These 4 triptychs are part of the series “Cover Girls” that Cindy Sherman did in 1976 while she was a student. The triptychs show the original magazine cover followed by mock-up covers where Sherman herself poses like the model, only, not exactly.
Origin of the World, oil on canvas, 46 cm × 55 cm (18 in × 22 in), 1886, Gustave Courbet – Photography, Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
I sincerely doubt that Courbet intended to make a “feminist” work when he painted this, at least not in the sense we understand the term today. But if we agree that a work can be deemed feminist when challenging a current predominant and limited view on women, then “the Origin of the world” is certainly one.
Until Courbet’s time women in erotic paintings would be portrayed symbolically and within a mythological framework. Gustave Courbet brought the real woman in the forefront therefore creating one of the greatest feminist artworks in the history of art.
Ironically enough, and in a very “un-feminist” way, as many modern day feminists would view it, the work is believed to have been commissioned by an Ottoman diplomat as an addition to his personal collection of erotic pictures. This close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman, would indeed meet the commission’s requirements, but do it in a very realist manner (honoring Courbet’s notoriety as one of the leaders of the Realist painters): This realist nature of the work is exactly where its subversiveness, or, to use a more fashionable term, disruptiveness lies. As mentioned above, erotic painting to that day portrayed women with a mythological pretext, that is, any allusion to the erotic was made in a symbolic, therefore indirect way. Courbet rendered these mythological garments useless, directly challenging the social hypocrisy they represented: Eroticism and even pornography were accepted in the framework of mythological or oneiric paintings but not in the framework of reality.
Through its title and also the unusual angle of the subject the work also serves as a direct affirmation or rather declaration of woman’s ability to bring life. To the observation that the connection between woman and fertility is nothing new in art, one could retort that what is new here would, again, be that we are confronted by a real woman and not a woman-symbol of fertility, or a woman-mythological creature: One can maintain that “The Origin of the world” is a tribute to woman, not only because it shifts the focus in the female nude from the erotic in a banal way to the erotic in a deeper sense connected to nature’s plan, but also because the female body here appears to be something even more than “the origin of the world”. Being presented outside the hypocritical social conventions, the female body can now be for and in itself. And so can woman.
Not surprisingly, the work was viewed as overly crude and daring by its contemporaries, creating an uproar in the art circles of the day. More than that, it seems to be generating controversy again and again to this day, in a way proving that if a declaration lives on in it, it is one our society is not yet ready to accept.
Art that is feminist in a way that matters
Artist Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was born 89 years ago today. Remembering her I am starting this series, every Monday presenting an artwork, feminist in a way that matters. At least in a way that matters to me.
The term “feminist” never really sat well with me. I find it is usually employed to describe things, actions or situations that don’t do us (women) much honor. Most of the “feminist” points of view seem to lack any sense of dialectic quality and appear to be driven by a monomaniacal black & white perspective. Fighting against female oppression and for actual equality demands a much more nuanced and meaningful approach than merely stating the obvious (the domination of patriarchal values and structures) or, repeating slogans with no real meaning or usefulness (when not accompanied by a call for action or an empowering piece of knowledge). The worse kind of feminism being the patriarchal point of view in reverse, that is, a campaign promoting that women are superior to men. And let’s not forget about this most insulting kind of feminism: One that masquerades as such but in reality perpetuates the use of women as circus freaks. This is usually achieved through the use of flattery (directed to the female audience). Headlines such as “The first woman president” or “Women artists are presented in their studios” (here is something along these lines) may seem at first glance to honor and celebrate women but a closer inspection reveals the actual ideological backwardness that they express and perpetuate: Instead of focusing on the woman on the basis of her accomplishments,, they shift the attention to her sex therefore in essence nullifying her actual value. This last kind of approach to “feminism” is actually especially popular among those wishing to promote an agenda essentially hostile to women. One example, taken from the political field, is the promotion of a female candidate by a reactionary political entity, that is certain to enforce under the party’s agenda the worst possible policies for women as soon as she occupies office (Clinton voters consider yourselves warned!).
Moreover most modern day feminists are possessed by the desire to shock. I find this a mediocre ambition, for any woman as well as man.
So, to prove a point, say it like it is (feminism that is), and be inspired, in memory of a true feminist (because she was a humanist), this Monday and every Monday, I will be presenting an artwork or a series of works of an artist that defended (or defends) the right of women to be considered human.
Notes in Time (1979), Nancy Spero (1926-2009)
Cut-and-pasted painted paper, gouache, and pencil on joined sheets of paper
24 sheets Overall: 20 x 210′ (50.8 x
6400.8 cm) 22 frames at 25 x 116 x
1 15/16″ 1 frame at 25 x 61 x 1 15/16″
1 frame at 25 x 88 x 1 15/16″
*from the website of the Museum of Modern Art
Notes in Time is one of Nancy Spero’s most ambitious and iconic works. A scroll of monumental dimensions, it narrates the history of the female condition, starting from the beginning of time. In the work figures and text are interwoven in Spero’s characteristic way resulting in an evocative visual language full of movement.
The work consists of 24 horizontal panels, each approximately 9 feet (2.74 m) long.
One year after the artist’s death, in 2010, the online magazine Triple Canopy reanimated the work as a digital scroll and made it available for online viewing, thus in a way restoring the work itself: The artist had conceived of it as circular and continuous. Those two conditions are for the first time met in this digital reanimation that allows for the uninterrupted viewing of Notes in Time as a continuous scroll.
The work as digital scroll can be viewed on the Triple Canopy online magazine, here.