continue to encounter) it. When did you first see an artwork that portrayed women in a positive light? What are your must-see images? How would you introduce the topic to someone who only thinks of the “great artists” as men?

Frida Kahlo: My First Study of Feminism

Painted portrait of Frida Kahlo looking sidelong to the right and wearing a necklace made of thorns
[Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace, 1940]

The first artist I associated with feminism was Frida Kahlo. We studied her at school, as part of a project on self-portraiture, which led up to the whole class drawing themselves and creating a mixed media collage around the image. Kahlo was presented to us as the oracle of the genre, having used her own body and experiences as the key themes in her work, which left a legacy that began to put women in the spotlight. Although I went to an all-girls school, we had the same male-dominated art education that many children around have, and I cannot remember the word “feminist” ever being used when we pored over Kahlo’s paintings (in typical snarky playground fashion, I think we were more concerned about her monobrow than her social beliefs). Yet her work was a breath of fresh air, as she injected so much personality into each piece, with heavy use of symbolism that provides tiny memory triggers for the viewer to spot, such as hearts, thorns, and miniature figures. Her health problems and love life are dragged into sharp focus and the paintings become almost like diary entries to follow and sometimes relate to.

Would I recommend Kahlo as part of an introduction to feminist art? She’d definitely make the cut, though I’d balance her out with artists who don’t use the self as their main inspiration, because some viewers may wish to look at more universally feminist themes. “I am the subject I know best,” she said, which is a fair justification, but she did produce over 50 works that deal with self-image. Even the curator of Kahlo’s exhibition at the National Museum of Women Artists said that she was “very much a part of that narcissistic body culture.” Perhaps the antithesis of this, or just a parallel of Kahlo’s creative output, is Cindy Sherman, who adopts personas that she invents and photographs as self-portraits. We never see the real Cindy because she sees no artistic value in looking at herself unless she is assuming someone else’s identity, unlike Kahlo who does not feel the need to take on the mindset of a character.

Barbara Kruger: The Power of a Universal Message

A print of a white woman's face divided in half, with one half portrayed in the negative. Red and white letters read Your Body is a Battleground

[Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground), 1989]

For feminist art that reaches out, rather than being autobiographical or reflecting on the self, Barbara Kruger provides the perfect example. She was a later discovery for me, but I haven’t looked back since. She caused me to move into more graphic art with her black, white and red prints that feature memorable slogans—sometimes with more cultural permanence than the images behind them. Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) is an iconic piece that has the potential to speak to people of all genders by using that key word of “your” to emphasize the universality of Kruger’s words. Whether you read that slogan as a comment on love, broken limbs, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, reproductive justice, or just that moment when you look in the mirror and inwardly groan, there’s so much to absorb here. We all see our bodies as battlegrounds sometimes, gradually covered with scars, tattoos or other marks of who we are. The wording also seems apt in the context of cosmetic surgery and the quest for looking young and perfect; it takes serious operations and intervention to create the fake facade of an aesthetically “ideal” woman. The body is a contentious issue for feminists, and Barbara Kruger happily contributes to it with her art. She speaks to all of us and questions our social norms.

Judy Chicago: Take That, Misogynists!

Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, a table in a large gallery space set with many different place settings

  [Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1974-9]

If you’ve ever looked in depth at feminist art, or you’re a frequent reader of Bitch, you’re likely to have come across Judy Chicago, whose installation The Dinner Party is one of the most iconic pieces of women-centric art in the world. I learned about her in a History of Art class, and I was thrilled to find her on the curriculum. In a blend of the Last Supper and having your ideal dinner guests in one room, Chicago created a triangular table arrangement with places set for key female figures throughout history (or, more accurately, herstory), including Georgia O’Keefe, Kali, Elizabeth I, and Sojourner Truth. The equilateral triangle meant that no one woman was at the head of the table, giving each major figure the same status. 39 were guests of honor, with their place signified by a butterfly design that references the vagina, whilst 999 names of other important women were written on the Heritage Floor. The 129 creatives that worked on this piece were also named, which highlights the intense collaborative process that led to this piece. It can be seen at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in Brooklyn, and if you’re lucky enough to visit then you’re bound to take something poignant away from the experience. The Dinner Party demonstrates just how crucial women’s and feminists’ contributions have been, and how memorable we can be when we join together.

Place setting at the dinner party, with Emily Dickinson's name embroidered on the napkin

[Judy Chicago, Emily Dickinson’s place at The Dinner Party, 1974-9]

Which feminist artists’ works are iconic for you? Whose name should be in textbooks around the globe? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

by Polly Allen
View profile »

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

6 Comments Have Been Posted

I discovered Nicky de St

I discovered Nicky de St Phalle, because she's swiss and the wife of Tinguely, and i love both of their works !!
I used to see her big colorful ladies in railway stations, fountains, parks and little reproductions in art lessons.
Tinguely and St-Phalle loved their works and if you ever go to Paris and watch the fountain they made together, you'll understand why they are loved in my country <3
(I'd love to see a bank billet with her face and one of her statue on it, it would be in a bright color for sure =) - we change our money every 20 years or so and usually put celeb' people on them.)

I'll check these artists you desribed here, now !
Thanks !

I first discovered Meret Oppenheim

I discovered Meret Oppenheim in my very early years. Her piece on a fur dressed cup, plate and spoon, called "objet" really draw my attention during art class in high school, and after that I discovered my absolute favorite called "Ma gouvernante - My Nurse - mein Kindermädchen" which is two high-heeled shoes tied down to make it look like a turkey on a plate. At that time I had finally discovered feminism and what it really means to be a woman and that piece really touched me since it's the perfect metaphor of being a woman today.

Ana Mendieta!

I discovered Ana Mendieta in college, at my art school's library. They had an amazing selection of books, and Ana Mendieta: Earth Body by Olga Viso was on prominent display right when I walked in one day. It was fate!

I discovered Sarah Maple

I first saw Maple's work in 2007/8 and was instantly struck by it's honesty and urgency. She is a remarkable voice for young British people in today's society, not just young British Women and not just young British Muslim Women. Her work is just brilliant. Wry, thought provoking and smart as a whip.


Georgia O'keeffe, Patti Smith, Annie Leibovitz, Carolee Schneemann

I was lucky enough so be able to take some Art History classes from a very wonderful Professor. She has her Phd. in Art History and took the underrepresentation of female artists seriously. I realized this because along with the back breaking "History of Art" text book, we also had to read "The Guerrilla Girls' Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art."

Art is very important, and being an artist myself, I am always inspired by feminist artists. Art that is done by females and feminists is powerful, and I am glad that this blog is bringing these artists to light!

feminist art

I discovered feminist art through Judy Chicago when I was at art school. I'm also actively working to create new visions for gender justice by bringing together artists to create images around these issues. Currently, I'm working on a project that combines gender justice, art, and social change. Over a dozen artists are working on creating original prints around these issues and they will all be put together into a portfolio.

Add new comment