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  • Alessia Stokes

Saint? Sinner? Object? Woman?

(Disclaimer - This blog mentions abuse of women as represented in art history. It may be triggering to some)

My final art practical of my matric year was "Venus of Willendorf meets Barbie doll - how do I fit in?" This was the assigned topic from our art teacher. The brief went on to say: "Investigate female stereotypes of your own time, or through history. They have ranged from the primal earth-mother proportions of the prehistoric fertility statuettes, through 19th century allegories, putting idealised women on pedestals to stand for various virtues, and simultaneously removing them from the realm of action - to probably the most recognisable contemporary sterotype summed up in the inescapable Barbie." (B.Innes)


A deep topic for teenage girls. Actually, it is a deep topic for all women. People have written dissertations to try and analyse and illuminate the vast canyon that is gender inequality. This is rather a short blog to briefly look at how women have been portrayed in art through the ages. Its purpose is to open up a mental dialogue - how you will now perceive art, whether it be sexist, demeaning or uplifting to the female form.


The little statue, known as Venus of Willendorf, (Image 2) is thought to be a fertility talisman. Some feel it was made by men, for men. Others feel, it was made by a very pregnant woman, whose view of herself was looking down at her enlarged breasts and belly and unable to see her feet. Either way, this is one of the earliest depictions of the female form.


Throughout the history of art, women have for the most part been drawn, painted or sculptured by men. This has resulted in a very one sided, a male sided, perception of women. Foremost, women are depicted as "fertility" objects. Especially is this the case with Diana or Artemis (her Greek name). In one sculpture, (Image 3) what resemble mangos hanging off her dress, are in fact a plethora of breasts. Her identity is not a woman with thoughts and ideas, but rather child-bearer and glorified milkmaid. She is not an isolated case, as fertility statues are common to many periods in history and across the cultures.

From fertility symbols to loss of agency at the hands of men, there are many representations of mythology in classical art and use of allegories, from the Latin, allegoria, meaning “veiled language.” Countless examples exist of women being transformed by men and being abused by men. "La Primavera" full of allegorical mythology, (Image 4) is viewed from right to left. Chloris, (the woman on the far right) is forcibly taken by Zephyrus, god of wind (the dark figure, top right) to be his wife. He later turns her into Floris, (the woman in the floral dress) goddess of flowers and spring due to his regret. Thus, after "kidnap and rape", she can now be a completely different person? Hard to see a positive spin on that story.


One does not need to be a feminist to see the equally foul concept behind "Leda and the Swan". What at first glance appears to be a very pretty scene, is the myth of the god Zeus transforming himself into a swan, only to rape Leda. The portrayal of rape and subjugation of women seems to proliferate art. Some pictures actually have the word "rape" in the title such as, "The Rape of Persephone" (Sarcophagus panel, Roman Imperial era, 190-200 CE) and the ultimate "heroic" depiction of rape in "The Rape of Sabine Woman" (Giambologna, 1583); a 13.5ft marble statue glorifying, albeit a mythological scene, of rape that can be found at the Loggia dei Lanzi, in the corner of Piazza della Signora, Florence.

When not represented as a vehicle of reproduction, or victim of abuse, women get to fill some more "shoes" designed by men - "as either good or bad, saint or sinner, idealised or erotic, respectable or fallen." (Sandrine Pelissier - About Art Representation in Art, 2018) Mary, a favourite of artistic depiction, is a "virgin mother" - an ideal no woman could ever live up to. Eve, is shown as the one who caused trouble for mankind, giving no culpability to Adam. Women were often shown in one of two ways, a paragon of domesticity and virtue or the wicked woman - courtesan, a nude object to be passive and looked at (sometimes even while bathing), witch or drunken wench. Have things really changed? The sad reality is that "art is a product of its time. It is a result of the social, political, and religious context in which it was made." (Katryna Santa Cruz - Women in Art History)


While we are certainly living in a different time, where there are the most freedoms women have ever had, gender inequality is live and well. Women are still held to an unattainable standard. "Work hard secularly, but be sure you don't drop the ball at home! Just had a baby? Make sure you get that pre-baby body back! A bit too curvy? No matter, reject the need to eat and nourish yourself, just apply yourself at the gym and you too can have that perfect body! So what if it causes psychological and physical damage in the process?" Advertising and media - especially social media, seem to be the new "art" of our time, or at least the most widely accessible art. We are bombarded with "what we should be" messages, rather than "be content and happy" messages. Contentment and happiness don't make people money. Even Barbie, with her bizarre body proportions is one of the best selling and deeply influential toys (Barbie, now has an more "inclusive range") of all time, yet, her origin story is creepy. She is "closely related to a sexy German novelty toy. Barbie had a sister - Bild-Lilli, a buxom flirtatious and racy doll marketed to men." (Erin Blakemore, 2019 - You can read the full story in the link below).


My takeaway from researching this article, is summed up neatly in this verse, "your longing will be for your husband, and he will dominate you." (Genesis 3:16) Until this world is permanently changed, men will continue to dominate women - in all facets of life, and art seems to have been a witness to this through the ages - giving us snapshots of this strongly entrenched inequality.




Further reading:



Picture credits:

  1. "Barbie", 1959 - Mattel

  2. "Venus of Willendorf"

  3. "Artemis (Diana) of Ephesus" - (Vatican Museum), Rome, Italy

  4. "La Primavera", 1477-1482 - Sandro Botticelli

  5. "Leda and the Swan”,1895 - Jean-Léon Gérôme

  6. "Madonna with Child" - Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

  7. "Woman's Mission, Comfort of old Age",1862 - George Elgar Hicks

  8. "Marcelle Lender Dancing Bolero in Chilpéric", 1895-1896 - Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

  9. "Reclining Venus" - Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

  10. "Malle Babbe", 1633/1635 - Frans Hal




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