In this essay, I would like to investigate the ways in which
feminist artists have used the female body in their practice to establish an
effective language for female expression, female empowerment and for the
reclamation of the female form from its use in history to oppress women. Contemporary
feminist artist, Maisie Cousins, whose photography frequently uses the female
form as a means of female empowerment, has said she feels ‘we are in a horrible situation where too much damage has
been done to female identity and we are struggling to reclaim ourselves let
alone make radical progress’ and that she has ‘hope’
but feels ‘negative’ in reference to the way
women are seen in the general media (Metal Magazine, 2018). My feelings reflect
hers- I am drawn to the theme of reclamation of the female form in my work am drawn
to the work of others who do the same, in order to, in the words of Judy
Chicago ‘transform our circumstances into our subject matter…to
use them to reveal the whole nature of the human condition'(Chicago,
1974) I see there being a definite need to take back what belongs to us, our
vehicle for experiencing the world we live in. In other words, to continue the
goal to reclaim women’s bodies from the ‘societal
straitjacket of sex-objecthood’ as Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard said
of 70’s feminist artists. (Garrard, 1994) It seems to be a logical idea to use
in feminist work because of the way it’s meaning has the capacity reverse the
way the female body has been used. However, I sometimes have doubts with the
idea that the female body, after having long been a symbol used to oppress,
degrade and objectify women, can be transformed into a subject of empowerment,
or rather that the process of doing so is surely problematic and complicated. In
the art world and beyond, women who choose to display their naked bodies are
generally met with dismissal and accusations of vapidity and narcissism, and
artistic examples of this range from Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S Starification Object
Series (which spanned between 1974-82) leading up to the present day, where
feminist artists are currently criticised for showing their bodies online, such
as Mollysoda’s “Should I Send This?” newhive photo series (Refinery29, 2015) and the Instagram-performance series of
Amalia Ulman (The Telegraph, 2016). Adrienne Rich
(1976) said that the repossession of our bodies will bring essential change to
human society and that ‘We need to imagine a world in
which every woman is the presiding genius over her body’.  With the emergence of the selfie, it’s now easier
than ever for women to express themselves using their bodies via social media,
in a highly self-aware way, but the question of whether these images are
progressive and a kind of ‘genius’, rather than a result of internalising and
then regurgitating misogynistic beauty ideals remains to be seen. This form of
self-expression shows me it can be difficult to make work with the female body
which actively challenges misogynistic ideas. I recognise that there must be an
art to it, which I feel the need to explore. I will be analysing the following
examples of work by three feminist artists who have actively engaged with the
problem of female representation, female objectification and oppression via the
female body, Ana Mendieta, Hannah Wilke and Joan Semmel so as to better grasp
the ways in which their work has managed to effectively challenge misogynistic
beliefs and how through the use of the female body (often theirs), they began the
fight towards pulling the female form out of the clutches of patriarchal
objectification and into the realms of work which has been authentically
empowering for women.   Joan Semmel was a key figure for ‘the
scrutiny and exploration of beauty and female pleasure’ in the 70’s and I
want to include her in my discussion because of the particular way in which her
paintings have spoken about female sexuality  (Frueh, 1994). There were many
feminists, including Semmel, who would create portraits of the female form in
order to show ‘real’ female bodies, or for a better phrase, the ‘idealised’ bodies
of women who were not seen in the Western media or in historical Western oil
paintings. Frueh remarks in her essay ‘The Body Through Women’s Eyes’ that ‘feminist
artists knew that “real” female bodies were taboo within patriarchy, so it was
left to them to create works critiquing and challenging society’s homogenized
dictates’ and that feminists had begun to critique pornography for the ‘violence’
done through the use of fragmentation and focus on particular parts. (Frueh, 1994) This has been taken
to the extent of Carol J. Adam’s whohas said that that in pornography, the
camera takes the place of a ‘knife’ which is used to dissect an animal, ‘committing implemental violence’ in Carol J. Adam’s ‘The
Sexual Politics of Meat’ (Adams, 1990) Joan Semmel uses
framing in her work too, but  framed the compositions of her paintings to counteract the
idea of the male gaze and John Berger’s concept of ‘male spectatorship’ in her
work, and reversed it so as to make it as though it is women who are the
assumed spectators of the work. This inevitably gives a great power shift in the
work, and is a clever comment on the male gaze. It is as though in the creation
of these paintings, Joan Semmel has suggested the idea of the female gaze. In
Ways of Seeing, John Berger observes that ‘in the
average European painting of the nude the principle protagonist is never
painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and he is presumed to be a
man” and that “Everything is addressed to him.’
The nude woman depicted in each piece would be designed to ‘flatter him’ and have her offering herself up sexually
to him, allowing the idea of his sexual dominance and ownership over her, which
in doing so renders her an object to be acted upon. He also remarks that the
facial expression of the woman, looking right at the assumed male spectator,
reflects this, as she looks at him ‘offering up her
femininity as the surveyed’ and that if you were to compare these facial
expressions (such as the expression of the woman in ‘La Grand Odalisque’) you
would find that it is the same expression that you find on the faces of glamour
models in porn magazines. In Joan Semmel’s paintings, such as Me Without Mirrors
(1974) and Intimacy/Autonomy (1974), there is no view of the female’s face. We
see her body  Ana Mendieta would use her naked
body in private rituals and performances which allowed her to connect with the
Great Mother Earth. She was exiled from her native homeland as a child and
would use this severance as a metaphor for ‘all women’s
exile from the Great Earth Mother’  (Gloria Feman Orenstein, 1994), as seen in her
series Silueta Works in Mexico (1973-1977).  She would use her own naked body as a metaphor
for the way the female body is ‘sacrificed and colonialized as an object of
male desire’ and ‘male aggression’ (Cabañas, 1999) in her piece
Untitled (Rape Scene). After being ‘moved and
frightened’  by the brutal rape and
murder of a nursing student at the university in Iowa, where Mendieta studied, Mendieta
created a which she had invited friends and fellow students to her apartment,
and on arrival, to their horror they were met with the sight of Mendieta, who
had been tied down to a table, naked and covered in blood as though she had
been raped, as Mendieta had used details from the murder of the nursing student
to recreate the scene (Tate, 2018).

In her essay From Leda to Daphne, Anne Creissel believes that although Mendieta
appears to be raped in this piece, it is paradoxically the spectator who is in
a sense raped here, by ‘inflicting on him or her the
intolerable sight of her body tied up and spattered with blood’ (Creissels,
2007). Though the piece was a
performance, one of the photos which was taken, now belonging to the Tate
museum, successfully holds within it alone the sheer violence
of the objectification of the female body. It transfers with it the personification
of misogyny, the sight in which a woman has not been looked upon as an object
but physically used as an object. The
fragmentation of her bottom and legs in the image is not unlike the
fragmentation found in pornographic images, and when viewed in this light,
there is something revealed about the true disturbing nature of female objectification.

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As Creissels (2007) observes further, paradoxically, the viewer becomes ‘equivalent’
to the rapist. Where in our culture, it has become socially acceptable to be a
voyeur, and pornography, advertisements and other forms of media have been
designed specifically for us to be voyeurs, this image inflicts a guilt on us,
and a guilt upon a collective society in which voyeuristic behaviour is not just
acceptable but encouraged. Rape is separate from this voyeurism but is still
another form of misogyny, and this image allows that link to be made and
understood, as in our voyeuristic culture, the misogyny is much less explicit.  It is the blood on her body, the physical evidence
of violence, which conveys the psychological violence of misogyny and
objectification. Though it could be said that this appears to be an
animalization of the female body, it is also a humanization of the female body,
as we are forced to recognise and take responsibly for the violence in female
objectification, and to confront the violence which is inflicted upon womankind.

Rape Scene is an example of a piece
where the female body cannot be ‘nude’ (by John Berger’s definition) and has to
be seen as ‘naked’. As he specifies ‘to be naked is to be oneself’ and ‘a naked
body has to be seen as an object in order to become nude’ (Berger, 1972). This demand for
empathy and responsibility takes on another level in the actual performance of
the piece, as to have Mendieta appear like this in front of the viewer would be
even more of an intense, visceral and confronting experience.  

as well as the fact that the audience
for the performance of the piece came into the experience unknowingly, and
doing so gave the performance another level of intimacy and therefore shock at
the sight. It is like an assault to the audience and it is interactive. As Jean
Franco has said of the paintings by Frida Kahlo in which she has depicted
herself in insufferable agony and naked, such as Broken Column that ‘her mutilated body
trespasses on the place of the female nude’ and her nakedness cannot
therefore be consumed by the male gaze (phallocentric eye?) in a way that she
otherwise would be (Franco, 1989). The photo which was
taken of this performance piece shows the artist’s bare buttocks and legs, and
her arms are If the photo from the performance of Rape Scene had not featured Mendieta
covered in blood with plates broken on the floor, the surveyor who is assumed
to be male here in order to, might find the sight of her buttocks attractive,