Gender is in vogue in the contemporary art world. However, it’s not a new story. Since the beginnings of art history, gender has been an important theme for many artists, who have used their practice to question the gender binary of ‘male’ vs ‘female’. Here are 6 artists who look at gender, deconstructing, reconsidering and breaking gender stereotypes. And gender in art history has been trending for a whole lot longer than you might think.
1. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)
Let’s take a look at Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. From the late 16th-century until the mid-1600s, she foregrounded female characters in her artworks, painting them as powerful, self-assured women. This contrasted with her male contemporaries’ imagery of passive, damsels in distress. Her heroines appear composed and focused. Her painting of Samson sleeping on a strong, intent Delilah differs from Rubens’ depiction of Delilah as a bare-breasted seductress.
2. Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954)
Many artists have used self-portraits that emphasise the fluidity of gender, refusing to adhere to statically masculine or feminine characteristics.
“I paint self portraits because I am the person that I know best. I paint my own reality” – Frida Kahlo.
Today, Frida Kahlo has become an icon of feminism, freedom and gender fluidity. Her progressive attitude towards gender is apparent throughout her self-portraits, and she is instantly recognisable for her monobrow, strong features and slight moustache. She created a representation of Mexicana identity that actively challenged the expectations and preconceptions traditionally placed on Mexican women. She had no interest in conforming to social norms of gender.
Kahlo painted ‘Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair’ in the wake of a particularly tumultuous time, just months after she divorced her famous husband, Mexican Muralist painter Diego Rivera. He had always admired her long, dark hair, which, as she indicates in the tresses littering the painting, she had cut off after their split. She also shows herself in an oversized suit resembling the ones that Rivera wore. Through such emotionally and symbolically charged details, Kahlo expresses her feelings about her relationship with Rivera while also asserting her sense of self as an independent artist.
3. Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968)
Artists have also addressed traditional notions of masculinity. Marcel Duchamp appeared in many portraits by the photographer Man Ray dressed as his feminine alter ego: the glamorous Rrose Sélavy, a pun on the French phrase “Eros, c’est la view”. She first emerged in portraits made by the photographer Man Ray in New York in the early 1920s, when Duchamp and Man Ray were collaborating on a number of conceptual photographic works. Rrose Sélavy lived on as the person to whom Duchamp attributed specific works of art, readymades, puns, and writings throughout his career.
By creating for himself this female persona whose attributes are beauty and eroticism, he deliberately and characteristically complicated the understanding of his ideas and motives. Rrose was an extension of the tradition of androgyny and gender bending in portraiture; after all, Duchamp remade the Mona Lisa as a man when he drew a moustache and beard on a postcard of da Vinci’s painting. His feminine pseudonym was less about trickery, as it was just one of many attempts to tease ideas about identity and self-representation, particularly in portraits of himself.
4. Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989)
Robert Mapplethorpe was an American artist known his controversial black and white photography. He featured a range of subjects, including celebrity portraits, erotic male and female nudes, and self-portraits. In many of his works the distinction between male and female is problematised. The artist would blur his gender identity by appearing in partial drag, with make-up, and in women’s clothing. At other times, he appeared as a male archetype. In his Self-portrait above, Mapplethorpe portrays himself as the archetypal bad boy, with black leather jacket, dark shirt, coolly appraising gaze and the carefully coiffed 1950s-style hair.
Juxtaposing conventional signs for man and woman—physical, cosmetic, and sartorial—Mapplethorpe questioned established notions of ‘male’ and ‘female’, revealing their status as socially constructed terms.
5. Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987)
So you think you know Andy Warhol? He is most famous for his portraits of glamorous female celebrities and icons (Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and more). But he had another side. Have you seen Warhol himself in drag?
A selection of photographic portraits from the series “Altered Image” features a heavily made-up Warhol wearing an assortment of women’s wigs and his signature blank stare. Produced in 1981, “Altered Image” was a collaboration between Warhol and his friend Christopher Makos, a photographer. The series was inspired by the photographs that Man Ray shot in the 1920s of Marcel Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. Five of the photographs in the show are color Polaroid self-portraits; the rest are black-and-white prints by Mr. Makos.
“We played with this idea of how people would perceive Warhol,” Makos says.
“When you put make-up on a man and change the way he looks and put a wig on, it completely changes the way you look at a particular person.”
Some have said that with these sessions he was trying to get closer to heroines like Marilyn Monroe, Liz Taylor and Joan Collins, whom he depicted in his famous silkscreens. Other people think he was exploring his feminine side.
6. Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954)
Claude Cahun was a Surrealist photographer. Her work explored gender identity and the subconscious mind. Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, she adopted the gender-ambiguous name Claude Cahun in 1917 and is best known for self-portraits, in which she assumed a variety of personas.
“Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me” – Claude Cahun.
Here her image is duplicated by the mirror next to her – reinforcing the duality or multiplicity of identity, and the roles we play. Claude Cahun was championing the idea of gender fluidity way before today’s gender-fluid generation.
Interested in reading more about gender in art history? I can recommend the following books as a good starting point on the subject. They all feature on my bookshelf.
John Berger, ‘Ways of Seeing’
This is one of my favourite (and most influential) art history books of all time. John Berger introduces the concept of ‘the male gaze’, the objectification of women in art and gendered viewing. It’s essential reading, as it has informed so many artists who explore gender in their practice.
Linda Nochlin, ‘Representing Women’
Women – as warriors, workers, mothers, sensual women, even absent mothers – haunt 19th- and 20th-century Western painting. This text brings together Linda Nochlin’s most important and pioneering writings on the subject, as she considers work by Miller, Delacroix, Courbet, Degas, Seurat, Cassatt and Kollwitz, among many others.
Jennifer Shaw, ‘Exist Otherwise: The Life and Works of Claude Cahun’
This is the first work in English to tell the full story of Claude Cahun’s art and life. In the turmoil of the 1920s and ’30s, Claude Cahun challenged gender stereotypes with her powerful photographs, photomontages and writing. This beautifully illustrated book recounts her life and analyses her complex writings and images, framing it within the wider context of Surrealism, the histories of women artists and queer culture. This book includes a full range of illustrations by Cahun and other renowned photographers.
Amelia Jones, ‘Sexuality (Documents of Contemporary Art)’
Are most works of art fundamentally driven by sexual desire? Do our sexual drives also condition the distribution, display and reception of art? This anthology traces how and why this identification of art with sexual expression or repression arose and how the terms have shifted in tandem with artistic and theoretical debates, from the era of the rights movements to the present. Among the subjects it discusses are abjection and the ‘informe’, or formless; pornography and the obscene; the ‘performativity’ of gender and sexuality; and the role of sexuality in forging radical art or curatorial practices.
Looking for other books to introduce you to art history? Check out my recommended art books and other resources here.