20 Jan 2021
A History of Feminist Art
UNFRAME looks at the prolific work of feminist artists in the 1960s and 1970s
Informed by the feminist activism of the time, more and more, feminist art was used as a vessel in which to convey the message of the movement. As artists began to question and investigate, it became apparent that social and economic inequality between women and men was prevalent and rooted. The 1960s brought a widespread feeling that change was needed, undoubtedly, feminist art was activism.
In this article, as well as looking at the history of feminist art, we will explore the importance of the movement in raising awareness of gender inequality. We will look at the feminist work of Louise Bourgeois, Anni Albers, Martha Rosler and Georgia O’Keeffe, to name just a few…
In many ways, the 1971 essay by Linda Nochlin ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ served as a catalyst for new thinking in the art world. It was praised by many for it’s fresh slant on feminist art theory, as well as, the historic portrayal of women in the arts. Nochlin examines the obstacles faced by female artists, that is to say, she draws light on notable preventions. By releasing the eye opening essay, Nochlin addresses something that was on most women’s minds. Why were women prevented from gaining the same recognition as their male counterparts?
Initially, the production of feminist art began towards the end of the 1960s, during the movement’s ‘second wave’ across Britain and the United States. In many ways, the gap between each wave was vast, the first wave was lead by women’s suffrage movements in the mid 19th century. The first wave of feminism took place in the late 19th century, initially, it emerged from industrialism and socialist politics. Consequently, it lead to opening up opportunities for women, focusing on suffrage. Eventually, this continued until women gained the right to vote in 1920. These preliminary movements, as a result, laid the groundwork for when feminist art eventually was made during the 1960s and 1970s.
Hilma Af Klint
Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint is considered to be a Proto feminist artist, a forerunner to the great success of the movement. Proto feminism as a concept depicts modern feminism in eras when the feminist concept was still unknown. In her vast, painterly body of work, Af Klint created work made from seances carried out with four other female artists. Af Klint’s upbringing in Sweden, in many ways, paved the way for her politically charged work. During the era of her birth, at this time Sweden was far ahead of the rest of Europe in it’s progressive education for women. Given these circumstances, Klint’s vast body of work was visibly influenced by the progressive place and time she found herself in.
Importantly, her artist collective was named ‘the Five’. They would meet once a week over the course of ten years, in this case, experimenting with spiritual and artistic technique. Their use of ‘automatic writing and drawing’ was, subsequently, recognised as being far ahead of the work of Surrealists by decades. Af Klint’s colourful paintings, in particular, portray an astonishing release by the artist, a nod to her seance work. Her feminine works visibly depict fluid and abstract flow of thought. To conclude, her paintings radically questioned and challenged how restrictive the art world was for women in her creation of them at all.
“The pictures were painted directly through me, without preliminary drawings and with great power. I had no idea what the pictures would depict and still I worked quickly and surely without changing a single brush-stroke.” Hilma Af Klint
The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most prominent of her generation. Although, her work is seemingly gendered, O’Keeffe resists sexist portrayals and expresses this dominantly in her paintings. Importantly, she spent a huge part of the artistic career protesting against the firm gender divide in the art world’s avant-garde genre. During the time she was painting, within the art world, men were considered better artists with greater prospects.
“I feel there is something unexplored about women that only a woman can explore.” Georgia O’Keeffe
For the most part, her elusive and suggestive paintings depict overtly feminine shapes and form. Her colourful portrayals present the viewer with abstracted but suggestive imagery, in particular, her botanical work. As a female artist, she became one of the most renowned modernists of her peers, despite this being a difficult position as a woman.
Putting Women on the Grid
German artist Anni Albers found creative freedom within the medium of weaving. Important to note, Albers studied at the radical Bauhaus art school during the early 1920s. Although, as a female student, subsequently, she was discouraged from certain classes because of her sex. Albers used textiles as a form of expression, in contrast to the use of the medium at the time. As well as Hilma Af Klint, Anni Albers is considered a forerunner to the feminist movement. All in all, her work challenges traditional ideas of women’s place in both society and the male dominated art world.
As an artist, Albers’ distinct body of textile work depicts carefully nurtured skill alongside sensitively considered colours. In many ways, her work is bodily and reflective of her restricted existence as a female artist within the Bauhaus school.
The Bauhaus art school was founded by German architect Walter Gropius in 1919. As well as having it’s own Bauhaus theory, students would be expected to undertake specialised workshops in cabinetmaking, weaving, metalworking and pottery. For Albers, the Bauhaus school was a male dominated environment where women were expected to learn craft based mediums.
Without a doubt, textiles as a medium was not recognised as an art form in the art world, let alone within the Bauhaus school. Textiles, weaving and embroidery were seen as women’s crafts; lowly, simplistic and greatly looked down on by men. However, Albers regenerated the ‘craft’ with great skill, championing the medium as a recognised fine art.
During the 1960s, French artist Louise Bourgeois began to explore the realms of the human body. Her sculptural work became organic and repeatedly depicted rounded forms, undoubtedly, suggestive of female organs. Bourgeois’ sculptures used natural form to visibly portray an emotive response from the artist. Her portrayals of the female form are warped and abstracted, yet seem to signify her commentary on gender indifferences. At the time, Bourgeois created representations of the current state of the world and the place women have within it.
“Our own body could be considered, from a topological point-of-view, a landscape with mounds and valleys and caves and holes. So it seems rather evident to me that our body is a figuration that appears in Mother Earth.”
For her often unrecognisable female forms, in many ways, her resulting sculptures act defiantly against gender constructs. All in all, she exercises the exploration of the female form in an unconventional and gory way. At the time and still today, her sculptures often seem to act as personal depictions of her troubled experiences as a woman.
She is best known for her large scale spider sculptures but most of all she explores patriarchy and motherhood in her visceral work. In particular, she explores what it means for women to be subjects rather than objects of art.
From the 1960s, the tenacious feminist movement began to gain momentum. Most of all, female artists embraced the movement as a way in which to convey personal experience and the oppression they had faced. The explosion of freedom was a crucial contribution to the fight for equality and diversity within feminism. Although, feminism as a movement was not new, feminist art was. At the time, the 1960s brought a rise of movements which in turn caused a re-shaping of aesthetic style. The educational systems were subsequently challenged with the help of student protests and the hippie movement. On a broad scale, these movements tried to revolutionise the world. As well as this, Pop art and culture turned into a beacon of hope for alternate lifestyles away from conservative culture.
During both the 1960s and 1970s, the resurgence of feminism served as a catalyst for political art to be made and is known as the second wave of feminism. Feminist artists of the time, in many ways, have changed the way we view the world and it’s restrictions on women’s achievement.
Semiotics of the Kitchen
Feminist Martha Rosler was an distinguished theorist as well as a prolific artist. She encompasses her critical voice in her varied body of work, spanning from photography, video, installation and photomontage. Her widely known 1975 video piece ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ , predominantly, reflects her primary interest in the position of women within patriarchy. Above all, she uses humour to address these longstanding issues of sexism she addresses as prominent in the art world. ‘Semiotics of the Kitchen’ depicts a playful parody cooking show, based on shows such as Julia Childs, popular in the 1960s. Rosler takes on the character of a doting housewife yet replaces politeness for her frustration with the oppression of women.
“I was concerned with something like the notion of ‘language speaking the subject,’ and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity.” Martha Rosler
As a feminist artist, she appropriates pop culture at the time using tv and magazine advertisements. In her photomontage work she collates photography of ideal homes and housewives, producing a way to highlight the false culture.
American artist Judy Chicago was a pioneer of social change during the feminist movement. Her famous artwork ‘The Dinner Party’ encompasses true feminist values in a large scale ceremonial banquet. In this example, she sets each place setting for an important woman in history. The immense detail, in particular, is astonishing, each plate includes a personalised motif based on vulvar and butterfly forms.
In her varied body of work she works in installation, however, primarily the feminist artist used painting to depict her female forms. As part of her collaborative Birth Project she created a series of prints depicting alluring female forms. For the most part, her feminist art is playfully elusive, whilst it also highlights female representation in the arts, or lack of it.
“People have accepted the media’s idea of what feminism is, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right or true or real. Feminism is not monolithic. Within feminism, there is an array of opinions.” Judy Chicago
British artist Linder Sterling created feminist photography, as well as radical photomontage and performance art. She makes photo montages that are charged with, visibly, feminist ideals. In her 1976 piece ‘Untitled’ , Sterling depicts a montage made from women’s fashion magazines. In this example, the artwork portrays a couple in a particularly romantic embrace. His eyes look deep into hers but instead of reciprocation, she stares back with burnt, blank eyes being held open with a fork. Without a doubt, her dark and witty montage of a pained woman in the arms of a man, in many ways, says a lot without the need of words.
Aside from her photo collage work, to summarise Sterling is very well known for her influence in punk and post punk music. Important to note, she designed the iconic Buzzcocks album cover ‘Orgasm Addict’. For this and many other album covers, at the time Sterling used her own body to base her feminist and grotesque montages upon.
As a movement, feminist art grew to great prominence despite the backlash it faced at the time. Feminist art making became a source of release and empowerment, specifically, for female artists. Evidently, it became a vessel in which to convey the unjust treatment and attitudes towards women in society. Unquestionably, the nature of the feminist artworks discussed had been a theme on women’s minds for centuries. However, the feminist artists of the 1960s onwards were the ones to pioneer it. To conclude, the feminist movement served as a catalyst for the production of politically charged art, with one purpose, to provoke change.
Discover Unframe artists addressing feminist issues…
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Artist Janet Currier has a vast body of work which, primarily, explores women and questions stereotypes. On the whole, Currier uses painting, sculpture and installation to look at these themes. Her work questions the demands places on women, most of all, honouring the skill and labour involved. Equally, she engages deeply with the theme of the maternal subject across her practice and research.
Janet discusses the position of female artists in our talk ‘Coming out of the Shadow’.