In my second year at university I opted to take a History of Art course to make up those extra credits and dip my toes into something outside of the social sciences. I have always loved looking at art: it enables you to see how someone else thinks about the world and their place within it. Viewing art is like taking a walk through someone’s mind. It has the ability to capture and immortalise moments and feelings. But more than that, works of art have embedded within them a little part of the person who created, conceived and conjured them up. With their own hands they managed to wrangle something new and meaningful from nothing. A blank canvas, a block of marble, a handful of unsculpted clay, becomes a vision of the artist’s lover, a nostalgic landscape from their childhood, the heroes they admired, the surreal dreams they dreamt of – futures and past lives lived in different worlds where impossible things happened. The artist, in their mission to reproduce life, describes the world as they see it before them and often the way they wish it could be. However, art is never separable from the social conditions from which it emerges and what is depicted always reveals something about the prejudices, thoughts and biases of its creator.
This I learned doing the history of art course, which brought me into contact with artists and ideas I had never come across before, weaving together artistic movements, paintings and sculptures, films and photographs from across time to show how people had evolved, loved, imagined and expressed themselves. Yet the greatest gift that the course gave me came in the form of a book. A book I’m sure is on the syllabus of every art history course: John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’. This book changed the way I looked at the world forever. That sounds dramatic but I’ve realised, only now with hindsight, that if I’d picked up a different book on the course guide, or had decided to take politics instead that year, I’d have ended up an entirely different person. The ideas in this book have power because they can transform the way you see the world. That affects how you choose to act within it.
‘Ways of Seeing’, a small book of around sixty pages that was published in 1972, revolutionised the way I look at art and made me question, for perhaps the first time, women’s place within it. The ideas in this collection of essays are so profound and emphasised that to attempt to understand a work of art, its intentions, its symbols and its representations, one must act as a detective, take the time to look and decipher what it is saying. What does an artwork tell us about how the artist sees? How does the way they represent others and objects express ideas and feelings they might have about them? What can we learn from the way that women have been portrayed in the history of artistic practice by questioning her relationship with the male gaze?
The book talked about how Western art had supplanted women throughout history as the object of beauty, a thing to be gazed at, seen and admired. Yet they were not the producers of these images. The idealised woman was the object of other people’s gaze, her body was a vehicle for expression of male desire, for his conception of the world. The female nude, one of the most frequently recurring subjects of art, displays woman not as she is to herself but as she is seen. Her nakedness is not something she is in control of, something which belongs to her, but something that the artist is in possession of and which he depicts to please himself. Berger writes, talking about a painting called ‘Allegory of Time and Love’ by Bronzino which depicts the goddess Venus, how “her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality.”
Women, today and for what is there of recorded history, have been the receptacle of ideas about their position in society which have been projected onto them through visual representations of their bodies and depictions of their sexuality, predominantly by men. This has, as Berger points out, created a kind of dividing of the self into two: woman imagining herself to be the surveyor, seeing how other people see her as she moves about the world, and the thing surveyed. “From her earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”
This statement articulated what I had been grappling with for so many years as a young woman. Despite living in a time where I see conscious, intelligent, ambitious and loving women all around, there is still a pervasive and harmful gender power imbalance which sees many, if not all of us at some point, struggling to overcome social pressures to look, act or perform certain roles for others. Advertising, the media, television, pornography – all are examples of spaces where the sexualisation of women is employed in order to sell to people a traditional narrative, where woman is once again posited as an object.
I can point to so many women in my life who, in using their minds, their hearts and their creativity, have actively rejected and challenged, not only how they are seen by patriarchal systems, but also how they are seen by other women who have been shaped by the embedded ideas used to subordinate and oppress them. To have equality would have to include more than just human rights, equality of economic opportunity, equal pay and equal access to education; these things also have to be teamed with women’s access to her own self-depiction, witnessing a reclaiming of what it means to identify as a woman and shape that identity for one’s self. Women need to be able to consciously represent what it means to occupy their bodies, to be able to show diversity of lived experience, to question why they may feel they need to look a certain way, why at times self-worth is derived in direct relation from being sexually attractive to others. In other words, women need to have more access to creative industries, more input in representations of women and be in positions to question prescribed, often vacant and surface-level depictions of woman’s experience.
In reading this book I could see that the images of women which surrounded me were often not images that revealed anything about the women depicted in them. They represented how the function and perceived purpose of women were to be surveyed and displayed. What we learn from thinking about women’s representation in art history is how their selves have been inseparable from their physical presence. These images on the whole have not come from women. So entrenched within Western culture is the act of voyeurism, creating a terrible self-consciousness which makes many women – myself included – feel at times unable to live up to the terrible perfection thrust upon us by representations outwith our own self-creation. When I look at Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, as well as Suzanne Valadon’s and Laura Knight’s, I see women who are subverting standards of beauty, showing that beauty is not invested in the displayed body but inscribed somewhere within it, from a person’s self. In seeing how these female artists have shown themselves – either in the studios, in unconventional forms, tackling difficult and traumatic personal experiences – we see how self-representation allows people to take back ownership of their own identity. They force the viewer to acknowledge that the space which the female artist occupies, as both looker and painter, is one which has always in the past been assumed by a man. Women’s self-representation in art is about ownership of how she is seen as a way to manifest her needs, desires and future possibilities. It is also about forging a space in which they can be seen as being more than just their bodies: they are not empty vessels. Women contain multitudes they want to express and explore, and they want to do it for themselves.
In being aware of the author of images – asking who created this art and for what purpose, and what does this depiction tell us about the person being seen – we, as people surrounded and embedded in images, can look beyond what is presented to us and work to challenge the objectification of women and their bodies in society today. No one can declare what it means to be a woman, for there is no universal way to describe the female experience. I cannot claim to know how a woman in Pakistan or in Brazil imagines or expresses her womanhood; I do not know what she has experienced, nor the context that has shaped her. I don’t want to speak for the intersectional experience of women from different places, or from communities where other aspects of their identity may have been uniquely oppressed in ways that I couldn’t begin to imagine. Yet women realising that they are more than just something to be looked upon, that these ideas are propagated by the predominance of sexualised and traditionally gendered images of them, almost always in a heteronormative way, allows women to look directly back into the eyes of those who have used their bodies for their own ends, have tried to box them in and possess their narratives, and say: I refuse to let how you view me define how I see myself.