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
[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
[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, 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.
[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!