All imagery contains meaning. It may also be encoded with ideological messages.
When considering female representation in the West over many centuries, certain expectations and ideals of womanhood are certainly imparted. In the West women have largely been excluded from the systems and institutions of society. Even today women have little power/control within institutions such as the media and advertising.
Throughout the centuries painting was largely a male preserve, maintained by such exclusion. Viewing art has also been for much of time almost exclusively male. This has resulted in female representation both created from and catering for a male perspective, while suiting a hierarchical patriarchal order.
Having earlier considered the social context behind Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ (1612), which included her educational exclusion, her rape and subsequent rape trial, it’s interesting to compare the work with that of a male artist.
Gentileschi’s ability to carve out a profession as a female artist is an exceeding rare case in the context of Western history. It’s therefore interesting to consider how she presents her female characters.
Unlike many of her male contemporaries who commonly highlighted women as objects of beauty, emphasizing their passivity or alternatively as seductresses (based on the virgin/whore dichotomy), Gentileschi created work highlighting the emotional, mental and physical power and/or suffering of her females.
Her version of Judith is a non-idealized woman, as the artist is more concerned with being representative of female strength, determination and struggle.
Judith has an active role. She is subject not object.
Although Franz Stuck’s interpretation, ‘ Judith’ (1924), features the same mythical scene, it incorporates very different messages for the viewer.
Despite alluding to the theme of the myth, here Judith is still, statue-like, passive.
The female figure is sexualized, an object of male fantasy for the male gaze as the painter directs the viewer’s eye to the naked female torso for their voyeuristic pleasure. There is a dream-like quality to Judith and despite the fact she is holding a sword, she is portrayed as more playful temptress to both male character Holofernes and male viewer alike, rather than the cunning assassin of myth.
In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” feminist Laura Mulvey highlights the male gaze, stating that women were/are objectified in film because heterosexual men are largely in control of the camera. In the art world, likewise, men have controlled the canvas artistically, socially and economically for centuries and the images they impart.
The painting is also interspersed with allusions and motifs relating to the psychological theories of Freud, and the era in which it was created. Judith holds an erect sword, a phallic object, alluding to such condescending ideas as female ‘penis envy’, involving girls devotion to the father and blaming the mother for their female ‘disadvantage’. (Female oppression is therefore accepted as biological and not through patriarchal societal, economic and cultural repression). The work similarly implies castration anxiety, fear of emasculation, loss of male power and patriarchal control.
Not only is Judith used as a vehicle and embodiment of male fear, but akin to the most common narratives in contemporary heterosexual pornography, the female is representative of a non-human vessel to hold and satisfy male heterosexual fantasy and desire.
Despite being created centuries later, it does however, like Gentileschi’s social context, imply an ongoing patriarchal cultural and societal hegemony.
The male perspective of women, because of its exclusivity and subsequent pervasiveness, has become the view of womanhood. It is ‘normal’. From pornography to advertising, to artworks to film….etc
This, in turn creates what Valie Export describes as ‘a masculine reality’ detrimental to the experience of actually being FEMALE.