The female figure has been a central object of Western art since time immemorial: from Botticelli's marine nudes to Titian’s ravishing lovers and Courbet’s 1866 “Origin of the World”. But rarely have women’s representations of themselves been given air to breathe. As English art critic John Berger wrote in his 1973 Ways of Seeing, describing media culture’s shaping of gender politics and the woman as object: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” It is through this prism of patriarchal control that much exploitation of women has been enacted: commonly phallocentric portraiture has been used to permeate the rest of society.
In fact, the late-Austrian painter Egon Schiele – whose The Radical Nude exhibition is currently taking place at London’s Courtauld Gallery – is perhaps one of the few examples of a man able to expressively convey the radical, raw beauty of nude women, as fluid beings rather than fixed objects. Schiele’s lively brushstrokes evoke women in control of their potent sexuality, rather than defined by it. Here, we take a look at some of the most radical female artists reclaiming their body in the 21st century, and in doing so, opening up a new realm of independence and possibility.
Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright, who explores the complex nature of racial identity in her work, finds the beauty standards set by mass-produced, ubiquitous Barbie dolls to be problematic. In Plastic Bodies, a series of digitally manipulated photographs, Bright contrasts fragmented bodies of multicultural women with the dolls, revealing the “global assimilation of cultures, ethnicities, and loss of personal identity many women of color experience as a result.”
“Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body,” observed the Nairobi, Kenya-born sculptor and painter Wangechi Mutu, currently on show at Victoria Miro gallery. Describing herself as “an irresponsible anthropologist and irrational scientist,” Mutu makes powerful, dangerous, and erotic collages out of ethnographic photography, 19th-century medical illustrations and magazine pornography.
In response to the well-documented treatment of non-model women by American Apparel, Nancy Upton took a series of photographs of herself in distinctly anti-AA style. The size-12 Upton mocks the deliberately sexualised poses struck in American Apparel ad campaigns by chowing down on chicken wings, bathing in baths of ranch dressing, and smothering herself in pie. “I don’t believe that beauty should be qualified as because of someone’s size or in spite of someone’s size,” she wrote.
Berlin-based artist Susannah Martin tackles the issue of how female bodies have been represented head-on: her paintings of female nudes are unequivocally from a female point of view. Her oil paintings are a contemporary update on classical nudes, where instead of being within the rigid confines of the male gaze, Martin’s women are independent, liberated, and enjoying themselves in the world.
Through a long history of staged performances, Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft brings the power of the female body off the page and into a tableaux vivant. Often gathering dozens of nude women – who vary in shapes and sizes – Beecroft, widely known to have had a past eating disorder, aims to reclaim sexualised images of women and recontextualise them as feminist empowerment. To date, she has – not uncontroversially – staged 73 performances that use sexual imagery from a very feminine point of you. Delve into her 1999 performance VB40 below, which staged semi-nude models in perfect hair and make-up, forced to stand for over two hours for each performance. Staged at Sydney’s Kaldor Public Art Projects, it was described as; “a collective portrait of idealised femininity and desire within a consumer culture”.
Israeli-American photographer Elinor Carucci’s work focuses on intimate and private moments in her life, as well as those around her, in an almost diarist narrative. Her reality isn’t glamorised, hidden or false; from documenting menstrual blood, the hair on her nipple and the awkward imprint of a zipper on her bare stomach. Her latest project Mother, focuses in closely on the embodied experience of motherhood today. Beginning with a pregnant Carucci taking self-portraits, then graphic photography of the post-pregnancy body, and concluded when her twins were eight years old, not always smiling. She explained: “My intention was to show motherhood for what it is, not the celebrity version: perfect mothers and perfect babies.”
Winner of the BP Portrait Award in 2012, 28-year-old artist Aleah Chapin revels in the beauty of elderly female bodies; not just those of lean youths. Her Aunties Project – partly exhibiting at London’s Flowers Gallery – is a playful series of giant nude paintings of mature women, proudly displaying all of the wrinkles and sagging that comes with age. “We’re told that our bodies are supposed to be a certain height, certain size, certain weight,” said Chapin. “But the pictures we see are completely unrealistic.”
The fetishisation of womens’ bodies and their regular reduction to breasts is something that New York artist Cindy Hinant is acutely aware of. Women is a collection of nine images, each depicting the torso of an artist, which were found online, and tinted into a shade of pink. Their breasts become the focal point, without any context given, thereby reflecting on how images of womens’ bodies are often presented without personal identity or information.
Glasgow School of Art graduate Jenny Saville is known for her large-scale paintings of naked women, replete with wholesome rolls of skin, and chunky limbs that almost overflow the canvas. This magnified sort of obesity is something that viewers usually recoil at, but Saville champions it as conveying the raw physicality of existence. Her Closed Contact series saw fashion photographer Glen Luchford take shots of Saville from below – who had put on weight for the project – lying naked against a sheet of perspex.
Combining African American female subjects with traditional genres of portraiture, such as the work of Romare Bearden, David Hockney, and Édouard Manet, New York-based Mickalene Thomas aims to augment the boundaries of traditional Western art history. Thomas paints provocative works of African American women in a romanticised style that conjures up the 1970s Blaxploitation genre, immediately striking the viewer as an alternative take on womanhood.
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