Art history is dominated by male works. As Hans Hoffmann said about Lee Krasner ‘This is so good; you would not know it was painted by a woman.’(Hoffmann 1937). It is no surprise when this was the attitude towards female artists. It was only in the 20th century when it became culturally acceptable as well as legal, for women to study art. This part of our history is something all female artists have thought about and why many choose to use the fact that they are female as a strong issue in their work. Two contemporary artists that do this are Kiki smith and Nikki De St Phalle. This essay will assess how they interpret their own unique histories into art and explore key questions about what constitutes female identity.
Art is a reflection of identity and a way of confronting the subject, so before looking at their work, what defines identity, needs to be established. There are two parts; what is felt, thought and behaviour, these are what make individual personalities. Traditions, rituals, the beliefs of a society, also have major influences on lives. It is these two aspects, the personal and social that defines a person’s identity.
Nikki de Saint Phalle attended a prestigious school, Brearley in New York City, but was dismissed for painting fig leaves red on the school's statue; she did not fit in and rebelled against the system. She rejected the traditional, conservative values of her family, which had taught her there are specific domestic positions for wives and certain rules of conduct. However, after marrying young and having two children, she found herself living the same tedious lifestyle of house-wife that she had tried to avoid. After suffering a nervous breakdown, she pursued her painting as a form of therapy. She created different types of work in a Variety of media. Collage work that often featured images including instruments of violence, such as knives and guns. The shooting paintings were she filled polythene bags with paint and covered them within layers of plaster against a block board backing, which were then shot at to release the paint like blood, were again violent. See Fig1. This seemed to be her way of dealing with her internal conflict and expressing her anger. After the "Shooting paintings" came a period when she explored the various roles of women. During her teenage years, she was a fashion model; so from a young age she was aware of the body. Inspired by the pregnancy of her friend she began to make life size dolls of women, such as brides and mothers giving birth, celebrating positive aspects of being a woman. They were usually dressed in white, a symbol for pure, clean, innocence. They were primarily made from Paper Mache, ironically a fragile material made rock solid.
These gave way within a few years to the series of ‘Nanas’. She began to consider the female figures in relation to the different positions of women in society. Several black and white Nanas were created in response to the Black Rights movement in America. See Fig2. This was to show her belief that all women are beautiful, regardless of colour. Initially made of fabric with found objects attached, as in Venus 1964 and Erica 1965, the Nanas were exuberant and voluptuous forms; fluid bodies, full of vitality, with vibrant colours and pattern. They were a celebration and symbolic turning point in Nikki’s life.
The ultimate ‘Nana’ was ‘Hon’. See Fig3. A larger than life reclining 'Nana', whose internal environment is entered from between her legs, the piece elicited immense public reaction in magazines and newspapers. The size of the sculpture makes it quite provocative, but with the use of colour and pattern it is playful which intrigues people and invites