Female Artists’ Representations of Women at the Tate Modern

By Marése O’Sullivan

Last week, I wrote about the male artistic interpretation of women so, today, I’m looking at how women themselves portray their own gender through art.

Many ladies on Oxford Street told us how awkward they were about their bodies. I was intrigued to examine whether this discomfort is evident in paintings by women of women, so I headed to the Tate Modern’s free Poetry and Dream Exhibition, which is definitely worth a visit.


Image courtesy of the Tate Modern

“The displays in Poetry and Dream show how contemporary art grows from, reconnects with, and can provide fresh insights into the art of the past. The large room at the heart of the wing is devoted to Surrealism, while the surrounding displays look at other artists who, in different ways, have responded to or diverged from Surrealism, or explored related themes such as the world of dreams, the unconscious and archetypal myth.

“These displays also show how characteristically Surrealist techniques such as free association, the use of chance, biomorphic form and bizarre symbolism have been reinvigorated in new contexts and through new media, often at far remove from the intentions of their pioneers.”

– Tate Modern

Dod Procter, Morning, 1926

Morning 1926 by Dod Procter 1892-1972

British painter Dod Procter worked as a team with her husband, Ernest, from a young age, but also produced her own individual work. Her painting Morning – voted Picture of the Year in 1927 and purchased by the Daily Mail for the Tate Gallery, demonstrates the depth of female self-exhibition.

The title, Morning, has connotations with light and awakening. However, the painting itself is full of shadows. The girl is unconscious and unknowing as she sleeps.

Her hands are almost exquisite in their subtlety: her left hand is clutched to her waist at the centre of the image, perhaps drawing the viewer’s attention to her fertility, her very ‘function’ as a woman. Her right hand, hidden from view behind her head, emphasises that her intelligence is the less dominant feature, as do her rounded hips and v-neck dress. There is definitely a sense of sexualised shape defining the subject. The cool colours in the painting highlight both the subject’s skin and clothing.

This is pure physicality, with a fused simplicity and intricacy.

Meraud Guevara, Seated Woman with a Dog, c. 1939

Seated Woman with Small Dog circa 1939 by Meraud Guevara 1904-1993

Meraud Guevara exercises her subject’s control in this painting. Even though she is seated, the room can barely contain this woman, with her extended black hat. Guevara’s dimensions focus on her sheer power. The sharp lines and white and brown colours stress the inner turmoil that seems to be contained inside her.

She’s trapped, confined in this tiny space. Her downcast expression shows that she has accepted her fate. The small window and open door reveal the last bit of hope she has of escape, but she is seated. Entombed.

Her tiny dog, resting on her lap, is smothered by her hand and overpowered by her suffering.

“[This painting has a] disquieting atmosphere,” says the Tate Modern. “The sitter is both impassive in her unfocused gaze and seductive in her slipped blouse. She wholly dominates the steep angled space.”

Germaine Richier, Diabolo, 1950

Diabolo 1950, cast 1994 by Germaine Richier 1902-1959

Germaine Richier, Water, 1953-4

Water 1953-4 by Germaine Richier 1902-1959

These innovative bronze castings by French sculptor Germaine Richier are fascinating depictions of women. Again, we see the physicality of the body. The first is imprisoned by the earth, while the second is headless – faceless. There’s something simultaneously mechanical and emotional about them, with their distinctive nudity and stark posture.

The What I See Project is a global exploration of female empowerment and self-expression. Please contribute here: http://whatiseeproject.com.