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.

Tate Modern: Ewa Partum and nudity as artistic expression

By Harlen Leonard

While on a recent trip to the Tate Modern, I came across the work of Polish artist Ewa Partum. A pioneer in conceptual and performance art, Ewa is now regarded as one of Poland’s great feminist artists. She was one of the first female artists to enter a public space in the nude, claiming that she would continue to perform nude until women were given equal rights artistically. By entering her environment naked, she made a very clear statement about herself as a female artist and how her work was based on her experiences as a woman.

Ewa Partum

Ewa Partum’s ‘Active Poetry’ at the Tate Modern

Her art is a true example of ‘poetry through art.’ Ewa has been pursuing a new artistic language through the use of linguistic actions and installations. An amazing example of this is currently on display at the Tate Modern. It is a film re-enactment that documents some of her most significant actions from the early 1970’s, known as Active Poetry. During this time Ewa would cut out words from classical and historical texts, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, and scatter the letters in public spaces. This created non-linear ‘visual poetry’. From the image to the left you can see that the floor of the room where this work is presented is covered with large white letters.

Ewa is not the only woman to use her body as a political statement. It is said that Lady Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry naked on a horse in the 13th century to protest high taxation. In recent years, women have once again taken charge of their own bodies, using them as a medium for protest and self-expression.

The latest group of women to employ this tactic is Feman, a global protest group that demonstrates against the many forms of sexism that are present in society. Feman has made headlines all over the world, and some members have even been incarcerated, for their topless protests.

Another group of women choosing to express themselves through a lack of clothing is the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. The book club takes advantage of the New York state law that allows public toplessness, in the hopes of removing the social taboo of women bearing their breasts, even though toplessness is considered acceptable for men. They are often spotted reading in Central Park, and it is important to note that they have not been met with any hostility from the NYPD.

Why do you think that nudity and toplessness are still used to express thoughts and ideals? Is the female form still a taboo? Please feel free to comment and share your views on the subject.

Here at What I See, we hope that you will contribute to our project focusing on self-expression. To do this, please answer our question: What do you see when you look in the mirror? We hope that our collective answers will inspire female empowerment.

Female Perception through Art: An Exploration of the Tate Modern, London

By Marése O’Sullivan

How does female perception relate to art? The What I See team went to the Poetry and Dream Exhibition at the Tate Modern in London this week to find out.

The images of modern women were strong and dramatic, evoking very fine and different depictions. The male artists I’m discussing seem to have a visual focus on the power of the physical body – the woman figure dominates the frame – while the female artists insist on the detachment and solitary nature of the woman.

Below are some of the male representations of women. All image credit to the Tate Modern.

Meredith Frampton – Portrait of a Young Woman, 1935

Portrait of a Young Woman 1935 by Meredith Frampton 1894-1984

Frampton’s portrait centres on a tall woman who dominates the frame. Her sharply-angled body evokes tension, as do the taut strings on the double bass, enhanced by the dark atmosphere. Half her face is in shadow, perhaps a reflection on the pre-World War Two era. The contrast of light and dark – including the black and white floor – perfectly demonstrates the inner conflict of the woman: both wanting to be herself and who the painter wants her to be. The seemingly natural environment, with music and flowers, is full of arrangements and falsities: the bended plant sways towards the border of the painting, echoing the woman’s need for release; the instrument sits unplayed, its bow at the edge of the table; her tight curls are set in place and emphasise her frown.

This should be a traditional portrayal of feminine beauty – with her red lips, flowing figure, and pastel clothing, but her almost angry expression, tense body language, and somber surroundings reveal a subverted moodiness and discontent. She does not look at the viewer, her eyes fixed on a point in the distance.

Meredith Frampton – Marguerite Kelsey, 1928

Marguerite Kelsey 1928 by Meredith Frampton 1894-1984

This woman remarkably almost blends in with her surroundings. She manages to appear almost expressionless, but there is a hint of sadness in her eyes.

Her beige dress reveals little of her pale skin. Her red shoes, tucked behind her, hint at a joyful personality that she’s hidden from the viewer and painter.

Her tightly-pinned hair and stiff fingers add to the taut structure of the painting. These women don’t seem comfortable in the environment that they’ve been placed in by men.

Francis Picabia – Otaiti, 1930

Otaïti 1930 by Francis Picabia 1879-1953

This woman is portrayed a lot more sensually. With a fantastically evocative blend of darkness and light, her uncovered body is powerfully sensualised. She is kneeling, defined in black, with pursed red lips. Her focus is on the creature above her. The entanglement of brown and yellow colour gives this painting a more earthly feel. Merged with drawings of beasts and faces, this woman is firmly connected to her natural self.