For centuries, women were exclusively represented by male artists. That is up until the 19th century when female artists began to represent themselves on their terms. This meant that for the first time, the male gaze was being challenged by the female gaze. In particular, portraits of female artists shown in work clothes with easels were very powerful and revolutionary.
It all started with self-portraits, which are essential for many artists because it allows them to represent themselves through their own eyes: they are, in a sense, manifestos. For female artists, particularly those influenced by feminism, self-portraits offered the possibility of giving an identity to an image and displaying its true colors. All of which, occurred in the context of a hostile misogynistic world, where being a female artist was either impossible or frowned upon.
But many artists in history went beyond simply asserting their presence: their self-portraits read like manuals for existing and surviving outside the norms imposed by gender, sexuality, race, and class. Self-portraits allowed women to look for and create new worlds.
(Examples to check out: Gwen John, Nude Girl, 1090-1910 / Suzanne Valadon, Reclining Nude, 1928).
Why is the human body a crucial artistic and political issue?
The human body has long been a key political territory for women's rights and feminism - whether it's about standards of beauty, intimacy, desire, sexual reproduction, or violence. We often associate body art with the 1960s and 1970s, but the human body has been a key point throughout history. In a patriarchal and hetero-centric society, women's bodies are a place of desire and control. Unluckily, this desire does not stop at sex, it contaminates all other aspects of life and even manages to permeate art, it impacts the notions of beauty, and therefore morality, becoming a pretext for the control over women. This is something a female artist cannot from, which is why female artists approach this problem in the best way they can, whether by subversion, humor, or transformation. The goal is to: show, disturb and ideally overcome this image. In an increasingly visual world, artists no longer focus solely on representations of women in art, but also look into advertising, pornography, film, television - and now, social networks.
What does feminist art look like today?
It is hard to describe what feminist art looks like today, and truly, feminist art has never been a particular style or movement. Nevertheless, we are in a different time, hence facing different issues than those in the 1970s and 1980s: where feminists had to reflect on their connections to other rights movements, such as Gay Liberation and Civil Rights, to forge relationships of solidarity. In today's world, which is more connected, feminists can communicate around their shared oppressions and differences. Moreover, many feminist-influenced artists turn to history, especially the 1970s, and resurrect questions posed by the previous generation, bringing this work creatively back to life in the present.