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Representations of Women in Early 20th Century Art

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Feminist scholar Linda Nochlin explains that "art is not a free autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual…but rather… occurs in a social situation, is an integral element of social structure, and is mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions".[1] While art functions as a gateway for personal creativity and expression, it inevitably carries the influence of a far greater context outside the artist himself. Across cultures, time periods, and movements, art has presented various patterns in style and subject matter inextricably linked to values of the larger society. Viewers do not simply witness these products of history, but engage in personal experiences and responses provoked by them. Thus, art has served as a powerful engine both reflecting and fueling political, social, and religious ideologies.[2] In particular, the subject of women has accumulated controversial discussion in the visual arts because of consistencies witnessed across all these constructs. In exploring female representations in art, feminist scholars have particularly noted the perpetual limitations set upon women not only as subjects but as spectators. While artistic movements progressed over the centuries, it appears the connotations of women have remained stagnant. Even in the early 20th century which saw a turn in traditional gender roles, painting continued to be dominated by the male experience demonstrated in the guises of the nude, despite aesthetic and conceptual differences. Such control gave women little privilege to explore their own experience, resulting in a struggle of identity. After the mid 19th century, paintings of the nude increasingly replaced men with female subjects, although women contented to be absent from major art academies. Unlike their respectable counterparts, images of women actually reinforced ideologies of the power relationship between the genders, as female representations were branded with connotations of the "body and nature, that is passive, available, possessable, powerless".[3] Vanguard artists such as Heckel, Munch and Gaugin frequently used techniques that desensitized their models as individuals while enhancing their feminine features. In particular, Munch's Reclining Nude turns her head away from the viewer, remaining faceless, only are the more alluring parts of her body accentuated with detail and emotion. Similarly, other reputable artists depicted women as “conquered animals... incapable of recognizing ...anything beyond a sexually demanding and controlling presence”. [4] Yet, not all female figures lay helpless. Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon remains debatably one of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century. Its enormous 96 by 92 inch size only supplements the radical composition that Picasso creates within the canvas. The piece depicts a group of prostitutes in a Spanish brothel, suggested to be located in the street of Avignon in Barcelona. Although the women are naked, Picasso strips them of all the crucial aspects of the traditional female nude. Instead of gentle, soft curves, Picasso uses sharp, almost threatening, jagged angles to outline their bodies. Although they model with erotic poses, the women posses fragmented limbs rid of realistic three dimensional features, giving them characteristics likened to machines rather than humans. Picasso colors their skin with unnatural tones of orange and red, quite dark in contrast to the rosy, flesh-like features of earlier paintings of nudes. At the same time, their bodies are distorted in a way that exposes all features of the female anatomy including the breasts, torso, hips and buttocks ultimately presenting viewers with the woman in her entirety. The figure on the left looks straight at the viewer while her head is faced directly horizontal, and the left side of her body turns towards the front of the painting in contrast to the right which turns away. In making such distortions, Picasso also replaces the view of a single fixed spectator with multiple perspectives, thus abandoning reality. Furthermore, the human forms are portrayed disproportionately as the women in the center stands with elongated limbs attached to an unfittingly small torso. The faces of the women on the right resemble African masks, adding to the primitive nature of the painting. As a juxtaposition to a feminine subject matter, the masks suggest mystery in addition to savage nature. Although the piece broke away from a pleasant voyeuristic lens, Demoiselles exemplifies the persisting gender roles that continued to regard women as secondary to their male counterparts. Paintings that treated women as objects of sexual desire and commercial exchange now competed with the more dangerous femme fatales who directly confronted the spectator. In actuality, looking at centuries of masterpieces reveals a few but very limited female roles within patriarchal society observed through the virgin, mother, goddess, monster and prostitute of which were rarely empowering.[5] On the contrary, these paintings exemplified the power of the male artist over his female subjects. Starting in the mid 19th century, women were beginning to progress in emancipation and social status, gaining access to privileges previously limited to their male peers. Female art collectors such as Gertrude Stein accumulated reputation in the professional realm, while painters such as Cassat and Morisot helped open the door for women artists. Yet, their resistance to gender subordination appeared to bring backlash reflected in a distinctive increase in darker depictions of females in art such as the femme fatale. Duncan explains the traditional pattern of faceless nudes, and "passive available flesh" not only demonstrated the artist's sexual virility but his fears. [6] Using psychoanalytic theories, many art historians like her have dissected such works as constructs of the male anxiety- distress over the woman's lack of phallus, powerlessness before the mother, and ultimate fear of castration. Thus, abasing and objectifying their female subjects allowed artists to reassert their own power. As suffrage was accelerating, men perhaps felt an even stronger need to demonstrate cultural supremacy, and subsequently more paintings focused on the dangerous femme fatale as a force needing to be repressed. Moreover, during this period, art segued a rising insistence to push women back to the “nature side” of the gender dichotomy, therefore placing them in opposition to the civilized culture of men. Borrowing from materials and styles of primitive cultures, artists further reinforced imagery that continued to bind women to the role of the “other”. [7] Picasso manipulated the image of the femme fatale as well as thus fascination with the primitive woman to show womankind in all these past and present transformations in a striking work of chaos. Duncan believes his use of ancient and tribal art place women into one "universal category of being, existing across time and place". The whores, deities, and witches are all but different faces of one "many sided creature".[8] His figures are seductive, threatening, weak, exposed, masked, and uncontrolled yet ultimately imprisoned by their subjugation to their male creator and viewers. In its extreme aggression, the work exemplifies the overwhelming dominance of male spectatorship and confrontation. Picasso's sharp and knifelike effect on the bodies hint at the male anxiety and fear of castration. Their stone like properties further detract from their humanity while the african masks provoke a sense of savagery. Thus, Picasso transforms the alluring aspects of primitivism and nature into an uncivilized opposition to culture. One must assume that as a male artist, Picasso’s portrayal of women differ dramatically from the depictions created by his female peers. In Self Portait with Amber Necklace, German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker breaks out of the context of the traditional male dominated role. Like Les Desmoiselles, her piece was highly revolutionary for its time but due to the controversy in female artists creating nude self portraits and its daring attempt to establish the individuality of the artist, herself. The portrait reveals the naked artist at half length, seeming to contemplate her own reflected image. She stands firmly in the center of this piece, colored with soft, earthy tones matted onto the canvas in a more primitive style. Most notable about the work resides in the amount of attention given to the head of the figure in proportion to her body, as Modersohn-Becker establishes herself as an individual, not an sexual object for consumption. Unlike most traditional nude portraits, Modersohn-Becker's figure is aware of her spectators as her oversized eyes gaze directly at the viewer. Additionally, she smiles, fitting with the relaxedness of her body while at the same time asserting a sense of confidence and power. She wears an amber necklace and a few flowers in her hair that connect with the background of vegetation implying the relationship between the artist and nature. Both her hands are raised in the picture exemplifying a sense of awareness and self-possession of her body in such a way that purposely exposes her bosom rather than hide herself. Duncan explains that this "image of a naked woman whose head so outweighs her body" was certainly rare in art, as most paintings were aimed at the "male experience". [9] She creates herself as a "fully conscious and fully sexual human being" rather than a commodity for men's pleasure and avoids any concession to the perceived male viewpoint. Although the female nude appeared in many representations ranging from sleeping nymphs, prostitutes at work to simply models in the artist's studio, most subjects were asleep, unaware or unconcerned, inactive with the viewer to prevent any disturbance of voyeurism. [10] Here, Modersohn-Becker's figure is undeniably engaged with the viewer, confronting them with ease and confidence while simultaneously asserting herself as a capable sexual being. Unlike Picasso's femme fatales, she is neither powerless nor threatening but an embodiment of physical and personal beauty. Nevertheless, Modersohn-Becker's Self Portrait reveals the conflict between the representation of the artists own identity within the painting and herself as a woman. Despite the assertiveness portrayed in the representation of the portrait's head, Nochlin argues the image merely perpetuates female stereotypes, specifically the relationships with women and nature, as images like these reduced woman "to her sexual being, conceived as a part of Nature...the very antithesis of historical action". [11] The primitive style Modersohn-Becker uses was associated with Polynesian culture, which artists admired as authentic and closer to nature in contrast with European society. However, in conjunction with the vegetal motifs, the painting reflects the tendency to use such natural icons to symbolize maternity. In this sense, Modersohn-Becker almost reinforces these docile, nature-associated traits of women. Most of all, the portrait struggles to convey Modersohn-Becker's identity as an individual, or rather an artist. Pollock argues that the only clue establishing the portrait as one of an artist is provided by it's title rather than the artwork itself. [12] While the essence of the male experience dominates the art of the early 20th century, it did not prevent the growing cultural equity for women. Painters such as Modersohn-Becker and Suzanne Valadon found a distinguished place within the art realm with their comparable female subjects. However, one could argue that differences are more prominent within their gender group of artists than across their male peers. This example points to refute the claim that such gap between the sexes is simply instinctive, a mere product of biological experience. Furthermore, it shows the extent to which women struggled as a group to grapple with their own terms of identity, and what it means to be a women rather than a shadow of man. Instead, transformations of the female throughout art prove that these pictures themselves helped shape the stereotypes, roles, and connotations that branded women, and even today traces of scars are ever so present. One can not simply walk into a museum without becoming consumed in interaction with the artist's experience, and feminist art theory establishes the majority of these experiences as sexually charged.

Duncan, Carol "The MoMA's Hot Mamas”. In The Expanding Discourse, edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, 346-357. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.

Duncan, Carol "Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Van-guard Painting". In Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, edited by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrad, 293- 313. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973.

Harris, Ann Sutherland, and Linda Nochlin. 1979. Women artists, 1550-1950. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.

Nochlin, Linda. "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" ARTnews (1971): 22-39.

Parker, R. and Pollock, G. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (New York: Pantheon, 1981), 114- 133.


Modersohn Becker. Self-Portrait with an Amber Necklace. 1906. Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Switzerland. Oil on canvas, 24" by 19 ¾" (Source: Soho-Art)

Munch. Reclining Nude. 1913, Kunsthalle (Museum of Art), Hamburg. Oil on canvas, 80 x100 cms. (Source: Paintingmania)

Picasso. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. 1907. MOMA, New York. Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8". (Source: MOMA)

[1] Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" ARTnews (1971): 22.
[2] Carol Duncan, "The MoMA's Hot Mamas,” in The Expanding Discourse, ed. Norma Broude et al., (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992), 348.
[3] Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (New York: Pantheon, 1981), 116.
[4] Carol Duncan"Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Van-guard Painting,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed.Norma Broude et al. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), 297.
[5] Duncan, “The MoMA's Hot Models,” 349.
[6] Duncan, “Virility,” 298.
[7] Duncan, “Virility,” 303.
[8] Duncan, “Hot Models,” 353.
[9] Duncan, “Virility,” 302.
[10] Parker and Pollock, Old Mistresses, 116.
[11] Ann S. Harris and Linda Nochlin. Women artists, 1550-1950, (New York: Knopf, 1979), 66.
[12] Parker and Pollock, 121.…...

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American Abstraction: Early 20th Century

...shapes, and give objects unlikely textures or colors. Artists make these transformations in an effort to communicate something they cannot convey through realistic treatment. Works of art that reframe nature for expressive effect are called abstract. Art that derives from, but does not represent, a recognizable subject is called nonrepresentational or nonobjective abstraction. The pivotal event that brought modernism to America was the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, today better known as the Armory Show. The exhibition exposed American audiences to abstract art for the first time. Many ridiculed the fragmentation of cubism and rejected the charged colors of fauvism and expressionism. A few, however, embraced abstraction, and gradually the new styles were incorporated into the American visual vocabulary. Energized by new artistic possibilities, American artists synthesized European innovations into a variety of forms. Lyonel Feininger's cubist constructions incorporate the color and movement typical of Italian futurism. Max Weber and John Marin fractured images and reassembled the faceted planes into dynamic compositions. The organic abstractions of Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove add a new dimension to familiar forms from the natural world. Abstraction dominated American art beginning in the 1930s. Fleeing fascism, a wave of European artists and intellectuals immigrated to the United States, bringing with them avant-garde ideas and artistic approaches.......

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