Is Art Sexist?
Hello, and welcome back to Carivaggio. I know I have been gone for a while, but only because I have been waiting for the right time to discuss this topic.
Recently, I was helping my friend write an art history paper which featured Bernini's Rape of Persephone (Image 1). The sculpture is probably one of my favorite pieces I have ever laid my eyes on. The immaculate lines, his hand gripping at her thigh, and his ability to create color with marble had me drooling. However, as we were discussing this piece, my friend asked me how to look at the piece through a modern lens. I was confused by this question because I always saw the work as a powerful mythological scene that was commonly referred to by artists at that time. But at the the base level, what we are witnessing is sexual abuse.
(I own this image) Image 1.
The Rape of Proserpina
Gian Lorzenzo Bernini
Borghese Gallery and Museum, Rome, Italy
Something uneasy began to bubble up inside me. I began to think about why I was defending this scene. Why was I so attached to the imagery without thinking about what I was actually looking at. How was it that I was able to dissect the sculpture so deeply, but I was unable to simply see that the scene is violent.
Is art sexist? Do we art historians work so hard to dig deep beneath the surface of art that we forget to see the obvious? Have we forgotten that art can also be seen as just art, and that sometimes what we are looking at are sexualized, objectified and dehumanized images of women?
My opinion is as follows, and will be discussed using a timeline of images throughout art history.
Venus of Willendorf
Museum of Natural History, Vienna, Austria
Since the dawn of time women have been separated from men. This is obvious because we have different body parts and can bare children. In the Paleolithic age, the ability to bring life into this world was seen as a miracle power. One that transcends this life and connects us to the past and the future. Here we see one of the oldest sculptures to have ever been discovered. She is called Venus of Willendorf. We see her with exaggerated sexual features, which most likely indicates that she would have been worshipped as a fertility Goddess. Her hair is neatly sculpted in rows of braided hair, or it could have been a possible headpiece. The purpose of these "Venus" sculptures is not known, although there are some scholars who believe that these could have been self portraits sculpted by women. To me, rather than seeing her features as overtly sexualized, I see reverence of the female form. But is that just me? Is the art historian in me trying to conceptualize an overtly sexualized female form? Has art been sexualizing women since the dawn of time? Where is the line from reverence to exploitation?
Life Sized Statue of Hatshepsut
Deir el-Bahri, Thebes, Egypt
Moving on through history - here we see a completely different portrayal of a woman. Here we see the Pharaoh Hatshepsut. She was the fifth Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, and the second (and more notable) female Pharaoh that is historically accounted for. She reigned for about 21 years and is mostly known for building the incredible Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut located on the West bank of the Nile river near the entrance of The Valley of Kings. She was the first Pharaoh to build on that site, and all other kings followed in her stead because of the magnificence of her temple.
My favorite thing about the Egyptian's is that there was no female version of the word "Pharaoh". She rests in the Valley of Kings just as powerful as any man who rests there. This image of Hatshepsut is not sexualized or idealized in any way. She sits on her throne, wearing the typical Nemes headdress and the shendyt-kilt, both adornments typical of Egyptian Kings. The only thing she is not wearing in this image is the false beard of the Pharaohs, although there are other depictions with her wearing it.
I think the most important thing to note here, is that her imagery as a King did not change from her male predecessors. She had a powerful reign and accomplished many great things. If I glean anything from this sculpture is that I feel her powerful energy. Strangely enough, it makes me feel like I could be an Egyptian king if I wanted to, which I do have to admit is not a feeling I get from a lot of the art I observe. She is not a female Pharaoh. She was just Pharaoh.
Roman Fresco from House of the Centenary
1st century BCE
WARNING: This description will talk about sex and sexuality so not safe for Karens or Grandmas.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I just love discussing the sexual underbelly of Pompeii. In fact, I have a whole blog post on it! So if you like this little section, please go check that out.
So, Pompeii, a city that thrived off of sexual free women or disturbing over sexualization of the female body? Personally, I think Pompeii was neither. Pompeii was a place where the brothel offered essential services just like any other shop. Engaging in paid sex was a social norm for men. Each brothel room would have been lavishly decorated with erotic frescos to not only get clients in ~the mood~ but would also serve as a menu for services offered.
The brothels of Pompeii are often discussed as the most interesting part of the city's history. So what does that mean for the women being depicted in these images? Let us not forget, there are also men in these frescos engaging in sexual acts, in fact, there are hardly any images without a man present. So does that mean that this society was very accepting of all types of sexuality? Were women to be shamed for trying to earn a living by working in these brothels?
The short answer is yes. It is true that in Ancient Greek and Roman society people would engage in all sort of sex acts on a regular basis, and it was even somewhat normalized. But that does not mean the women were painted in any sort of decent light. In fact, in Ancient Greek society same sex male relationships were held in higher regard to male female relationships. The female workers in the brothels of Pompeii were often slaves and were used until they were cast out. They also rarely made any money from their work, as money from their clients would go straight to the brothel owners. Although sex was accepted as a natural and essential experience for the men in Pompeii, the prostitutes still lacked all respect and made them unable to work in any other field. I guess what I am trying to say here, is that although sometimes we see the Ancient societies as more sexually free, it was only for the men. As these societies began to grow and form, so did the stigma against women, and I think it just goes downhill from here.
Ognissanti Madonna (Madonna Enthroned)
Giotto di Bondone
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Continuing forward, we are now entering a world with the Catholic Church. Please welcome the image of women as virginal and untouched. Here we see Madonna Enthroned with the Christ Child on her lap. I do have a whole blog post on this specific image so I will not spend much time dissecting it step by step, but I do think that the image of Madonna (the word Madonna literally means my lady in Italian) is important to incorporate in the conversation of women in art. The Virgin Madonna is THE woman in Western art. At this time, she was the primary representation of a woman. So, if you were a woman in the 14th century, and all you saw was perfect depictions of a conservative woman, who is virginal and untouched, wouldn't other people (men) around you expect you to be the same?
I believe that this kind of Catholic imagery is responsible for amplifying stigmas against women for all ages to come. Of course, the religious doctrine talks about purity and sanctity of the female body, but if we did not have any images of the "perfect woman" what would we compare ourselves too? We are not walking around with Halos around our heads. This image taught many women that they are lesser beings. If we cannot be Madonna, then what are we worth?
The Birth Of Venus
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Just a century later, we have Botticelli's mythical wonders. This image of Venus is recognized worldwide. Her perfect body with etherial free flowing hair makes as all swoon. Yet another image we compare ourselves to. Remember ladies, before there was instagram models, there was Botticelli's Venus.
Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, desire, and prosperity. All of these things are able to be extracted from this portrayal of the Goddess. My question here is this. Does this help push forward a more accepting attitude towards women and their bodies? Or does it hinder us? I think as women, the most common issue we face is that we have to be both a Madonna and a Venus at the same time. These images have been etched into the cloth of our society and shaped the way the world views and treats women.
Venus of Urbino
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Here is another rendition of Venus painted by Titian. I wanted to include this to provide another male perspective of the Goddess. In this image of Venus she seems to be domesticated and interacts directly with the viewer. Some scholars even believe she is engaged in the act of masturbation. The purpose of this image is hotly debated but it is mostly believed that this work was painted only for sexual purposes and pushes a male agenda. There is not much allegorical observation to be done in this work.
Here, Venus is a sex symbol.
Judith Beheading Holofernes
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy
Of course, it wouldn’t be Cariavaggio without mentioning a Caravaggio!
Again, I have written a full post dedicated to this work but I think it is important to include it here. Discussing women and Caravaggio is interesting because his subjects are primarily men.
In an act of heroism Judith seduces and slays the evil Assyrian general Holofernes to save her people.
The question here is whether or not this portrayal adds to the dilemma we have been discussing so far. Actually, I quite like this image of Judith. She is strong yet feminine, and her expression evokes so many things from the viewer. She is slightly sexualized but scholars have noted that her breasts are exposed as part of the narrative that she was in the middle of seducing the general. I do see that in this painting, but I also see how this could be seen as yet another female stereotype. Strong and sexy.
Is there a place in art where a woman could be one or the other?
The Wallace Collection, London, United Kingdom
Another image which I have written about at length, The Swing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. It is one of the most deceiving paintings in all of art history. We see a seemingly innocent woman of the French court, casually swinging in an enchanting garden. Little does the viewer know, this image shows the woman swinging towards her mistress. The flying shoe represents her loss of innocence and decency.
I think loss is an important idea to discuss when we are talking about the portrayal of women in art. With Madonna its loss of humanity, with Venus it is a loss of modesty with Judith it is a loss innocence and with the swing it is her loss of decency.
Where in art do Women gain anything?
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
MOMA, New York, USA
To end this timeline of women in art, I have decided to jump forward a bit to this recognizable Picasso. Obviously, this piece breaks all the conventional norms of rhe previous works mentioned. We see a flat composition of 5 naked women who's faces are inspired by African masks and Iberian sculpture. The title refers to a street in Spain where various brothels were located.
Fair warning, this is my least favorite image of this whole bunch.
Firstly, not only is this piece appropriating African style, it is a poor representation of women. We see flat lifeless women who's only purpose is to sell sex. Some experts have noted that the figures are unfeminine and unflattering in their nudity which might be connected to the fact that they are sex workers. Some of these women do not even have human faces. There is no context or deeper concept other than to see these women as sex objects. First unveiled in 1916, there were many people who called this work hideous and shocking and there are some art scholars today that would not call this work a masterpiece. Yes, this piece is shocking because of the taboo subject matter but I think it is more about the lifeless and degrading portrayal of women.
Phew! Well we have successfully gone through a timeline (albeit very limited) of women in art.
Now I finally get to tell you what I think about it all.
Art is sexist - and I wish I could say that it has not always been that way, but I believe that it very well may have. Although we saw some evidence of reverence to the female form in Paleolithic and Egyptian art, I think there was always a place for women to marginalized and cast aside. As you saw from all the images we discussed from Pompeii and onward have created an unrealistic ideal of what women should be. We are told to be pure, virginal and above humanity by medieval art, while at the same time held up to a beauty standard of the Goddess of sex.
It is just so interesting when you view these images as a modern woman. You do not have to do much digging to understand that the problem that all women face today have been created through artistic representations of women. Honestly, as hard as this is for me to admit, until I had that conversation with my good friend Serena about Bernini's Rape of Persephone, I had not really given these problematic images of women much thought. It is funny how a whole world that thrives off of idealized representations of the female body wants to shame them at the same time.
I hope that we can open up conversations about how art was dominated by men and that it is entirely possible that they created images of women for their own agendas. Behind all the colorful layers paint are deeply rooted sexist ideals that have been around for millennia.
I will leave you all with this.
The question no one is asking is how and why has this been happening? Is art history really just a timeline marking the oppression of women? What do I do as an art historian do to change the narrative?
I cannot change art history past, but I can make damn sure it will be women who help its future.
Thank you for sticking around to the end of this post!
Please like and comment.
See you soon,
*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia