My friend is taking a class on dissent movements in America throughout the 20th century. They have been focusing on countercultural resistance movements with a particular focus on music and art, so naturally we have many discussions on the movements she learns about! She is currently writing a paper on the Guerilla Girls, a group of female artists who worked to smash gender and race inequality within the art world. These female artists, who formed in New York in 1985, remained anonymous by wearing gorilla masks as a play on the name of their group. These masks were often incorporated into their artwork, which ironically strove to unmask startling statistics of underrepresentation of female artists. One artwork that my friend showed me made me instantly think of my Women in Art class not only because the subject matter (and movement as a whole) fits in with what we have been discussing throughout the semester, but also because this artwork referenced a work of art that we had discussed at length in class.
Here is the Guerilla Girls’ Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? from 1989. The bright colors and attention-grabbing title immediately draw the viewer in. The audience assumes they mean that women have to enter the Met Museum without any clothes, but reading the statistic below the title sheds some more light. It says “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” Arguably the most alarming part of this work, however, is the naked woman wearing a gorilla mask! This is what made me even more interested in this artwork.
The woman in this artwork is immediately identifiable as the nude woman in Ingres’ The Grande Odalisque. This painting is known for its blatant objectification of the subject –or should I say object–, who isn’t even a real woman but a composite of the most desirable features of women at the time. The abnormal length of the woman’s back allows us to see that Ingres was not looking to depict a woman, but a woman at whom men wanted to look. The curvature of her body and the look that she gives the viewer indicate that she is not a woman looking at us, but a woman being looked at in a sexual context. This painting also reeks of Orientalism, as the hookah, fan, headdress, and textiles intentionally eroticize and misrepresent a culture.
Putting a gorilla mask overtop of this specific famed artwork accomplishes multiple things for the Guerilla Girls. Firstly, it identifies and mocks an important work of art that exhibits a nude woman, thus providing an example of the shocking statistic within this work. The gorilla mask identifies this work as theirs, since this was their tagline. The most important point this artwork makes is that the nude representations of women degrade the subjects and, by depicting them in overly sexual ways, actually suppress their humanity. By replacing the woman’s face with the face of a gorilla, it likens her to an animal.
My favorite part about art history is that we get to identify problems within society and create art that pointedly draws attention to them in an attempt to solve them. Art has power within society, so art that accompanies dissent always intrigues me! I loved this connection too much not to share.