The empowerment of femininity and female sexuality has, particularly with the expansion of feminism over the last fifty years, become an increasingly common theme within art, developing as society’s views have changed. Over time, women have begun using increasingly inventive and powerful ways to promote their sexuality and general female experiences to a wider audience, not only generating political discussion about the place of women within art, but the everyday image of women in regard to their relationships with men, society, and sex.
Perhaps most commonly thought of as the originator of this movement was Georgia O’Keeffe who painted flowers with strong vaginal themes (although the intention behind this is unclear) in the first half of the twentieth century. However, the development of mediums since then has given artists an increasingly variable way of expressing themselves through art.
Even as early as the 1940s, women have been experimenting with art to express themselves and their place in society. Louise Bourgeois first began experimenting with the restricted and domestic ideas of womanhood by replacing the heads of painted women with houses, but she became well-known for her Maman (2000) sculptures. The collection was made up of large sculpted spiders which Bourgeois contrasted against the traditional sinister connotations of arachnids, to instead symbolise the idea of a maternal figure who spins and weaves to nurture and protect.
Similarly, Cindy Sherman began experimenting with photography and film in the 1950s, and in 1981 unveiled her project Centerfolds, which focused specifically on media stereotyping of women. With it, she intended to encourage men to evaluate their preconceptions when viewing women in the media. She has also worked with the idea that women can still be considered as victims within these parameters, even if photographs taken are done so with their consent; they have no control over how their bodies will be viewed or sexualised by other people, even if the shots themselves are objectively un-sexy.
More recently, Tracey Emin (now one of the first two female professors at the Royal Academy), has used installation art to express her experiences with sex and sexual assault in a frank and real situation.
Within her 1998 piece, My Bed, she used her own unmade and dirty bed to highlight the everyday nature of modern sex. This is predated by her project Everyone I Ever Slept With, a tent in which she sewed the names of every person she had ever had intercourse with. Here, Emin rejects the idea of sex as a romantic and surreal act, as it is often portrayed in art, and instead highlights it as a messy, casual experience and incorporated into everyday life.
Experimenting even further, Dani Lessnau has worked with the ideas of male gaze within her new project Extimite (2018). In it, she fused art with her body by using a pinhole camera inserted into her vagina to take pictures of her lovers. She and her work express a desire for a greater connection to her own feelings and relationships, both with the subject of the image and the art itself. By ‘becoming’ the camera, she throws herself into every aspect of the project and strengthens the feeling of intimacy that surround her images. To her, the idea of ‘gaze’ is as powerful as we allow it to be, highlighting the vulnerable yet liberating situation that both she and her partners were placed in within her project.