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The Female Gaze
[ Stories )
To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, we take a look back at our 2017 exhibition Women Artists: The Female Gaze which explored how the women artists in our collection have asserted their own artistic vision.
You may have heard the term ‘the male gaze’ to describe the ways in which visual media often objectifies women, presenting them as objects of desire for the gratification of a heterosexual male audience.
John Berger described the concept in Ways of Seeing in the 1970s, analysing the treatment of nude women in European oil paintings. The actual term ‘male gaze’ was coined by Laura Mulvey in her influential essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975).
Mulvey argues that through filmic conventions, female characters in cinema can only ever be viewed from a male perspective. It seems fitting to apply this term to art as well as film, as throughout history, the dominant point of view has always placed the active male artist in opposition to the passive female model.
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive female.
Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) by Laura Mulvey
Things don’t have to be this way. We can challenge these traditional narratives by paying attention to the ways in which marginalised artists represent themselves.
In our 2017 exhibition Women Artists: The Female Gaze, we drew on representations of women by women from the Gallery’s collection. These works challenge the dominant narrative of mainstream art history.
In the first half of the 20th century, Suzanne Valadon and Marie Laurencin used their experiences as artists models to reclaim female representation of the body.
Valadon’s female nudes draw upon her experiences of working as a model; they are solid and awkward. They aren’t drawn as bodies to be idealised or lusted after through male heterosexual eyes – they are for the women being depicted to use. By the standards of the time, they are not considered to be particularly feminine.
In contrast, Laurencin and her work were considered feminine, but later scholars have re-positioned them in the context of her bisexuality, and as a means of subverting the patriarchal notion of femininity.
Artists have continued to rebel against these idealised forms of women’s bodies as well as standards of how a woman should use her body. In Hold On (1987), Lys Hansen plays with the notion of “appropriate” behaviour for a woman by contorting the female body grotesquely and ignoring any sense of decorum. Her breasts hang to the floor, emphasising the female body as life giving and maternal, rather than sexualised. Her outstretched tongue is reminiscent of the Hindu goddess Kali, who can bring things to life or death.
Jessica Harrison further explores ideas of feminism and beauty in The Annunciation (2007), a recreation of the Archangel Gabriel’s visitation to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she will become the mother of Jesus. Harrison’s depiction of Mary is reminiscent of an 18th century porcelain figurine and depicts Gabriel as a disembodied female mouth. Mary cowers from the gaping mouth that threatens to devour her, juxtaposing the ideals of the classical body with that of the grotesque.
Fairy tales, folk lore and the socialisation of young girls form the source of inspiration for artists such as Paula Rego. In Crumpled (2002), Rego draws upon the dramatic narrative of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to reveal the ideas of female empowerment, identity and imagination at the heart of the novel. Rego has always been a strong conveyer of female experience, often looking askew at the complexities of family relationships or drawing upon the themes of fear and darkness that underpin traditional fairy tales and folklore.
For much of Western art history, male artists have used women as their subjects, very often characterising them as the virgin, mother or whore. Women are idealised to fit particular ideas of beauty, femininity and sexual desire.
There have always been women artists fighting against this oppression but since the late 19th century, women have finally been given more opportunities (such as being allowed to train in art schools) in order to create their own art. Things are continuing to slowly improve, but the art world as a whole still has a long way to go. For example, the Art Market 2019 report produced by Art Basel and UBS found that works by female artists comprise only a small share of major permanent collections in the western world.
As a gallery, we are acutely aware of the importance of our role in changing the narrative. We will continue to strive towards making our collection more diverse and championing those artists who challenge convention.