Gender in Art

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Gender, other than a biological or physical determination of the sexes, is a cultural and social classification of masculinity and femininity. Gender presentations in art are the outcome of the cultural process of defining sexual and social identity. Pictorial art and literature, as means of expression through transformation and stylization, are the predominant media reflecting this cultural process.

While the term gender refers to both sexes, the concept of gender issues has been primarily driven by a movement of women's emancipation and the twentieth-century emergence of feminism, as women have sought to obtain the rights, privileges, and unique forms of expression that men have enjoyed historically in patriarchal societies where class, race, and sexuality were defined by the dominant gender. The emergence of feminist art and art history since the 1960s has not only resulted in a re-appreciation of the representation of the woman as a subject, creator, and receptor of pictorial art but also has inspired a broader examination of gender-related issues in art through the establishment of gay studies and men's studies, where questions of homosexuality, heterosexuality, masculinity, femininity, and indeed sex itself all pertain to the concept of gender. The understanding of gender in art is thus intrinsically linked to the method and perspective of contemporary gender research.

From Antique through Classical Art

Intellectual perceptions of masculinity and femininity have been transformed into visual arts since antiquity. Female fertility and motherhood, as well as gender relationships, are prevalent themes in ancient depictions. One of the earliest pictorial examples of gender presentation is the faceless Paleolithic statuette Venus of Willendorf (c. 28,00025,000 b.c.e.). This is a depiction of a female figure in a symbolic and conceptual context, representing feminine fertility. In a sculpture from Pakistan the figure of Hariti, the ancient Buddhist Indian goddess of childbirth and women healers, is presented surrounded by children. The exposed breast of Venus and Hariti's emphasized breast emerge as pictorial symbols of fertility and motherhood.

Gender representations in male-dominated cultures are often determined by notions of power and weakness, superiority and inferiority, benevolence and malevolence. This is exemplified in the figure of the Mesopotamian deity Queen of the Night, in an old Babylonian relief from around 1800 b.c.e. She might be as well the deity Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love and war, or Ishtar's sister and rival, the goddess Ereshkigal, who ruled over the underworld. Other scholars believe the female figure represents the demoness Lilitu, known in Jewish tradition as Lilith. The nude female figure embodies a monolithic notion associated with women for ages and in diverse cultures, that of female sexual power and its asserted destructiveness.

Gender relations address both the intimate interactions and the social roles of men and women. An Egyptian relief of Tel el Amarna from around 1335 b.c.e. depicts the Egyptian royal couple Smenkhkare and his wife, Meritaten. His wife is depicted giving him flowers and expressing her affection yet at the same time illustrating her submissive marital position. While both figures have similar proportion and pictorial emphasis, the emperor's status is clearly designated.

In classical art, gender qualities associated with women are beauty, domesticity, and passivity and for males the contrary principles such as power, dominance, and social status. Antique art presentations of male nudity, such as in Greek sculpture, underline the physical perfection of the male body, representing superiority and civic authority. Yet domestic and everyday scenes depicting roles of men and women had less importance than symbolic representations of gender. In the antique world gender attributes served to emphasize and elevate the human and superhuman characteristics of gods, goddesses, and mythological figures. This becomes especially prominent in classical art. In ancient Greek depictions of Centauromachy (the mythological battle of the Centaurs with the Lapiths), notions of masculinity are transformed into battling figures that are half-man, half-animal. Goddesses such as Pallas Athena, Aphrodite, and Nike combine both male and female attributes to signify their dominance. Roman reliefs, sculptures, and coins, depicting emperors and empresses, often relate the figures to gods and goddesses, or they personify gender-specific virtues. Female figures in Roman art frequently represent virtues such as justice or piety or symbolize wisdom and victory.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, presentations of gender were sublimated mostly in depictions of biblical figures. Notably a single figure, that of the Virgin Mary, represented most of the attributes associated with the feminine in an idealized figure. Mary's role as Christ's mother in depictions such as T'oros Roslin's Christ's Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds, represents at the same time her physical burden as a spiritual concept of chastity, humility, piety, repentance, and salvation. The vast number of depictions of the Virgin Mary as well as her special spiritual importance has redefined other established female stereotypes in art since the Middle Ages. Furthermore, moralistic tendencies in the representations of gender relations can be found from the late Middle Ages onwards, as in the so-called Weibermacht (woman's power) depictions showing maltreatment of men at the hands of women. These depictions by male artists represent the polarity of viewing the female sex: idealization or misogynism.

The Renaissance and the Baroque

Since the Renaissance, writers, intellectuals, and artists have been increasingly engaged with gender issues, particularly in discussing the social role of the feminine. The French phrase querelle des femmes (debate about women) referred to humanist discussions about womanhood and the female place in the contemporary culture of their day. Until then, following the Aristotelian approach, women were perceived as imperfect, created inferior to men. In his De claris mulieribus (Concerning famous women), Giovanni Boccaccio (13131375), the Italian Renaissance poet and writer, introduced women as powerful role models. Nevertheless, the virtues that Boccaccio saw women capable of achieving were established "male qualities" of the time.

One of the first to give voice to the autonomous virtues of women was the French poetess and historiographer Christine de Pisan (c. 1363c. 1430). In her Livre de la cité des dames (c. 1404; Book of the city of the ladies) Pisan developed a comprehensive categorization of women's positions and functions as found in the society of her time. Others, like the Dutch writer Erasmus Desiderius of Rotterdam (1466?1536), the Spanish humanist and philosopher Juan Luis Vives (14921540), and the German writer and philosopher Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (14861535), had laid the foundation for humanism's more progressed vision of women's role in society and culture.

The growing appreciation of the necessity to redefine female social roles coexisted with such phenomena as male dominance, misogyny, and the witch hunt. In Renaissance and Baroque visual arts, mostly made by men, female figures appear less often than depictions of men, irrespective of whether they are the central figures or not. In addition to their outnumbering presentations, males are mostly depicted in dominant and central positions.

Since the Middle Ages demonology had been chiefly associated with femininity. The identification of women as more prone to witchcraft than men was based on traditional misogynist beliefs of what was perceived as basic female nature. Trials of witchcraft promoted discussions of gender issues and influenced the visual arts. In Renaissance graphic art, especially in northern Europe, female sorcery was a popular theme, as can be seen in engravings and woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer (14711528) and Hans Baldung Grien (14841545). In these works naked or partly nude, unsightly sorceresses are depicted in a variety of allegedly supernatural acts.

Renaissance portraits of women intend to convey beautyalmost archetypicaland social role. The male was defined by attributes of profession and social statues. Female portraiture in Italian Renaissance art was not meant to be a direct representation of the individual. An example in premodern Italian portraiture is the bust of a nude woman by Piero di Cosimo (14621521). The moralistic implication is represented by a snake around the woman's neck to remind of the dangers of temptation and lust, traditionally know as the vice of luxuria.

Eroticismthe sublimation and stylization of sexual desiredepends on culture and social milieu. In art this relation is reflected in the sublimation of sexuality. Traditionally the key elements associating gender themes to visual issues have been female sexuality and nudity. Nudity and sexuality are the predominant aspects of gender themes in Renaissance and Baroque visual art. Sandro Botticelli's (14451510) painting The Birth of Venus from around the year 1485 has refined symbolism with the nude goddess of love being placed within the spiritual context of Renaissance philosophy. Erotic female presentations are central in the paintings by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio; 1488 or 14901576), as in his erotically charged painting of Flora, the goddess of spring, flowers, and fertility. The era also saw the emergence of female patronage in arts.

During the Renaissance and the Baroque Italian, female artists such as Lavinia Fontana (15521614) and Sofonisba Anguissola (15271625), offering a distinctive view of female artistic perspective at the time, promoted a more assertive image of the woman. This is most apparent when the woman becomes a violent figure as in Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Judith Slaying Holofernes. Gentileschi's heroines, struggling with the other sex and evoking strong empathy in the viewer, have become a focal point in gender studies of art history.

The Flemish Baroque artists Peter Paul Rubens (15771640) and Anthony van Dyck (15991641) depicted women with symbolic and allegorical references, emphasizing the sitters' high social status, as was popular in traditional Italian Renaissance portraiture during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (for example, van Dyck's Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, as Prudence, 1633). Seventeenth-century Dutch portraits of women, however, express a new trend toward gender identity: men and women figures are not presented anymore as an ideal or a symbol but mostly in their realistic surroundings in a neutral manner (for example, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck's The Regentesses of the St. Elizabeth Hospital, 1641). Rembrandt van Rijn's (16061669) depictions of his intimate partners Saskia van Uylenburgh and Hendrickje Stoffels suggest an authenticity that transcended traditional social gender conventions (see his Saskia as Flora, 1641). In popular seventeenth-century Dutch history paintings and genre scenes, sexuality is concealed in moralistic criticism. But in his presentation of the original sin (1638), Rembrandt transforms an archetypical presentation into a psychologically sensitive depiction of Adam and Eve as two insecure sinners.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was a gradual shift from an emphasis on gender to an emphasis on class. This change in visual art during the period of Louis XIV(16381715) coincided with the emergence of a middle class in France. Increasing public appreciation was afforded women artists such as Rosalba Carriera (16751757), who was elected as a member of the male-dominated Académie Royale in 1720. Other significant female artists were Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (17551842), who was commissioned to portray Queen Marie Antoinette and later on became a member of the French academy, as well as Angelica Kauffmann (17411807), one of the founding members of the British Royal Academy.

Sexism and patriarchism were prevalent in the nineteenth century. In his painting The Slave Market the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (18241904) presents masculine dominance and male voyeurism in relation to female abuse. In Victorian English art, traditional binary gender distinctions prevailed (for example G.E. Hicks's The Sinews of Old England, 1757). Moralistic concepts of pure and modest womanhood, glorification of domestic life, and Christian ethics influenced gender visual imagery. In her painting War from 1883, Anna Lea Merritt highlights the Victorian ideal of female seclusion and spatial division of genders.

Such established gender types as the mother, the female as a lover or courtesan, and the femme fatale were often represented in Art Nouveau works by male artists such as the British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (18721898) and the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (18621918). Erotic gender identities and reprentation of traditional male roles, as in Klimt's painting The Kiss, show a gradual transition. Reciprocal roles and interchangeable gender identities manifest themselves in the art of Art Nouveau.

Twentieth Century

The appearance of new fashion designs for women in the beginning of the twentieth century with its acknowledged elements designating traditional masculine features signaled a change in gender identity and the emergence of a cross-gender figure. This pertains to both new presentations on gender roles in society and culture. In the work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (19071954), her masculine appearance in Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair testifies to a growing effort to legitimatize broader gender boundaries while being a statement of an assertive femininity. The work of the German female artist Käthe Kollwitz (18671945) explores the humanity of both male and female sexes and testifies to a growing social gender equality, combining both to create a powerful political statement.

Gender perceptions in the 1960s and 1970s were defined by the emergence of the feminist movement. Art of both genders became instruments of political and social change. In visual arts the pop art movement took issue with popular gender ideologies and icons such as beauty and eroticism by overamplifying them, as in multiple lithographed duplications of Marilyn Monroe's image by Andy Warhol. The American feminist artist Judy Chicago (b. 1939), in a 1979 installation titled The Dinner Party, questioned women's achievements and their social roles.

In visual art since the 1970s, physical appearance and gender distinctions blur. The photographers Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and Nan Goldin (b. 1953) challenged and transformed stereotyped gender roles while exploring female identity, love, violence, and transgender identities. The feminist American artist Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) portrayed the female body as a battleground for gender dominance. The conceptual female artist Laurie Anderson (b. 1947) combined multimedia performance with music, poetry, and visual arts. Known for her unusual mix of music, art, and the spoken word, she ironically challenged gender stereotypes and male social dominance.

Another social development, the emergence of an open and confident gay and lesbian community, has redefined gender portrayals. Robert Mapplethorpe combined over-masculinized bodies and images of homosexuality with the stylized aestheticism of glamour photography. Lesbian visual art as it has emerged since the 1960s is multifaceted yet does not represent a cohesive stylistic movement. The artists reflect the experience of being a lesbian in patriarchal society. Lesbian artists such as Harmony Hammond (b. 1944) have been defining a homosexual iconography and terminology, individual and sometimes reflecting stereotypes. This "queer" art has explored and broken down the conventions of traditional gender and sexual roles, as in John Kirby's Self-Portrait (1987), in which the artist presents himself in feminine underwear without concealing his masculine body.

Gender and Art History

Feminist art history is closely related with the feminist movement. One of the earliest themes of feminist art historians was that of the male gaze and its consequence on visual art. The early feminist art historians documented works of women's art and the perception of the woman in male art and defined the history and methodologies of feminist art. In 1972 the scholarly study Woman as Sex Object: Studies in Erotic Art, 17301970 was published by Thomas B. Hess and Linda Nochlin, the American art historian, introducing a feminist perspective to the field of art history and criticism. In the beginning of the 1980s, in Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, the British scholars Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock surveyed the place of women within the history of art. Subsequent feminist scholars such as Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard have stated that feminist art history should not be confined to analysis of women artists alone and should not exclusively be the domain of female researchers. In the early 2000s, the focuses of gender studies in art history are gender identity, gender indistinctness, and cross-gender definitions as well as self-consciousness and perspectives on women looking at the other sex.

See also Aesthetics: Europe and the Americas ; Gay Studies ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Humanity in the Arts ; Men and Masculinity ; Nude, The ; Queer Theory ; Sexuality: Overview ; Women and Femininity in U.S. Popular Culture ; Women's Studies .


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Anat Gilboa

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Gender in Art

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