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George Romney, ‘Emma Hart as Circe’, 1782-1794, Courtesy the TateBrooke Shields dressed up as a princess. Ca. 1980-1990, Photo Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

How have depictions of girlhood in art changed over time?

A new book by Claire Marie Healy digs into how young women are portrayed in art and photography, from the 17th century all the way up to the Instagram selfies of today

From kohl eyeliner, teenage rebellion and the “girlish giggle”, to Kirsten Dunst’s smile in 1999, writer Claire Marie Healy has been studying teenage womanhood under a microscope for some time in her Girlhood Studies series. This made the AnOther contributing editor a no-brainer to author a short book for the Tate’s Look Again series about history’s depictions of girlhood in art.

This summer, the Tate Britain underwent a ‘rehang’ of its works, with long-loved classics fixed to its walls alongside new discoveries – an attempt to redress past prejudices and tell new stories through its collection. Works by living artists have been dotted among early paintings so as to invite comparisons and platform previously marginalised voices. 

In the book, Healy looks at the portraiture of girlhood through time, drawing parallels between artistic movements and eras, whether that’s Marie Antoinette’s 14-year-old image being passed around Europe for consumption like the non-consensual photos passed around boys’ phones of today, or Regency-era celebrity Emma Hart being sexualised in a similar way to a young Brooke Shields.

Where young girls were once the anonymous subject of gold-framed oil portraits, in the present day, Healy says, self-portraiture is almost a social requirement on Instagram or TikTok. Once solely the domain of the rich and aristocratic, art is today being made by everyone with a smartphone – photo dumps and the warped 0.5 selfies being two examples of the kinds of present-day aesthetic styles being employed.

From these nameless young women in the 17th century to the mid-2010s Art Hoe Collective to Rene Matić’s intimate, messy photographs of modern Black female friendship, Healy explores how young women have both been captured passively by art and placed themselves at the centre of it (including her own Francesca Woodman-esque photography of the author in her bedroom).

Dazed asked Healy some questions about the creation of the book and the incisive parallels between art and pop culture she draws in it.

How much research went into the book? How many pieces of art or artistic movements did you look at?

Claire Marie Healy: Because the Tate collection is so large – it’s the entire national collection ­– I needed some kind of throughline among all of that, which is why I focused on portraiture. I started physically in the Tate Britain ­– this was before the rehang ­– and just looked around for works which jumped out. That’s where I first noticed the resemblance between the Edward Byrne-Jones’ work The Golden Stairs and the Lisbon sisters walking down their stairs for prom in The Virgin Suicides, and also saw the rediscovered work by Emma Soyer, Two Children with a Book (1831), in person. 

So while the perspective and ‘way of looking’ in the book really comes from my Girlhood Studies practice, I also tried to capture even in this short book some of that feeling of the points of connection experienced in the physical gallery space. To that point, I also saw lots of schoolgirls and art students that afternoon, which also made me think about the importance of the physical encounter with art, in tandem with how we share and collect them online.

What influence did your own experience of girlhood have on the creation of the book?

Claire Marie Healy: I am interested in how images are experienced, and that includes how they are gathered together, and circulated. For me, that is a way of engaging with visual culture that is informed by my girlhood, saving images on my computer, blogging about them or pasting them on my bedroom wall (as in the Woodman-esque photograph I used in the book that I took in my bedroom when I was 15 or 16!) So for me, it’s less about personal memories, but always about trying to revisit that more playful, open, experimental way of engaging with images that is invested with a kind of emotional connection. I think when we take the way girls engage with visual culture more seriously, you arrive at something similar to Brian Dillon’s idea of ‘affinities’, or the way Maya Cade of Black Film Archive talks about film screengrabs.

“I am very wary of a trend in the present day for representations of girlhood to be only extremely sanitised, or only extremely traumatic” – Claire Marie Healy

The parallels that you draw in the book are really fascinating – for example that between Emma Hart and Brooke Shields. Were there any others you were thinking about that didn’t make it into the book?

Claire Marie Healy: Tons! I could write a much larger book on this topic. An artist that comes to mind that there wasn’t space for is the late Paula Rego, who has these witchy illustrations in the Tate collection I became interested in. There’s something there about the idea of girls who take revenge against men, about girls in fairy tales and coming-of-age, and about their cinematic or literary equivalents in horror and pop culture… another time!

There’s an idea that teen girlhood is being less represented in popular culture these days – do you have any thoughts on this?

Claire Marie Healy: I was watching that show Heartstopper, which is actually one of the first times recently where a show skews so appropriately young – like, they’re doing their GCSES and sharing a single bottle of vodka between 30! – that I was like, OK this isn’t for me. However, it is important to have work out there for teenage girls that also challenges them, even if it isn’t a realistic mirror. Part of my girlhood was also falling in love with quote-unquote ‘inappropriate’ films about young people like The Doom Generation! I think the mainstream ‘teenage’ culture of the 90s wasn’t really a true representation in any case, but I am at the same time very wary of a trend in the present day for representations of girlhood to be only extremely sanitised, or only extremely traumatic. That’s why looking back and re-appreciating work from another era can be so valuable.

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