Continuing from last week's article, where I discussed how violence against women was depicted in art under the guise of mythological stories and therefore, a culture subject, I will now explore how women used art to fight back against violence committed against them. Artists from Artemisia Gentileschi whose fame at having been raped sometimes seems greater than that as an artist, through to Yoko Ono and other contemporary artists who speak out against violence towards women.
When looking through Gentileschi's paintings, she approaches the subject of women killing men with what appears to be almost like a calm detachment. At least when I look at her Jael and Sisera (1620), Jael is calmly holding a large tent peg to Sisera's head, fallen Caananite general who she offers to take in and hide from his pursuers. Gentileschi approaches other equally violent paintings with a similarly serene approach. Having painted subjected regarding Judith, her maidservant and Holofernes three times, from what I could find, in the painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-20) is the one where she puts more feeling into Judith's face as she gets on with the gruesome act. It usually seen as a cathartic painting where Gentileschi puts in all her anger towards her rapist, Tassi. Prior to that, she painted Judith and her Maidservant (c. 1610-1615) which took place after the beheading of Holofernes and in 1625, she also painted another version of Judith and her Maidservant. Where they are both listening intently for any pursuers after cutting off the head, which they are now carrying.
In 1659, Elisabetta Sirani, ispired by an engraving by Matthäus Merian painted the story of Timoclea of Thebes, who was raped by a captain of the Thracian forces. After raping her, he asks her if she knows where there is any hidden money and she takes him to a well telling him there is some inside. Sirani depicts the moment he is pushed into the well, just before she stones him to death. This painting is usually described as the patriarchy turned on its head while the woman stands tall and strong. Although I cannot find if this was a commissioned painting, I would like to believe that Sirani was expressing her rage against her father, who seeing in her a goose who laid him golden eggs, didn't allow her to marry. She produced over 200 paintings, 15 etchings, and hundreds of drawings and died in 1665 at the age of 27 of ruptured peptic ulcers likely caused from overwork and exhaustion.
Skip ahead by several hundred years, Yoko Ono performed in New York Cut Pieces, where members of the public were invited to cut off pieces of her clothing. It symbolized the vulnerability of women to the public gaze and the ever present bodily threat and violence. In 1969, Ono and collaborator John Lennon, filmed Rape where a young woman is being chased around the streets of London by the cameraman. An activist for peace and human rights, Ono is considered a protofeminist as she came just before the explosion of feminist art that predominated the 1970s. She went on TV shows with John Lennon and would talk about the evils of racism and sexism. Ono's activism inspired friends, such as Kate Millet - author of Sexual Politics, to become activists. Yoko Ono is now 87 years old and lives in New York but has slowed down considerably in her activism, which is understandable.
In 1991, artist Carolee Thea depicted her own version of Sabine Women, a topic vastly explored by several artists through the ages as mentioned in last week's article. But she made her figures made out of chicken wires look anonymous and added electrical wire, sockets, bulbs, and sound. The idea was that rape could happen to any woman at anyplace and at any time. The installation is brutal as the men await their turn to rape the helpless figure pinned down to the ground. This topic is historically exploited by male classical artists which according to Susan Brownmiller in her seminal 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, was exploited and tended to represent the female victim as the seductress. Brownmiller termed this sort of male-centered art as "heroic rape" and then compared it to women who broached the subject showing how "un-heroic" it actually was.*
As I searched further, I found that the closer I got to modern times, the more feminist art and women started to speak up against violence against women. Artist Diane Kahlo, a distant relative of Frida Kahlo, created in 1993 a piece called Wall of Memories: The Disappeared Señoritas of Ciudad Juárez depicting paintings and images of the hundreds of women who been reported missing and later found having been violently attacked and murdered. Her objective was to highlight the femicide of women occurring in a city just across the U.S.A. border as well as what happens when society devalues people according to their gender, sexuality, class, race, among other labels.
In 2012, Cherokee performance artist Luzene Hill created a piece entitled Retracing the Trace where the red threads represent the number of unreported rapes in a span of 24 hours in the U.S.A - 3,780. The installation begins with her lying on the floor while the threads are poured on top of her. She then gets up leaving the imprint of her body on the floor. This imprint is similar to the one she left on the ground of the park where she was assaulted in 1994. More on Luzene Hill and her installations can be found on her personal website.
Women didn't have much of a voice during the Renaissance, making Artemisia Gentileschi unique in her form of expressing her frustration after being raped and then humiliated in a public trial that lasted seven months where she was tortured with thumbscrews to ensure she was telling the truth. It wasn't until the 20th century that women regained their voice starting with the suffragettes and public demonstrations since, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, for them to say loud and clearly that this is not acceptable and we will no longer stand for it. But as it stands, violence against women still occurs and in some countries, it's a lot worse than in others. For that reason, we still need to create art and movements that speak out against violence towards women.
Interesting fact: Did you know that currently, only 20 works owned by the National Gallery in London are by women, out of 2,300 in total. (Source)
*Holmes, Jessica. The Un-Heroic Act: Representations of Rape in Contemporary Women’s Art in the U.S. .The Brooklyn Rail. September 2018.
More on the art initiatives saying no to violence against women: https://16days.thepixelproject.net/16-art-initiatives-say-no-to-vaw/
Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Fawcett; 1st Ballantine Books Ed edition, 2000