The Portrayal of Women in Art: 1962-2002

We have, more or less, as an audience become used to the idealized depiction of women. Often, particularly in classical styles, they were portrayed as reclining nudes who were there for the viewer’s pleasure. With averted eyes, they touched themselves sensually, typically innocent and oblivious that there is someone painting her for all to see. When they weren’t sexual-fantasy fodder, they were servile and obedient–particularly in the 1940?s and 1950?s after the end of the strong women era of World War II.

They wore their hair in perfect curls, with their perfect dresses and worked merrily away in their perfect kitchens. In Jack Levine’s Girl with Red Hair there is a shift away from the perfect, care-free woman that came before. Rather, nudity is embraced as an aspect of the woman’s power rather than the viewer’s object. The subject confronts the viewer with her gaze. This portrait is not a portrait of a naked girl, but rather, a girl who happens to be naked. There is no trace of sexiness or sensuality–we are drawn to her face so that we may attempt to discern what this girl is thinking.

Though her breasts are there, they are poorly rendered compared to the depth of her face and do not trap the eye like the neatly depicted flesh of the reclining nudes. Hotline for Troubled Teens, 1970. Joe DeMers (1910-1984). Acrylic on board, 22 ? x 18 ? in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Gift of Walt Reed, 2000. 45. Through both this artistic empowerment of women and the then energized Feminist Movement, women became less objects for a viewer’s pleasure and instead independent characters. In Joe DeMers’ Hotline for Troubled Teens, the gender is nearly removed from the girl.

She is seen wearing an over-shirt that hides her breasts and her other feminine features are minimized. The girl is entered into a narrative–no longer is there a displaced nude body just lying around. Instead, we are shown a girl in her not-so-ideal life. Her face is concerned and the telephone cord is wrapped about her shoulders and wrist. She appears to be entirely dismissive of her viewers–be they out on the street around her, or elsewhere. She is self-serving and concerned with only her present situation.

The title even suggests that this girl is reaching out (at the time, even that would have been taboo) in order to help herself–a principle that began to empower women during the Feminist Movement. Laneisha II, 1996. Dawoud Bey (b. 1953). Polacolor ER prints, 90 x 45 3/4 in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Members Purchase Fund, 2000. 34. This is one of my favorite pieces of the collection for many reasons. Predominantly, the depiction of women has centered around the “ideal woman”–which, if you haven’t picked up a magazine lately, is typically white, attractive, young, thin and perky.

The woman here, however, is the antithesis. Though she is attractive, she does not have the “elegant” features that a painter might have looked for in the first half of the century. She is fragmented into six pieces and while they mostly match up–in that there are no huge gaps of information–there is a significant deformation of her figure. Her face is extra wide and left arm seems oddly long. A clear difference between the perfectly kept and rendered women of the past, this modern woman allows her flaws and her discord to be reflected in between each frame.

She is a woman, not an object to behold. Untitled, 2000. Cindy Sherman (b. 1954). Color photograph, edition 1/6, 32 1/2 x 22 in. Members Purchase Fund, 2000. 88. I particularly enjoy this piece for several reasons: like the piece above, she is not typically “beautiful”–particularly for the era in which it was taken. Rather, her appearance is outdated–thick, dark eyebrows, slicked back hair and that awful blue blouse she is wearing. Instead of dismissing the woman as ugly, we are able to see past her physicality.

She bears a face that almost says “Yeah, so what? ’ to her audience. She isn’t hip, nor is she young and beautiful (as dictated by the standards of society) any more. There is a bluntness to this photograph that disempowers the sitter; it almost seems as if she’s the one judging and not vice-versa. Beauty I, 2002. Mark Catalina (b. 1965). Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 in. New Britain Museum of American Art, Gift of the Artist, 2003. 01 Lastly, this piece seems to me to be the most poignant out of the bunch.

We are not privy to the “real” image, but only its negative. In form, we might recognize the person as a female. They have breasts, long flowing hair, jewelry… some of the key indicators of what we may associate with being a woman. However, with the inverted colors, we are shown someone with manly features and thus, the lines of gender are blurred. Clearly, the makeup the subject is wearing is exaggerated–dark lips and cat-like eyeshadow–and further masks the individual’s gender.

This piece is so inexorably tied to the way in which sex and gender are separated and defined. In this, the artist is redefining the appearance of women, in that women may not even be “feminine” at all. This piece broaches the subject of femininity and womanhood in an entirely new way, and is entirely appropriate in the evolving context of women in art. What do you think about the portrayal of women in art? How has it changed in the last 500 years? 50 years? 5 years? How can women gain power through representation in art? How does this compare to men in art?

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