This afternoon I spent an engaging hour with one of my colleagues, looking for artworks for her to use in her class on the construction of gender. As we thought together about what images have engraved themselves so deeply into our cultural consciousness that they serve as icons of femininity, alternately laughed and groaned at a lot of art, both good and bad.
Eventually, we settled on about a dozen sculptures and paintings that tell an abbreviated but nonetheless convincing story. Beginning with the little sculpture whose true name and function is lost, but which is known to every art student as the Venus of Willendorf; through ancient Greek depictions of the goddesses Athena and Hera, medieval and Renaissance madonnas, romantic and early modern odalisques; to Degas bathers, Duchamp's shattered Nude Descending a Staircase, Picasso's cubist Girl Before a Mirror, Tom Wessleman's Great American Nude, and Phillip Pearlstein's dispassionate, headless bodies, we reminded ourselves how much of women's self-image has been refracted through the eyes, imaginations, and needs of men.
Granted, this was a selective list, leaving out the shocking painting of Judith with the head of Holofernes by Artemesia Gentilischi, the gentle portraits of women and children by the Impressionist Mary Cassatt, and countless contemporary artworks that skilled and talented women produce daily in our time. Slowly, women are claiming the right to create our own images. But we do so in a world that already exists, against the background of thousands of years of images that defined us and told us how to look, what to wear, and how we were to function. That history is good to call to mind, so that the future does not merely repeat the past.