Did you know that selfies have been around for centuries? – albeit in the less instant, more treasured form of self-portraits. Female artists are particularly interesting as they often used these self- portraits to challenge social or political norms in true acts of feminism and a representation of female power.
Everyone will have heard of Frida Kahlo, the most famous female artist to come out of Mexico. She lived a fascinating life, full of drama but also fraught with suffering, including many love affairs, several miscarriages, and a life-changing bus accident. Art offered an outlet for this pain. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) teems with symbolic references to her suffering. Thorns form a necklace around her, piercing her skin and causing her to bleed. A hummingbird, typically associated with freedom, hangs, black and lifeless, from this necklace. Back luck is represented by the black cat while the monkey, represents protection.
Capet was a French neo-classical portrait painter during the 18th century when art was opening up to women as professionals. Her Self-Portrait (1783) represents the upward movement of female artists at the time. Showing her holding chalk as she sits at an easel, her blue satin dress with ribbons depicts the lightness of the Rococo style of the time. She presents herself with a simple facial expression, highlighting her youth and sensuality. It is a moment captured in time, as with the French Revolution on the horizon, change was coming and women, like Capet, moved into the spotlight.
Part Hungarian, part Sikh, a pioneer of modern Indian art, Sher-Gil is often called India’s Frida Kahlo. Skilled in blending traditional and Western art forms, she had a talent for capturing the female form. Above all, Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women impacted her. He presented the women acknowledging the viewer and displayed their bodies for observation, or as Sher-Gil thought, exploitation. As an “exotic” woman herself in Paris in the 1920s, she decided to confront Gauguin’s paintings. Her retaliation was the creation of Self-Portrait as a Tahitian (1934), challenging Gauguin’s idealized nudes. As seen below, in an act of defiance, she does not face the viewer or acknowledge their gaze.
For more famous female self-portraits, see the Daily Art Magazine’s article here.
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