The vagina has been a very popular subject for artists throughout history, from ancient sculptures to modern art installation, the vagina has, and probably always will be, a well of artistic inspiration. But for those with vaginas, how does this art affect how womxn are perceived and treated in society as a whole?
If you have ever frequented an art museum, it may have occurred to you that Renaissance fine artists appear to be slightly fixated on the naked human form. Penises and breasts are often focal points of many paintings and sculptures, but the vagina has had a slightly different treatment. Whether it was due to the sensitivities of the general public to the femxle body or to stay in-keeping with other artists of the day, in any given painting or statue the vagina will be delicately covered by a drape or item of clothing. Bottichelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ from the 1480’s is a very good example of the extreme lengths Bottichelli went to when attempting to cover femxle genitalia. This beautiful depiction of Venus bares some resemblance to the ancient Greco-Roman statues of the goddess, except for the inclusion of her hair covering the vagina. While in most sculptures the vagina is not carved in great detail, Bottichelli omitted the organ all together.
Other figures, such as ‘The Statue of David’ have not had the same treatment when it comes to protecting the modesty of the subject. Indeed, most statues and paintings of the opposite sex during this time are far from covered, even the paintings in Sistine Chapel have a large volume of penises but no uncovered vaginas. The tactical covering of the vagina creates an air of mystery and maybe even fear surrounding the genitalia, reflecting a time when gynaecology as a discipline was extremely primitive.
The trend of keeping the vulva almost entirely unseen continued throughout much of the late renaissance and into the late nineteenth century until modernism arrived on the horizon. While many artists distanced themselves from realistic styles of painting, opting for more abstract styles like impressionism or later cubism, some artists remained true to the realist form. One of these artistic purists known for his nude paintings is Gustave Courbet, the man behind perhaps one of the most detailed artistic depictions of the vagina for the time. ‘L’origine De Monde’, painted in 1866, which shows a close-up view of the femxle genitalia with the model’s limbs and head mainly out of view. While the model is widely agreed to be Courbet’s friend and possible lover Joanna Hiffernan, Courbet’s intentions behind the painting and his other works in this series leaves a lot of questions for modern audiences.
Why did Courbet feel the need to not include the legs, arms and head in the painting, focusing solely on the vagina itself? Those who would give him the benefit of the doubt may argue that Courbet was simply admiring the models genitals, perhaps even making some sort of feminist statement about freedom of expression. These arguments, unfortunately, fall flat upon a little more contextual digging. The piece is thought to have been commissioned by an Ottoman diplomat named Halil Şerif Pasha to be part of his personal collection of erotic artwork. Is this collection of erotic nude portraits, especially the graphic ‘L’Origine De Monde’ intrusive, or simply an appreciation of the femxle body? Can we ever know if the model consented to the painting being distributed or if she was even aware of its sale? When you ask yourself these questions, it becomes increasingly hard to believe these painting are simply a painter and a diplomat sharing a grand appreciation for the vagina. ‘L’Origine De Monde’ cannot escape the male gaze because it was created by and for male consumption in 1866. Whether it has then gone on to be hailed as a triumph for the acceptance and appreciation of the vagina may be relevant to the here and now, but the conception of the painting remains extremely voyeuristic.
The conversation about vaginal art is not complete without mentioning the titan of modernist art, Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe’s yonic flowers are not only beautiful but also artistically depict the vagina from the point of view of a vagina-owner. While there is no doubt that paintings like ‘Black Iris’ and ‘Flower of Life ii’ are some of the most visually striking pieces of modern art, the re-imagining of the vagina as vibrant flowers is a far cry from the graphic, life-like painting produced by Courbet. From the colour palette to the curving brush-strokes, these paintings have been idolised by feminists and the general public alike. There are, however, still some issues with O’Keeffe’s art and what it means for those with vaginas.
When you think of a flower, what kind of descriptors come to mind? Maybe you thought of some words like ‘pretty’ or ‘gift from a partner’ or ‘delicate’, all very apt words to describe a flower, but what about when these words are used to describe a vagina? The use of a flower to illustrate the vulva and the subsequent connotations produced of fragility or materialistic status, places those with vaginas in a strange place semantically. The vagina as an organ is extremely powerful, durable and sophisticated, but in her paintings, O’Keeffe parallels them with pretty and palatable flowers. These paintings, despite being painted by a womxn, can still be questioned and considered, just as with Courbet’s work: are they too dominated by the male gaze? O’Keeffe’s work may not be immediately sexual, but a flower is still in many ways an object to be admired or plucked. Does this mean that those with vaginas are subject to the same treatment or to be viewed as weak or as something to be given or taken away? While I don’t think this is the intended reading of O’Keeffe’s work, alternative viewpoints certainly shed an unflattering light on these otherwise beautiful paintings.
It may seem odd debating how yonic art effects the lives of those with vaginas, because realistically it doesn’t anymore. Not directly at least. These paintings however, and the medium of art as a whole, is history’s version of Instagram, and how womxn are depicted through artistic mediums have, for better or for worse, had an impact on the treatment of those with vaginas in the real world. Fine art is rarely detached from the male gaze, and unfortunately, I’m not sure it ever will be when it comes to artistic depictions of the vagina. The art world kept femxle genitalia hidden from view for far too long, creating an air of mystery and scandal around its presence. Just think about how the media goes wild when a celebrity has a wardrobe mishap getting out of the car or at the beach. The vagina’s tenuous relationship with the media and art, has meant that any kind of depiction will be met with fascination, and as a by-product, sexual connotations. The penis is not given the same treatment because it has never really been hidden from the public eye. Visit any renaissance art show and you’ll see more phallus’ than you can count, but the vagina remains hidden, merely hinted at.
The prudishness of our predecessors has made it almost impossible to separate the vagina as an organ from the vagina as a medium for sexual pleasure. However, such reductive depictions are being challenged. For one, the Eurocentric dominance that stifled much of the history of fine art, including yonic art, has long since began to be addressed and counteracted. Depictions of femxle genitals by artists like Wangechi Mutu challenge white supremacy. In ‘Sprout’, the artist paints not only genitalia, but as noted by Alpesh Kantilal Patel, displays in her buckled model the distorting and brutal effects of European colonialism. With such art being produced, perhaps in the future we can reclaim the artistic vagina. Steps are being taken by many twenty-first century artists producing challenging work, such as Jamie McCartney’s famous, ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’, but there is still a long road to travel down until yonic art is as widely accepted as phallic art.
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