For centuries, women have occupied the role of submissive sitters or muses to the authoritative male artist. As art critic John Berger famously wrote, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female”. What does it mean then when women try to take back some of the power lost in male artists’ depictions of them as objects? What does it mean when women cease to see the surveyor as solely male and recognise the possibilities of an artwork as an act of female agency? In short, what does it mean then when women represent women?
These are just some of the questions that “Madam and Eve: Women Portraying Women”, a timely anthology of artwork by and of women from across the past 50 years, hopes to tackle. With an incredible number of illustrations – 200 to be exact – and teeming with informative descriptions, “Madam and Eve” is a vital art book in an era when women are standing up for themselves across industry and society more than ever. The book’s authors, Liz Rideal and Kathleen Soriano, have no qualms about it: “Madam and Eve” is a feminist exploration. One, they write in the book’s foreward, that stemmed from “a desire to investigate… what kind of impact the feminist movement has had on the development of contemporary art”. It is a goal in which they have undoubtedly succeeded, the book serving as a direct and empowering response to women’s increasing visibility and independence since the 1970s.
“Madam and Eve” is an effort to recognise not only the frequently overlooked contributions that women have made to art in the past half a century, but also the multilayered complexity of women capturing women. Seen through a woman’s eyes, a woman is no longer just a docile site of artistic desire, but is a multifaceted person, riddled with contradictions and the complicated turbulence of a rich interior life. Many of the works in this meticulously curated selection constitute a retaliation or subversion to the ways in which women have historically been depicted by men.
Here, the body is treated with sardonic wit as in Penny Slinger’s photomontages, or shocking realism à la Jenny Saville’s gargantuan paintings, or even a playful sense of humour, as exemplified by Hattie Stewart’s digital compositions. What is really breathtaking about this book, however, is the range of artists included and how they try to counter the stifling regime of men portraying women in uniquely transgressive ways. Artists as diverse as Martha Rosler, Alice Neel, Rosemarie Trockel, Marlene Dumas, Mika Rottenberg, Orlan, Yoko Ono, Amalia Ulman and Louise Bourgeois are all featured here in themed chapters, looking at life, death, the body and more. Foregrounded by a detailed historical framework, “Madam and Eve” is an invigorating and necessary celebration of female representation.
“Madam and Eve: Women Portraying Women” by Liz Rideal and Kathleen Soriano is published by Laurence King and is now available here.