It’s our final day of “Vagina Week” here at Nursing Clio and we have a very special treat for our readers. Our resident art historian, Rachel Epp Buller, takes us on a historical tour, if you will, of art and the vagina. She also asks a very important question about vagina representation in art: “Are we stuck in the 1970s?”
Having made and studied art for quite a few years now, I find that issues in contemporary culture often lead my mind to wander to art historical references. “Binders full of women,” equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights – it all leads me back to art. For instance, over the centuries we’ve seen a consistent historical pattern of interest among male artists in representing the vagina – Leonardo da Vinci, Gustave Courbet, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Christian Schad, to name only a few (see also TimeOut New York’s recent survey of the vagina in art, heavily populated by male artists). But it’s only in recent decades that women artists have turned to the vagina as subject (object?).
So it is that Naomi Wolf’s new book, Vagina: A Biography, and all of the hoorah surrounding it, reminds me of the role of the vagina in American feminist art of the 1970s – and, in fact, makes me feel a bit like we are stuck in that time period, worshiping the vagina, engaging in a consciousness-raising session to find power in our vaginas, or Goddesses, as she terms them. A disclaimer, up front: this post will not really be about Naomi Wolf or her writing but will simply use her latest book as a jumping-off point to indulge my own interests.
I’m already departing from this disclaimer when I note that Wolf, too, makes a connection with creative and artistic minds – bringing up the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s an obvious connection, since later feminists heralded O’Keeffe’s work as proto-feminist and read her floral paintings as vaginal symbolism, even though O’Keeffe rejected the interpretation. Why I think Wolf picks her out, though, and why many American feminists of the 1970s claimed her, is that she not only (in their view) represented taboo aspects of the female body, but also positioned them as a source of power and creativity.
These were key points for some members of the American Feminist Art Movement: to reclaim the female body from the objectification of the male gaze, and to use that new-found power of the female body by making it visible and investing it with a symbolism of broader womanhood (i.e., the essential body, later heavily critiqued for reducing women’s experiences to biological differences from men).
Ultimately, it didn’t really matter whether or not Georgia O’Keeffe intended for her closely cropped views of irises and jacks-in-the-pulpit to be symbolic representations of the vagina. Some people understood it that way, and it’s a story that continues in popular understanding of her work today.
Judy Chicago’s work of the 1970s abounds with vaginal imagery – or, what she termed “central core imagery.” The concentric and organic shapes, the floral and labial references, culminated in her huge collaboration, The Dinner Party, where the women of history are celebrated through women’s labor, craft traditions, and… vaginas. Each place setting honors a significant woman from history, from Sappho to the biblical figure Judith to Georgia O’Keeffe herself (the only living woman to be honored with a place setting). Each place setting includes a plate and almost each one is adorned with ornate “central core” imagery. The vagina stands in for the woman; or, the woman becomes the vagina. (Sojourner Truth’s plate is one of the very few to depart from the vaginal motif – which has been read as a white woman’s devaluing of black women’s bodily experience, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Artists have also looked to the vagina to counter the historical pattern of viewing male artists’ creativity as a masculine, virile endeavor. Some artists turned to the vagina to convey that the female body, too, can be a source of artistic creativity. Think of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll of 1975, a performance where she painted her nude body and then read from a paper scroll that she unrolled from her vagina. Or, Shigeko Kubota’s Vagina Painting of 1965,where she painted on a large paper with a brush held in her vagina. This performance piece, in particular, is often cited as a feminist response to the perceived “ejaculatory” drip paintings of Jackson Pollock.
And then enter Hannah Wilke, whose S.O.S. – Starification Object Series, begun in 1974, featured her nude body covered with pieces of chewed-up chewing gum, shaped into vulvas and affixed to her torso. Wilke, though, was rejected by some of her feminist peers as showing off, in a sense, her beautiful body, or at least not departing enough from the historical male gaze’s objectification of women.
Vaginal references in art aren’t confined to the 1970s. Plenty of more recent artists (Mickalene Thomas, Lisa Yuskavage, Kembra Pfahler, etc.) investigate the female body and sexuality in overt and often challenging ways. Most artists no longer seem interested, though, in the kind of vagina-worship that Wolf details in her book. It’s a site of difference, and of sexual power, but contemporary artists also seem more willing to problematize the situation, such as with historical and cultural perceptions of (hereto)sexuality. We’ve learned from, built on, and/or moved beyond the 1970s, in art and in culture. Why would we want to pretend otherwise?
“We’ve learned from, built on, and/or moved beyond the 1970’s, in art and in culture.” From my perspective as a feminist who started out in that era, this statement could have been written only by someone who wasn’t actually there. It could hardly be more evident that for the most part, what women worked on and for, and fought for, during that era, is more often not only forgotten but also derided just as this article does. I have had endless conversations with women in the present, feminists, who not only haven’t read but don’t even know the names of, most of the brilliant scholars and heroines of that period. A vey common assertion now is that 2nd-wave feminism was somehow anti-sex, puritannical and repressive. It was the opposite. No wonder our movements are so quickly “disappeared”. We don’t honor even our own foremothers in feminism. We allow our patriarchal world to disappear them as quickly as possible and we collude by sneering at women who have gone before us along difficult and lonely avenues of activism. It’s a popular delusion that things are better now. They’re not, as the Tea Party dramatically illustrates, as the ubiquitous sexualization of little girls horribly reveals, as the global sex slave traffic demonstrates. And in culture itself, there are ominous signs of deterioration and degradation, not progress or expansion. In film, TV, and music, elements of viciousness and misogyny are now present that we never saw in the era this writer seems so fond of feeling superior to. Patriarchy teaches us to despise our mothers, and without further ado, we do.
Thanks for taking the time to respond, Esther. I actually really love much of the feminist art of the 1970s, and I do, in fact, know the names of the scholars and heroines of the period, even though I wasn’t yet a feminist at that time (though my mother certainly was). Yes, I’m a little facetious to make a point in disagreeing with some of Wolf’s writing in this book – but I do think (as do / did many scholars, both at the time and retrospectively) that the Feminist Art Movement didn’t always allow for more than a fairly narrow perspective of women’s experiences and representations. Far from ‘despising our mothers,’ I think there is much to be learned from them; but neither can we pretend that it was a perfect movement.
I would agree with Rachel. I don’t think that anyone of us here at Nursing Clio would label ourselves as “despising our [feminist] mothers.” Far from it, many of these women are truly an inspiration to me and it is part of the reason I have devoted my life to studying women’s history. However, I would argue that respect and blindness adulation are two entirely different concepts. It is the job of a historian to look at the past with a critical eye and not merely perpetuate a positivist attitude of our forefathers (or mothers in this case). In fact, I would argue that this approach to history – a type of panegyrical history, if you will – is the exact type of history the Tea Party hinges its whole platform on. Anyway, I digress. My point is that, indeed, we owe a great deal of gratitude to first and second wave feminists, but that certainly does not mean we cannot use critical analysis in the process of reevaluating and strengthening our feminist commitment.
The ’70s were better. Now sucks. As Esther mentioned, the 2nd-wave feminists had a reputation for being puritanical and anti-sex, but it’s not true. I was there too, and that shit didn’t happen until Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin in the ’80s. (And yes, those two fucking idiots were directly responsible for the ‘hairy-legged anti-sex feminist’ image, because they were it!!) But the earlier 2nd-wavers like Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, and Germaine Greer were NOT that way at all. They were fighting for equality and equality only. As for the modern day with the screeching fundamentalist chauvinists, widespread degradation of women, and bad music, I say screw it. Let’;s get back to the ’70s!!
Aren’t you really talking about the vulva, not the vagina?
Yes, in some cases there is overlap / ambiguity. Chicago’s term ‘central core’ clearly referred to the vagina, but the Dinner Party plates display more vulval imagery (as does the cave carving). The Interior Scroll and Vagina Painting pieces are more clearly vaginal. And I didn’t even get into the menstruation-related art of the time. All of these, taken together, make for wonderfully awkward but engaging discussions with art history undergraduate students!
the past is always more romantic then here and now
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