ArtString: Women in Action (The Doers)

Featured String: Women in Action

Throughout art history, in many of the most famous works of art, women are not the actors but the subjects of artwork. They are often relegated to the position of “muse”, their work in shaping their own narratives and framing their own perspectives sidelined, forgotten, misattributed, or in some cases deliberately suppressed either during or after their lifetimes.

This string aims to take the Woman as “Subject” and make her an active subject: the works are of women, but they are not passive women whose sole purpose is to be decorative and looked-upon. Make no mistake: they’re still the subjects of these artworks and in many cases the view is still salacious. In all cases the view tells us something about what the society viewing thinks women should and shouldn’t be doing, contrasting the “good” woman and the “unacceptable” woman, making satires of foreign female rulers, or simply passing judgement on women’s behaviour. But at least in these works, the subjects depicted have some agency. They are doers, not the done-to.

Bronze figure of two women fighting, bronze, East Greek 

This statue from Çeşme seems to be part of a tradition of artists both classical and neoclassical fascinated by women’s combat sports. It’s been suggested this particular instance from the 6th century BCE is a votive figure from a fertility cult of a goddess like Cybele–an Anatolian mother goddess who was worshipped with drums, cymbals, horns, and performances of orgiastic dances in full armour in the forests and on the mountains of Phrygia. [Source: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.]

We can’t know if the proliferation of statues of women wrestling is down to the relative commonness of the scene of women wrestlers or whether it was rare and just very important, but the theme comes up again and again in classical art, demonstrating at least the idea of women as active, combative people.

This 18th century Japanese print shows six young women wearing Korean-style hats and robes, playing flutes and holding trumpets. The full name of the triptych (three-panel picture) that it belongs to translates as “Continental Music Band /Fun at the Height of the Niwaka Festival in Shin-Yoshiwara”, so the choice of Korean-style hats is meant to indicate that the music played is also Korean, perhaps also the girls. In the role of performers, these women are taking active part in a festival. This kind of position was open to women in most societies even when others were closed–although with an associated taint of non-conformity (in many societies performers were automatically assumed to be sex workers).

In times of crisis in a society, normal rules and conventions about what was suitable for women were suspended, as they were when this painting was made. An absence of men to do traditionally male jobs (because of conscription to fight in a very large war) and an increase in demand for munitions (because of the very large war) meant women found themselves with the opportunity to take on work otherwise denied them, and to learn skills they might not have been able to before.

Working with munitions had serious health side-effects, and the chemicals involved dyed women’s skin and hair an unnatural yellow, instead of this rosy and idealised picture.

Judith in the Tent of Holofernes, Johann Liss, about 1622

Perhaps one of the most famous images in Western Art History of women as active rather than passive is that of Judith:

The story behind Judith and Holofernes comes from the Bible – the deuterocanonical book of Judith. The Bible tells us that the King of Nineveh, Nebuchadnezzar, sent his general, Holofernes, to subdue his enemies, the Jews. The Jews are besieged in Bethulia and rapidly lose all hope of victory. Famine further undermines their courage and they begin considering surrender.

Judith, whose name means “lady Jew” or “Jewish woman”, was a strikingly beautiful widow. She overhears plans for surrender and decides to “deliver the city”. She creeps into the Assyrian camp, seduces Holofernes with her captivating beauty, waits until he is thoroughly drunk, and cuts off his head.

She returns to her people victorious, holding up the severed head as a trophy. The Jews regain their courage, raid the Assyrian camp and drive the enemy away.

Credit: Artble

Judith gives artists the rare opportunity–much like the Maenads in a more bestial and critical sense, or the figure of mythological female warriors like Athena in a more symbolic and often allegorical sense–to depict female brutality. In the case of Judith it is a righteous murder, and–although the work is not available in any of the collections accessible to ArtString–has been depicted by multiple women artists. Artemisia Gentileschi is perhaps the most well-known of them.

In domestic, slice-of-life works, the activity of women comes to the fore, and although it is often fantastical or stylised, although the difficulty of the labour is romanticised, in works from the Dutch Golden Age and the British Museum’s large collection of Indian watercolours of daily life, women’s work is depicted as what it is: work. Women sell fish and meat, tend kitchens, create textiles, and provide the backbone of a functioning society.

Images of women in art could be used to depict behaviour that was considered the ideal for women in that society, often linked to motherhood:

The Nativity at Night, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, possibly about 1490

In this Northern Renaissance painting, the Virgin Mary is silent, contemplative, gazing adoringly down at her infant son (who is helpfully providing his own illumination). While images from this period tended to be more symbolic than depictions of action, later images of motherhood as the primary employment of “good” women continued in the same vein:

Maternal Affection, Louis Jean François Lagrenée, 1775

Images of women behaving badly, on the other hand, might have two separate and intertwined roles. In one capacity they served as prohibitions against socially unacceptable behaviour… but in another, they were often an excuse for male painters to produce work that was titillating both in its sensuality and in its depiction of the breaking of social rules:

Scorn, Paolo Veronese, about 1575

In the Veronese painting, a fully-clad Chaste Love holds hands with a scornful and imperious Carnal Love who just happens to have her boobs out. Symbolically.

This string could, if one were minded to define more broadly, be expanded upon. Queen Elizabeth I of England’s medal  shows the monarch doing very little; but it is an active work, a work of propaganda shaping the image of one of the most successful queens of the country and carefully-constructed to produce a particular impression of her and of her reign, when she was under continual domestic challenge from discontented nobles. The woman depicted is a woman engaged in managing her own PR.

Powerful women with a degree of control over their image during their lifetime didn’t begin with Elizabeth, either. Hatsheput, the second female Pharaoh of Egypt (reigning during the 18th dynasty), and the more famous Ptolemaic Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh, both engaged in the same kind of public image manufacture as their male counterparts, with statues and freizes dedicated to their achievements–which were numerous!

Likewise, there are items whose presence in time and place highlights the hidden presence of other highly active women. This Tang sculpture hails from a dynasty punctuated by the activities of a very powerful and unique woman: the Empress Wu Zetian, the only known woman leader in the entire history of Imperial China.

Aside from the exploits of real women, there are many, many images of goddesses. Both in the periods when they were worshipped, and later, when they were rediscovered by artists, Greek and Roman goddesses in particular were subject to endless artistic renditions. Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, didn’t really have an equivalent in Christian mythology and was a popular subject for late-Renaissance artists! Outside of Europe, goddesses took many forms and were responsible for many areas of life, from war and death to healing and magic to love and fertility. While they weren’t always depicted in mid-action, everyone who worshipped them knew what they could do, and believed that they were always at work–just like mortal women the world over!

You may also like: Women Artists, Women in Science, Scenes from Everyday Life

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