Throughout the canon of art history, artists represented their subjects in response to their time period and societal values. Due to this, artists have represented feminity through society’s narrow lens which assigned them a submissive role. Today, portraits are expected to be more than just pure representations as they adapt to the demands of the modern eye.
Here are a few artists who have reclaimed the representation of women within their art:
Mary Beth Edelson:
Mary Beth Edelson was an American artist and notably a pioneer of the first generation of feminist artists. Edelson was a collage artist, painter, photographer, performance artist and printmaker. Her work studies the discrimination woman have faced throughout history, highlighting the injustices of society, and opposing traditional thought. The artist is well renowned for her prolific body of artwork. The artist employed themes based on her love of history, literature, and feministic pursuit. These themes included a blend of ancient mythology, nature, celebrity, cliché stereotypes, and celebration of her feminist colleagues.
In her work, the artist concerned herself with how female subjectivity is presented in popular culture such as film and advertisements. She strived to turn the spirit of the femme fatales on its head in a humorous way to disrupt the social order. Each of her works served as a provoking way to cry out and stand against the patriarchal system. During the mid-1970s, she produced a group performance entitled, Proposals for Memorials to 9,000,000 Women Burned as Witches in the Christian Era (1977). In a black and white photographic series, “Woman Rising,” the artist reimagines herself as a goddess or witch-like figure.
Woman Rising, Sky III, Mary Beth Edelson, 1973, New York, NY
“Goddess was always a metaphor for me, for radical change and change of consciousness and for challenging the daily experience of what is thought of as acceptable social codes while opening other realms of experience. This spirituality invaded an area which in Western culture was previously a male territory, and therefore, this action was, in and of itself, a profoundly political act against the patriarchy and for spiritual liberation” (Edelson, 1990). Starting in 1977, Edelson began covering her body in the private ritual performances she examined what her naked form could represent. The artist’s work treads a line of irony and anger evoking a mixed reaction.
In this series, the artists photographed her naked body lying amongst nature to reclaim the female body. This aimed to empower and encourage the feminist art movement as it also serves as a commentary on the exploitation of women during the late 17th-century witch burnings. The energy displayed in these images evokes a powerful sense of rage and rebellion, as she protests and captures the passion in her work. In this collection, the artists also aim to memorialize these women. These works have been since housed in the A.I.R. Gallery. Notably, this exhibition was excitingly the first exhibit to showcase and sponsor only all female artists and artwork.
Last Supper, Mary Beth Edelson, Collage Mixed media on Paper, 1972
Edelson is known for a controversial piece that appropriated the famous Leonardo da Vinci, “Last Supper” painting. In this piece, the artists replaced the heads of notable female artists and figures. The artists hoped this piece would ignite conversation and encourage the audience to think about how the work made them feel. Edelson wanted the viewer to acknowledge the notable lack of and absence of women in the original da Vinci piece. Commenting on the way women were subjugated out of events and overshadowed by the successes of men.
With this, the artists challenged two male-dominated industries, the Western art world, as well as the male-dominated world of religion. In this collage, Georgia O’Keeffe takes the place of Jesus, sitting centrally in the collage at the table. Accompanied in her station, O’Keefe is surrounded by fellow contemporary artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning and Yoko Ono.
These well-known famous female artists are all in place of the Apostles in the original piece. Across the border, Edelson pasted the images of sixty-nine other female artists accrediting accompanied by each of their names listed below. Since its original display, the work has since become a widely distributed poster for the feminist movement. This reproduction served a higher purpose as it also reminded gallery exhibitors to consider these women artists for inclusion. The poster became one of the many iconic images of the feminist art movement.
Throughout her practice, Edelson aimed to celebrate women and situate herself among the powerful woman artists who encouraged change and a better appreciation for women in order to promote equality. The artist worked across an array of mediums such as drawing, painting, photography, collage, sculpture, performances, and so on. Through her practice and affiliations, she was a staunch feminist striving for equality and recognition for her accomplishments as a female artist.
Cindy Sherman is an American artist born in 1954 who is best known for her conceptual and socially critical photography. Within her practice, she explores identity and representation using popular culture imagery and media as a source of inspiration. The artist is a key figure of the “Pictures Generation” which was a notable group of American artists who came known for their proliferation of mass media imagery in the early 1980s. Throughout her art practice, the artist explored the construction of identity. The artist appropriated images from film, advertisements, television, and magazines in order to comment on gender roles. Her practice spanned a variety of genres that include feminism, postmodernism, and representation.
At the end of the 1970s, Sherman started to explore female social roles. This was a prominent movement of the time as during this period, the Woman’s Rights Movement, also known as Women’s Liberation, was dominating the media as women gathered to fight for equality and greater personal freedoms. This was recognized as part of the “second wave” of the feminist movement. Due to this, she is often associated with feminist art and photography. Her work subverts the visual default that so often is used to classify the world around us to encourage the understanding of a more opportune and complicated reality.
The artist sought to question seductive and often oppressive mass media personas inflicted on the collective identities of women. The focus and subject of her work is often her own personal identity as she often employs herself as the model to capture and explore a variety of personas. The artist often employs toys and props that are stereotypically associated with women. Through this, she challenges the roles of women in the media and confronts the objectification of female sexuality.
To achieve this the artist often must give up and adopt a new persona. Within her works, Sherman strives to make herself the art itself. All the while, remaining ambiguous about whether, or not she is a feminist artist, “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear” (Sherman, n/d).
In each of her works, the influence of feminist pursuit is apparent to the viewer. A constant theme within her work is the utilization of the male gaze and manipulation of the subject matter (Lehrer, 2017). She applies this theme in each of her art forms in a unique and complex way. This is done through the recreation of images and themes of popular culture such as the ideal Hollywood fantasy, American advertising, Hollywood lifestyles and the classic “girl-next-door archetype.
Untitled #93, Cindy Sherman,, Photography 1981
In her series, “Centerfolds, 1981” the artists evoke a strong sense of awareness, eliminating passivity by simultaneously being the “looker” and the “looked at.” Another way this could be interpreted is her re-framing herself as the object of the male gaze of her own accord, playing the role of victim with intent in the form of a sultry and vulnerable seductress.
In these images, Sherman adopts and restages the classic men’s magazine pin-ups. These works were commissioned for Art Forum in 1981 and ended up being rejected by the magazine’s editors for their ambivalence and suggested victimization. The obvious interpretation of the images preceded their message as the artists aimed to give a voice to the voiceless figures of the past.
In another series, Sherman sought to recreate the classic painting well-known in the history of European portraiture. With this, she placed herself in the position and power of roles mainly dominated by men. This was to comment on the hierarchy of historical roles of men and women. In each recreation, Sherman finds herself in a role of nobility, artist, and sometimes representing gods.
Caravaggio, Young Sick Bacchus, Untitled #224, Cindy Sherman, Oil on Canvas, 67x53cm,
This series is recognizable for her painting adaption of Raphael’s lover in her appropriation of La Fornarina. The portrait of the young woman is replaced by the artist herself. In this series of works, she went on to replace the subject of well-known Renaissance portraits with her own image to reassign gender and meaning.. In these artworks, the artist embraces appropriation allowing the former painting to be recognizable even with her enhancements. In Sick Bacchus, Sherman replaces Caravaggio who adorned the human representation of the Greek God with her own image. In this new work, the artists used prosthetic breasts, wigs, lenses and so on, to reimagine the classic painting.
The artists wanted to comment on the number of cosmetics and prosthetics used in upper-class high society to subvert positions of authority within the art historical canon. She draws a parallel to modern-day society commenting on Instagram and other social media's use of digital modification of photographs. This served as a commentary on the practice of modification of self-image used still today. The artist highlights the absurdity of “realness” in the media and the expectation of beauty standards placed on women. Comparing the avatars of the virtual world to the portraiture culture. By appropriating these images, the artist aimed to question the standards placed on our representation and reflect on how they are still held to an unnecessary standard today.
Lea Schrager is a digital artist and online performance artist from America. Schrager represents as the model, photographer, and artist. She explored multimedia works sharing the common theme of her own self-image. The artist wanted to explore the possibilities surrounding the appropriation of her own image. Schrager is a woman of her era, as she uses social media as her main gallery display. Through this digital platform, she explores identity, celebrity culture and the power of the modern-day self-portrait, “the selfie.” She also utilizes the contemporary idea of direct association with mass media in magazines. Schrager has become a resonant voice in the new feminist art wave, as she balances the power dynamic between model and photographer.
Schrager shocked the public scene in 2014 when she revealed herself as the “Naked Therapist.” Using an alter ego, Sarah White, she provided public counselling service while reclaiming the “webcam girl” practice. In this series, Shrager would offer men a mental health service using her body in its nudity in order to provide a sense of intimacy. Schrager as White, lent counseling to interviewees that include famous names such as Jay Leno and even had a spread in Psychology Today.
The artist used this space as a way to proliferate the images taken of her body in the context of cyberspace and throughout different platforms for widespread exposure (Bechtold, 2016). Schrager aimed to reclaim the female body in a setting that normally strips away identity by using her desire to have her naked body as artistic work.
The artist is in a constant battle with her work as, throughout her growing exposure and fame, she has received a plethora of judgmental responses who struggle to understand the artist's incorporation of nudity in her work. “On principle though, I think it’s wrong to judge a person by an image of them because the judgment is how we censor and keep women from being free” (Bechtold, 2016). She argues her work is a direct response to her time. She wants to take advantage of the ever-constant battle for women’s rights and push boundaries that previous artists wouldn’t have been able to get close to. She also challenges the idea that provocative imagery is not art, “Duchamp said the urinal was art; I say I am art. You decide” (Sarah White for Bechtold, 2016).
“Doll Clothes,” Film, Cindy Sherman, Film, 2 min, Tate, 1975.
With each piece, she hopes to get closer to fighting the social critique that “sexy is not art” (Bechtold, 2016). Through self-representation and performance on the internet, she endeavoured to change this perspective of the female form and a woman’s place in the art world itself. The artists also never share the meaning within her work and in the repetition of images she never lets the viewer in as she controls the narrative. Her photography centers around desire, body, sexuality, visibility, and the idea of the forbidden all central to breaking the boundaries of feminist roles and representation.
In 2015, she started ONA, a celebrity as an art practice project. Her suggestive and provocative performances promoted engagement with online sex workers. She elevated herself to a unique status as an artist with this relationship as her pro-sex approach places her work in exciting contemporary terrain. With her sex-positive work, she is on the side of feminist pursuits that have allowed women to not only reclaim their sexuality and image but now use the female body as a tool to empower other women.
Naked Therapy, Leah Schrager as her former alter ego, Sarah White in 2011. PHOTO BY JULIA XANTHOS
In these works, the artists play around with the concept of the popularized, “selfie.” In 2016 at the height of social media, Schrager wanted to comment on the societal use of the platform and the modern-day portrait. Schrager believed that the selfie would represent the new self-portrait.. She thought that this could be turned into a positive commentary on owning your representation as the subject is fully in control of the image. Meaning that the subject and artists, as the same person, had the rights to narrative and representation of their image. This served as a powerful commentary towards women as the artists reflect upon women reclaiming their own identity.
Through a constant battle for equality, contemporary art now has opened new doors for woman artists to promote themselves and to be seen as more than an object and carry a new weight of meaning into their works. This humanization of women in art encourages and invites artists such as these women to break barriers that were previously blockading artists before them.
In Contemporary art, women are no longer popularized to be held in the backdrop of society but rather promoted with a sense of purpose. Irony and play have now been utilized to judge the stereotypical archetype women have been cast in throughout history.
Artists such as Edelson, Sherman and Schrager are only a few named who represent this change of representation in their works as many other artists have contributed to this quest. Interestingly, all the artists share the commonality of using social media platforms to post and share this work. Many of the artists commented that the idea of owning one’s representation is a key idea in their practice and these platforms have provided them with a means to do this.
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