Arch of Hysteria, 1993
“The mastering gaze [renders] the passive image of woman fragmented … dismembered, fetishised and above all silenced”, wrote Griselda Pollock in Vision and Difference in the eighties, while Angela Carter vigorously claimed that “Picasso liked cutting up women.”. In the seventies, the reclamation of the passive female body from the dominant male gaze became one of the major enterprises of feminist art. Artists such as Judy Chicago, Cindy Sherman and Helen Chadwick all identified the body as the site for self-exploration and self-definition. By laying claim to their own bodies – by ‘being in control’ – women turned the hitherto commodified female body into the active site of sexual discourse and gender politics. Ten years ago it was still a novelty to have ‘all women’ art shows. Now, a generation on, women artists from Mona Hatoum to Jenny Saville have grown up being identified with work on the body. The title of the classic seventies self-help health manual Our Bodies, Ourselves gives an historic insight into how control over our reproduction (the pill had only been in existence for a decade), our sexuality and, above all, over how women were viewed by men, was central to an emergent feminist identity.
The Destruction of the Father, 1974
In her short story Dans la maison de Louise, Louise Bourgeois describes her own body as a house of several storey. “I”, familiar with that body … I’ve lived in it”, she writes. Bourgeois, now in her eighties, has always been an artist’s artist. Her extraordinary work – inventive and fresh enough to be shown alongside any Turner prize artist – plunders body imagery as the starting point in an exploration of what Julia Kristeva calls “the braided horror [of] the abject.” re-appropriating traditional female skills such as needlework, Bourgeois investigates the webs we weave within the psychodynamics of relationships, particularly our primal Oedipal relationships. Her Red Room works of 1994 evoke the conjugal scene of the parental bedroom. Childhood trauma and its implications for adult sexuality are explored through the coupling of her freakish, headless figures, often fitted with prosthetic devises denoting psychic damage. The processes of ageing and decay in the female body are encoded in the presence of bare bones acting as macabre coat-hangers for sexualised and fetishised female underwear.
The complex primal relationship with the mother is signified by the recurring motif of the spider lodged at the centre of her web. The power, the subversive vision and raw paint that characterises Bourgeoi’s work has had its effect on numerous younger female artists/ Paula Rego may well have glimpsed Bourgeois’ early engraving of cat-woman (which combined femininity with the feline) before making her own Dog Woman works, and perhaps Jana Sterbak had seen Bourgeois’ sewn garments before making her Flesh Dress. The assemblages of Annette Messager and the prostheses and body extensions of Rebecca Horn all touch upon themes deal with in Bourgeois’ oeuvre.
Red Room – Parents, 1974
Bourgeois’ work may yet come to exemplify the twentieth-century struggle for a coherent, autonomous female identity but, as we move into the twenty-first century, where do women turn now? It is perhaps time to move on, to engage in other discourses or there may be a danger that we corral ourselves into a new ghetto where autobiography is our only narrative. It was not always thus. A ‘transitional’ generation of women born in the thirties and making work ‘prefeminism’ – such as Bridget Riley, Gillian Ayres and Elizabeth Frink – felt that to make art as a woman required no special positioning. Whilst for most feminists autonomy the knowledge of who we are, is a prerequisite that enable them to engage in wider discourses, there is a growing number of women artists who are investigating philosophy, history, the sublime, memory etc., – exploring what it means simply to be human.