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What is Feminist art?

In the middle of the heat of American anti-war protests and the expanding gender, civil, and LGBT rights movements globally in the late 1960s, the feminist art movement in the West came into being. Recalling the utopian aspirations of early 20th-century modernist movements, feminist artists wanted to rewrite an art history that was erroneously dominated by males, alter the modern world via their work, interfere in the established art world, and question the canon of art. For women and artists of color, feminist art opened doors and venues that did not previously exist. It also cleared the way for the Identity and Activist art movements of the 1980s.

How did it start?

In many aspects, Linda Nochlin's essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" from 1971 sparked fresh ideas in the field of fine art. Many complimented it for its innovative take on feminist art theory and its historical depiction of women in the arts. To shed light on significant barriers, Nochlin investigates the challenges experienced by female artists. By publishing the eye-opening piece, Nochlin addresses a topic that was on the minds of the majority of women. Why weren't women given the same recognition as their male counterparts?

By the 1980s, art historians like Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker began examining the terminology of art history in greater detail, including the gender-laden words "old master" and "masterpiece." They questioned why men and women are portrayed so differently, and they questioned the centrality of the female nudist in the western canon. The Marxist scholar John Berger said in his 1972 book Ways of Seeing, "Men gaze at women. Women observe themselves being observed. In other words, the unequal connections currently present in society are replicated in Western art.

In what is commonly referred to as First Wave feminist art, female artists reveled in the feminine experience, exploring menstrual blood and vaginal images, appearing as naked goddess figures and brazenly employing previously stigmatized media like needlework. The Dinner Party, 1974–1979, by Judy Chicago, is among the most recognizable pieces of this era of female art.

The Dinner Party, 1974–1979, by Judy Chicago
The Dinner Party, 1974–1979, by Judy Chicago

The origins of Womanhouse

When the California Institute of the Arts Valencia campus' construction was still ongoing, Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, and the other female members of the Feminist Art Program had to locate another location where they could continue their work. At Fresno State University, Judy Chicago established a feminist art department in 1970. Its objectives were to provide a supportive atmosphere for women, highlight strong female role models, and provide students with the means to creatively express their experiences as women.

               ‘Earth Birth’, 1983. Judy Chicago
‘Earth Birth’, 1983. Judy Chicago

A crucial component of the initiative was the establishment of a location where women could gather, work, and interact. Chicago expressed dissatisfaction with the male-dominated art instruction she had undergone. She wished to provide other women encouragement and the chance to forge the identities they desired to improve their feeling of self. With the assistance of Miriam Schapiro, who was inspired by Chicago's work in the earlier program, the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles launched another feminist art program.

    1971—Clearing out the Womanhouse
1971—Clearing out the Womanhouse

They searched elsewhere for a suitable replacement because their working and display space at the California Institute of the Arts was not yet available. Womanhouse was produced in a 17-room home in Hollywood that was slated for demolition. Unfortunately, the structure had broken windows, no heating, and no plumbing. This required the students, Chicago, and Schapiro to finish their artwork while simultaneously cleaning the building, replacing the windows, and painting the walls.

They ate their lunch at a nearby restaurant where they could use the amenities because the place lacked warmth and plumbing. They were bundled up in cozy sweaters throughout the cold. They had to wash their brushes at a water tap outside because there was no water inside. Many of the students had to carpool there every day while simultaneously doing their side jobs because the residence was distant from the college. The project was rigorous and difficult. Mira Schor, a participant in the feminist art program, acknowledged the rarity of this intensive time while also asserting that she made sure never to go through it again.

The whole kitchen of Schapiro and Chicago's Womanhouse was painted pink using store-bought paint, including the walls, floor, ceiling, stove, refrigerator, sink, toaster, and cabinetry. Fried eggs shaped like breasts were used to adorn the walls. The women's subconscious connections with the kitchen as a place where they compete for their moms' affection and who frequently act resentfully owing to emotions of confinement served as the inspiration for the kitchen's theme. There were other further rooms in the house, including a dining room, a small, dark chamber with a crocheted web like a womb, and a linen closet that had a mannequin.

Opening the Womanhouse to the Public

 "Bridal Staircase in Womanhouse" by Kathy Huberland, 1972
"Bridal Staircase in Womanhouse" by Kathy Huberland, 1972

Around ten thousand individuals visited Womanhouse during the brief period that it was accessible to the general public. The entire house's seventeen rooms served as a deconstructed representation of gender stereotypes. Most crucially, the parodic method used by the artists disrupted the conventional roles of women in the home. Unfortunately, following the display, most of the project's construction was destroyed. Many of the tourists reportedly started crying because of how moving it was. Let's look at a few of the pieces of art that were on display at the Womanhouse.

When describing the significant influence the feminist art movement had on the art world at the time, Kiki Smith may have put it best: "I would say that without the feminist movement, I wouldn't exist; an enormous amount of the artwork that we take for granted wouldn't exist; and a lot of the subject matter that we assume can be encompassed by art wouldn't exist. The feminist movement significantly broadened our understanding of what art is, how we view it, and who belongs in the conversation about art. I believe it brought about a significant, profound transformation.

A societal belief that one particular gender symbolizes innovation is not something you desire. Many current female artists no longer feel the need to expressly address the "women's perspective" or identify as "woman artists" because of the advancements made by earlier generations of feminist artists. Building on the pattern set in the 1980s, a lot of female artists started to create work that was more concerned with their issues than with a broader feminist message.

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