Compare and contrast the work of two contemporary women illustrators or artists. Situate their work in a social and historical context and examine how their work addresses questions of gendered identity.
In this essay, I will examine the work of Ana Mendieta and Jenny Saville, two contemporary women artists from two separate movements in history; The Women’s Movement of the 1970’s, and The Britart Movement of the 1990’s. I will compare and contrast the different approaches they take on female subjectivity, and then conclude with whom raises questions of gendered identity the most effectively.
Jenny Saville was sprung into the art world when Charles Saatchi famously discovered her work and set her up in a studio to paint more pictures for him to buy. She joined the ranks of other young British artists to be part of the movement known as Britart, an explosion which culminated from media and political hype at that time, namely ‘Cool Brittania’. Saville read extensively on the subject of feminist theory, with particular interest on why, as feminist art historian Linda Nochlin pointed out, “there have been no great women artists.” Her paintings are often compared to old masters Rubens and Courbet, but most usually to contemporary painter Lucien Freud. As such, she is typically described as a “New Old Master” based on the technical aptitude and sheer scale of her female nudes which are implicitly related to the male-dominated art history.
Unlike those male predecessors, Saville paints from a starkly female point of view. Her figures are not the idealised stereotype of beauty painted with the male gaze in mind; their flesh takes on all manner of mottled tones and their bodies are far from erotically posed.”The history of art has been dominated by men, living in ivory towers, seeing women as sexual objects. I paint women as most women see themselves. I try to catch their identity, their skin, their hair, their heat, their leakiness. I do have this sense with female flesh that things are leaking out. A lot of our flesh is blue, like butcher’s meat. In history, pubic hair has always been perfect, painted by men. In real life, it moves around, up your stomach, or down your legs.’ (Independent interview, 1994)
Plan, 1993, a 9ft high nude self portrait, towers above the viewer like a mountain of flesh. The figure’s arm is drawn across both breasts in a gesture which suggests negativity while the scale of the canvas and perspective makes the body look gargantuan; the contours of the flesh are marked as if Saville is on a hospital trolley waiting for her fat to be sucked out by a cosmetic surgeon. Alison Rowley asks if Saville worries about her size in an article on scale. ‘…it would be possible to read as signified by the size of the canvas for Plan Saville’s figuration of the psychic dimensions of her own body, as it is constructed at the intersection of her physical body with all those discourses, of the fashion and cosmetics, the diet, health products and plastic surgery industry, that operate to produce the sign “desirable feminine body” for this culture as something other than her size and shape. The composition of the figure within the frame strengthens this signification: not only does it need a canvas 9′ x 7′ to accommodate it but even then it’s a squash to get it in.’ As I understand it, Saville addresses her gender through challenging the expectations placed on women to look good in a male-dominated society. She herself admits “‘I haven’t had liposuction myself but I did fall for that body wrap thing where they promise four inches off, or your money back.” and she states beauty as being “…the male image of the female body.” (Independent Interview, 1994) She frequently uses herself in her images but the exaggerated folds of flesh speak volumes in an age where we are obsessed with our bodies. The standard reaction, particularly from a male view point is to recoil in disgust, prompting us to question how the media has so effectively brainwashed a society to think plastic surgery is normal; when in fact the horrifying reality is that women now feel a desperate sense of urgency to have their bodies prodded, probed and sliced in the name of beauty.
“By materializing the abject female body, Saville reveals what lurks in the feminine imagination. That is to say, by representing a specific idea of femininity, she speaks to the disparity between the way that many women feel about their bodies and the reality of how those bodies are perceived by others.” Michelle Meagher. Jenny Saville and a Feminist Aesthetics of Disgust. Page 34 Jenny Saville’s monumental paintings speak up for women with a strong political message for the age we live in. She pushes “her brilliant and relentless embodiment of our worst anxieties about our own corporeality and gender” Nochlin, Linda 2000. Floating in Gender Nirvana. Art in America 88. Page 97) with shocking reality and is a testament to how history and society has shaped us.
In the series Closed Contact, Saville took a diversion from paint to collaborate with fashion photographer Glen Luchford. The resulting grotesquely distorted self-portraits were achieved via manipulation of the flesh upon a plane of perspex. The same strikingly similar effects were created in a work entitled Glass on Body from 1972 by the artist Ana Mendieta. She, as Saville, manipulated her face, breasts, hips, thighs and buttocks against a sheet of glass, thus interpreting her body as sculpture to provocative effect. Saville refers to her body as a prop, saying in an interview with Elton John “It’s like loaning my body to myself. So the flesh becomes like a material. In the photographs the flesh was like paint. Those pictures all came out of my exposure to plastic surgery. I worked with this plastic surgeon in New York for quite a few months, and I saw all of this manipulation of flesh and liposuction and surgeons’ fists moving around inside breasts.” (Interview. Elton John. October 2003.) I think a reference to ‘Mendieta’s manipulation of her own malleable flesh against the glass and the resulting carnivalesque perversion of her once recognizable figure turn body art toward such feminist issues as the normative construction of beauty and the female body as monstrous other.’ Blocker, Jane Where is Ana Mendieta? Identity, Performativity, and Exile (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999) P.11 is an equally appropriate understanding of Saville’s art.
Anna Mendieta emerged during the woman’s art movement of the 1970’s. Being exiled from her native country of Cuba when she was 12 years old resulted in feelings of displacement, and she addressed issues of cultural identity as well as her gender through performance and body art. Unlike Saville, who traditionally uses paint in a realist sense, Mendieta explored these relatively new mediums when she “…realized my paintings were not real enough for what I wanted the image to convey – and by real I mean I wanted my images to have power, to be magic.” (Ana Mendieta: “Pain of Cuba, Body I Am” Kaira M. Cabanas Woman’s Art Journal, Vol. 20, Page 12) While dealing with taboo subject matter she could directly change the male gaze from one customarily of desire and give a voice to the female nude that for centuries before did not have one. In a performance in 1972, Mendieta had a male friend shave off his facial hair as she applied the pieces to her face, thus assuming the symbols of male identity. Saville addressed the same issue with “Passage”, 2004, which features a transvestite between genders.”Thirty or forty years ago this body couldn’t have existed and I was looking for a kind of contemporary architecture of the body. I wanted to paint a visual passage through gender – a sort of gender landscape.” (Saatchi Gallery)
Although both artists focus on the female body, Mendieta used her own for every art piece she created and, unlike Saville, she took her work out of the studio. Her Siluetas series combined issues of race and identity when she left imprints of her body in the landscape. These earth-body sculptures were created with natural materials such as flowers, earth, fire and blood and, as with most of her works, were linked to the rituals of Santeria, a religion that grew out of the slave trade in Cuba and which Mendieta studied to get back to her roots. The Siluetas seem to change form and shape from one to the other, and some take on the exaggerated appearance of a vagina, the uniquely female thing that appears central to most feminist art. ‘…by creating a fusion with nature, Mendieta affirms, through their common fertility, a feminine specificity. The Earth-mother in this respect constitutes an all powerful, truly mythical generality, in which Mendieta’s body literally melts, and in a certain sense becomes lost; the affirmation of a collective identity so clearly implying the dissolution of personal identity.’ Creissels, Anne ‘From Leda to Daphne, Sacrifice and Virginity in the Work of Ana Mendieta’ in The Sacred and the Feminine, Imagination and Sexual Difference, ed. By Griselda Pollock and Victoria Turvey Sauron (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007) p. 183 The problem is that women working with nature is regarded as a uniquely feminine approach and ‘… has the disadvantage of contributing to the perpetuation of a system of domination founded on the opposition of the sexes.’ Creissels, Anne ‘From Leda to Daphne, Sacrifice and Virginity in the Work of Ana Mendieta’ in The Sacred and the Feminine, Imagination and Sexual Difference, ed. By Griselda Pollock and Victoria Turvey Sauron (London: I.B.Tauris, 2007) p. 183
An earlier work from 1973, “Rape Scene”, was a performance in which Mendieta smeared herself in blood and tied herself face down on a table to be discovered by colleagues she had invited to her apartment. It dealt with violence against the female body and aimed to “…expose the violence and control that can lie behind the (male) gaze, which for them (us) is neither novel nor escapable.” (Where is Ana Mendieta? Jane Blocker. Page 15) A photograph documenting the scene appears remarkably as if intended to look like forensic evidence. Blood was frequently used in Mendieta’s performances to spark controversy.
A Self-portrait from 1973 shows Mendieta with blood running down her face as she looks down into the lens of the camera. This compares with a piece by Saville entitled “Reverse”, in which the artists head is shown sideways on a reflective surface. Both Mendieta’s and Saville’s faces look bloodied and brutal, as though they had been beaten up. The eyes in both are empty and listless. Lips are parted. The depiction of Saville’s face in Reverse as swollen and scabbed actually comes from her fascination with plastic surgery and the women who underwent such operations. However, she would never call her paintings self-portraits as she is “… not interested in the outward personality. I don’t use the anatomy of my face because I like it, not at all. I use it because it brings out something from inside, a neurosis.” (Under the skin, The Guardian, Suzie Mackenzie, 22/10/2005)
Ana Mendieta and other artists involved with the woman’s art movement did accomplish a lot by breaking the boundaries and bringing to light the injustices women have to bear just for being female thus establishing a place for women’s art. The visual language raised by Mendieta in her performances had an ethereal poignancy reflecting her traumatic childhood experience. However, as other female artists of the era were creating art with their bodies while spiritually bonding with nature it was easy to term them as ‘Goddess Artists’ Edelson, Mary Beth, ‘Male Grazing: An Open Letter to Thomas McEvilley’ in Feminisim-Art-Theory, an Anthology 1968-2000, ed. By Hilary Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001)P.593 a category they vehemently objected to, but nonetheless, creating giant vaginas and frolicking naked in the leaves can detract from the serious feminist angle. Jenny Saville’s art cannot be taken anything but seriously. Her uniquely female perspective of nude women which have historically been painted by men for centuries begs the question, has a patriarchal art history defined beauty? The expectations placed on women to look a certain way are crushingly everywhere. The female form is nothing but an object of desire for the very men that moulded this ideal and the women who desire that unattainable ideal. In a society where women are controlled via a visual media which has evolved from pictures made by man, Saville has opened my eyes to the rituals I perform in the upkeep of being female. In contrast, Mendieta’s ritualistic performances, although captivating and thought provoking, seem more about self-cleansing and embedded in the spiritual to compete with men in a patriarchal art world.