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Feminist art and the self-portrait

lvasko's picture

Lydia Vasko

Critical Feminist Studies

A. Dalke


Project Update

            I started this project thinking about the traditional artistic canon and women’s exclusion from it. I wondered why women were largely ignored as great artists in this canon. Subsequently, I began thinking about feminist artists who have attempted to reverse the patriarchal trajectory of the artistic canon and insert themselves within it or begin a canon all their own. How did feminist artists include themselves in the artistic discourse formerly reserved for men?

In her essay “Why have there been no great women artists?” Linda Nochlin explores this idea. Through use of comparison of the lives of men and women, famous male artists and the lack of famous female artists, Nochlin arrives at an interesting conclusion. Nochlin asserts that it is not the lack of talent or ability which has prevented the development and recognition of female artists over the centuries; rather, there are external qualifications which must be achieved before artistic history can be made, for man or woman. First, the person must have asocial inclinations, be willing to separate themselves from the rules and norms of society. Second, the person must be of the lower classes for the upper classes have too much social pressure and not enough time to fully devote themselves to their art. The upper class, according to Nochlin, has too many other social and personal obligations. Third, a great artist is most likely from an artistic family, brought up amongst art and most likely trained from a very early age. Finally, there must be time in which the bourgeoning artist can practice and hone their talents. Time is the difference between a mediocre artist and a great one. The conclusion of Nochlin’s essay and the answer to the question stated above is that “art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual… but rather, the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work itself, occur in a social situation” (Nochlin 6).

            Upon reading Nochlin’s essay, I was not thoroughly convinced that such a limited number of women had not met the above criteria or even if the criteria are valid. Though it makes sense that women were much more limited than men in their ability to reject social norms, societal expectations, or devote time to the development of talent because of familial responsibilities, I was sure that more than the extremely narrow number of women present in the canon had surpassed these difficult odds.

            Since the publication of Nochlin’s essay, numerous art historians have researched and assembled the lives and works of female artists through the centuries in an attempt to correct the hole in art history literature and theory. The women represented in these collections were not only prolific artists, but they were also renowned during their life time and for some time after that. They achieved advancements in artistic style, and painted with as much skill, if not more than, many of their male contemporaries. After the acknowledgement of these prominent female artists, the more appropriate question becomes not “why are there no great women artists” but, “why are the great women artists not remembered?” In light of their achievements, their talent, and even their recognition as great artists during their life time, the solution to the later question can only be: because society decided not to. Are there a larger number of “great artists” who are male? Yes. Is this because of the societal constructs and standards which made it much harder for women to transcend the boundaries to become a great artist? Undoubtedly. However, as Nochlin acknowledges in her essay, to ask the question “why are there no great women artists?” is to affirm that there are no great women artist, when there are a number, in fact. The question itself perpetuates the stigma that there are no great women artists, which is why I propose my own question.  

            If great women artists did exist throughout history, why have they not been remembered or inserted into the traditional artistic canon as is their due? As feminist theories and ideologies began to work its way into literature, politics, and society, feminism similarly began to enter critiques of art and art history. As feminist art surfaced, so too did feminist studies of the artistic canon and its exclusion of women. Art historians searched for reasons why women in art have traditionally been shown in religious contexts as Madonnas and saints, as nude bodies, as objects of beauty, as muses to the artist but rarely as artists themselves. Many women began to realize that it was this role as object, of the male gaze, object of artistic expression, object of male arousal and sexual pleasure, which placed them in front of the canvas rather than behind. The women’s place in the traditional artistic canon was as object of art rather than of artist.

            As a result, in the sixties and seventies, feminist artists began exploring representations of self in their art in response to the void in the traditional artistic canon where women should have been. Their creation of self portraiture was driven by the lack of acknowledgement women artists received and “bolstered by the belief that the personal is political, women artists sat down to create art that expressed their feelings as women artists in a man’s world, as women in a man’s world, and just as women” (Borzello 159). Many women of the time wanted to take control of the image of woman, of their roles as saints, sinners, and muse, as objects of paintings, and overturn traditional notions of male artist, female model (Borzello 159). No longer wanting to be portrayed as the object of the male gaze, feminist artists saw self-portraiture as “a way to keep control of their own representation” (Loewenberg 399).

            A main concern of the period was “to reclaim the female body from its imprisonment in art as a beautiful, voiceless object to be judged by male spectators. One strategy was for women artists to use their own bodies in their performance, photo and video works, on the principle that as they were in control they could direct the viewer’s response” (Borzello 167). By placing herself in front of her camera, canvas, or theatre the artist was able to assert herself as a women artist, inserting herself into the greater canon of artists as well. This was a significant movement by female artists, both politically and artistically. The artists placement of ‘self’ is powerful in its ability to represent the ‘self’. It is through representation that the female artist can be seen in the public sphere not only as subject but as artist, thereby gaining agency and voice. By stepping in front of the artistic lens, the feminist artist was able to not only control the gaze fixated on her, but make a claim for recognition and power (Borzello 154).  According to one art historian, this self-representation is one of the methods used by subjugated peoples to regain their voice.  

 The ‘selves’ who have been marginalised through dominant paradigms of political understanding have had to come into representation in order to posit a challenge to the paradigms themselves. Bringing these ‘selves’ into the centre of discourse

has been one important strategy in this politic; self-portraiture is but one type of self-representation which acts this way (Meskimmon 151)

And so, through the use of self-portraiture, by placing themselves in front of the artistic lens, feminist artists were able to insert themselves within the artistic discourse which had formally pushed them aside. However, by representing themselves within their work, the artists of self-portraiture walk the line between subject and object of representation (Meskimmon 34). The artist cannot always control the gaze directed upon them and therefore run the risk of being mistaken for object. This dichotomy, the risk the artist runs by engaging in self-portraiture can serve to emphasize the subjectivity rather than objectivity of the artist because it is the artist who knowingly places herself to be gazed at. It is the assertion of self inherent in this act which enables the artist and gives them voice, rather than disabling and silencing them.  

            Yet, despite the assertion of self in the self-portrait and the attempt to assert the female within the traditionally masculine role of artist, the act of role reversal is not always successful. Sylvia Sleigh’s work Philip Golub Reclining, 1971 is an example of this role reversal (inversion) between male-artist, female-model. She represents herself as clothed, painting in the background while a nude, male model lies reclined on a couch in the foreground. “The marks of masculinity (that is, action, control, creativity) are all assigned to the woman artist, while the usual marks of femininity (passivity, beauty, availability) are put on to the male figure. The work acts simply to expose the underlying assumptions with which we approach works of art and gender difference” (62). However, calling attention to the gender roles within the artistic canon does not change them. The artist in the painting is not empowered by the painting. In fact, I would argue that because the gaze of the male model is directed at the viewer and because the male is the largest and most prominent figure in the painting, it is the male model who is the subject and not object, while the artist remains a secondary figure in the background of the work.

Self-portraiture is not always about the self, however. Female artists have used their bodies to address larger issues and ideas. “These issues and ideas make a greater impact because of the viewer’s knowledge that they are based on a specific woman’s face and body. By using themselves as the starting point for their work, today’s women artists are successfully humanizing the world of ideas. This presentation of abstract issues through the artist’s body is a feminist development of personification” (Meskimmon 170-171). As a result, “it is no longer clear when a self-portrait is a self-portrait” (171). Though the artist may place themselves in front of the gaze, the emphasis is not always on ‘self’. The distinction between self-portraiture as a recognition of ‘self’ versus the depiction of an idea or issue varies greatly upon the artist and artistic mode of expression.

In her book on women self-portraiture, Meskimmon acknowledges “it could be said that the feminist artists of the1970s went behind the scenes of femininity….the freedom of the twentieth century allowed the expression of the complexity of being female…but the new wave of women artists was armed with feminist theory, and explored the drive to fit into the mould of media perfection” ( Meskimmon 159-163). Cindy Sherman is an example of an artist who, in the seventies, applied feminist theories and the self-portrait as a way in which to develop an idea rather than the development of self. Though she uses herself, her body, in much of her art, the method with which she disguises herself through a variety of costumes, wigs, and poses, negates the strict self-portraiture of the piece. In her work Sherman is not drawing attention to herself as woman or as artist. Rather, she is drawing attention to the different stereotypes of femininity and the different ways “in which representation can shape a woman’s constructions of the ‘self’ (Meskimmon 92). Because they are repeated images of her, we begin to focus less on her and more on the image and message of what is being represented, “our knowledge that the artist lies beneath them forces the consideration of ideas about the roles women play as well as the stereotypes which are projected on to them by others, familiar to every women as well as to every woman artist who ever produced a self-portrait” (171). As a result, Sherman is able to use her body to assert an idea because we are left to figure out what, if not her ‘self’, she is representing, thereby calling attention to the externalities surrounding her. Thus, the female’s body, like Sherman’s body, becomes a vehicle through which women can speak about themselves and their experiences as women (Meskimmon 166).

I would like to close with a quote by Meskimmon which sums up the use of self-portraiture as an assertion of the self and an assertion of feminine identity both within the artistic canon and in the larger societal structures.

Throughout the century, women artists have been appropriating, inverting and challenging the modes of self-portraiture which reinforce the masculinity of the artist in both myth and history. This has been a necessary exercise for women who wished to represent themselves as ‘the artist’, since the standard means by which this was signified were defined in ways exclusive of women. In some cases, it was enough merely to show yourself with the tools of the trade to subvert convention and declare yourself an independent woman. At other times, more active parodies and pastiches of the tropes associated with the artist myth were needed to find a place from which the woman as artist could speak. Whichever tack was taken, women’s representations of themselves which engaged with artist definitions altered those definitions and the very ways in which self-portraiture as a genre can be read (63).

Though the use of self-portraiture was by no means the only way for feminist artists to insert themselves within the artistic canon or to assert themselves as female artists, feminine self expression through self-portraiture has remained a popular mode of feminist response to the subjection of women in all aspects of society. It is “because the women were expressing concerns close to their hearts, their work, whether poetic or conceptual, carried an air of integrity and authenticity” which has, I believe, sustained its use as a method of feminist expression today.  (Meskimmon 167)





Borzello, Frances. Seeing Ourselves, Women’s Self-Portraits. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York 1998.


Loewenberg, Ina. “Reflections on Self-Portraiture in Photography”, Feminist Studies, Vol. 25, No.2 (Summer, 1999), pp. 398-408.


Meskimmon, Marsha. The Art of Reflection, Women’s Artist’s Self-portraiture in the Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press; New York, 1996.



Anne Dalke's picture

Becoming both subject and object

Yours is a rich and interesting essay, Lydia, and well researched. The notion of self-portraiture as a complex intervention into the history of art, a way of 'taking control' of the objectification of women, by becoming both subject and object of representation, is striking and effective way to demonstrate the continuing evolution of feminist art.

Your second major claim--that self-portraiture need not be about the self, but about the portrayal of an idea--is also intriguing. Although my first question was what the difference is between those two categories, your example of Cindy Sherman, who draws attention less to herself than to the images being represented, answers it nicely. Do you think that illustrating "idea" rather than "self" represents a further evolution? (In light of this contrast, the posting above by margarita, which says that all of her self portraits have been masks and lies, is certainly an intriguing idea....)

Caught up in the account of feminist self-portraiture, you don't actually ever get back to answering your own earlier question about why the great women artists are not remembered.

My main question, though, is where you can go from here. The paper seems quite complete as it is, a finished project--and yet it needs to be expanded into  12-pp. Will you look @ further examples of self-portraiture? Explore other interventions into feminist art that are not self-portraits? (What about abstractions?) Will you go see Wack! @ the National Academy of Women in the Arts? (It's full of self-portraits.) Will you work on creating a self-portrait of your own?

You might also want to look @ tbarryfigu's project on Illustrating Feminism, which is much more experiential than your piece, and also much less about self-representation. She begins (and asks the artists working w/ her to begin) with "a burst of color, a textured object of a tangible appearance"--what she calls "solely sensory paintings." Perhaps you want to do a "reading" of some of that material?

I'm very much looking forward to seeing what you decide, and how you fulfill those expectations--



Anonymous's picture

Self-Portrait-Portrayal of an idea through others

I thoroughly enjoyed reading both the essay and the reply from Anne Dalke. I am an female artist raised in the 70/80's who is starting to do self-portraits but have decided that my two daughters are great subjects as they represent the youth of today and are an extension of myself. They are a hybrid of themselves firstly and of course their parents, especially myself as their mother and in many ways mentor in the early years.

What do you think of this representation? I would really love some feedback.

Serendip Visitor's picture

Self-Portrait-Portrayal of an idea through others

Perhaps you want to see yourself thro younger figures pecause older womens bodies are not much appreciated??

I was born in 1950 and am now planning a project of photography and photo manipulated images looking at the older woman and her body through self portrait.

This I find a a bit daunting..but with issues of repression through covering women completely in some cultures, the cult of youth and slim youthful or enhanced bodies in an age of more older people than ever before and the reactionary tendence against nudity and the feminism inherent in " no bra look" we in the 70s fought for but which is now regressing even in the western society, I really want to explore and make a statement against these frankly anti-women reactionary tendancies.

The image I will use is mself because that will be non explotative of any one else and I am an example of the typical no pinup woman my age.

margarita's picture

when i have been selfportrating me

Look at my web page wher you will find several selfportraits and all of them i think have been a mask a lie and i can not find the true.. yet