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Female artist: the other part of the art

Updated: Apr 11, 2020

By Laura Pieri


Diane Arbus, Marlene Dumas, Ana Mendieta and Gina Pane are some of the women whose talent and genius are universally recognized. They share the merit of having changed the way to see, understand and interpret the society.


Controversial icon of photography, Diane Arbus (born Nemerov) is undoubtedly one of the most significant photographers of the xx century. Born in New York in 1923 in a wealthy family, together with her brothers – the poet Howard and the artist Renée – she lives a protected life far away from the disturbing realities of the metropolis. At the age of 18, she married Allan Arbus with whom she shared life and work, running a fashion photography studio whose production is published in prestigious periodicals such as Glamour and Vogue.

1956 is a pivotal year for her future career: losing interest in fashion photography, she begins to spend her time in the world of alternative culture taking pictures of what she sees around. The meeting with the photographer Lisette Model marks the change in her life and art. Separated from her husband, she turns her attention to a completely different world dominated by the unpleasant, ugly and embarrassing. Her interest is now focused on the

so-called "freaks": this is the beginning of an investigation that looks at the varied parallel world to "normality" made of dwarves, giants, homosexuals, mentally retarded and twins. Emblematic the Identical Twins photo in which two girls are represented in same physiognomy and costume, characterized by a hypnotic gaze and whose only unshared aspect is the expression – one sad and the other glad – to which Kubrick will pay tribute in the movie Shining.

Her works will be published in major magazines such as Esquire, Bazaar, New York Times and Sunday Times raising bitter controversies, as well as the Recent Acquisitions: photography exhibition inaugurated on October 6th, 1965, at the MoMA museum where her works are defined “too strong and offensive”. There is no shortage of criticisms from the conformist wing of society also at the 1967 New Documents exhibition, but by then Diane Arbus is a recognized and established photographer.

On the one hand, the 60s are characterized by intense artistic activity, but on the other, they see her mental and physical health worsen due to hepatitis and severe episodes of depression. On July 26, 1971, she committed suicide in her apartment.

For Diane Arbus, photography was an act of emancipation and rebellion against the American dream. Photographic research aimed at highlighting the relationship between being and appearing, in which eccentricity and banality, theatre and reality coexist. Her search was not for beauty but understanding, especially of those who live on the margins of society.


Another iconic female figure in the art world whose works are entirely focused on the human figure is Marlene Dumas. Born in South Africa in 1953, she grew up in Cape Town and then moved to Amsterdam in 1976, obtaining a degree in psychology, which notably marks her art.

The artist’s debut took place in 1982 at Documenta VII in Kassel, during her career she participated in many collective as well as personal exhibitions, winning countless prizes.

Her art takes inspiration from psychology, art history and popular culture, creating portraits that capture the true essence of people. Canvas is her favourite medium, where the human figure covers the entire two-dimensional space and the characteristic free expressionist gestures are combined with the critical distance typical of conceptual art.

Able to challenge the stereotypes of contemporary society, her works deal with sensitive issues such as racist clichés, identity, perversity and madness. Figures are transformed into emblems – they never reveal social class or provenance – and are used to disclose falsehoods rooted in social constraints. In that regard, the Black Drawings is emblematic: one hundred and ten drawings portraying black people. Despite maintaining the anonymity of the characters, each face has its physiognomic characteristics, thus shifting attention to the identity of each individual and avoiding clichés.

Marlene Dumas is one of the most recognized artists by international critics also for having allowed figurative art to renew and enhance itself in an era where conceptual art is in charge.


In the Seventies, many artists took distance from painting and sculpture landing at Performance Art, an artistic form in which the human body becomes the subject and object of the work itself. This medium allows them to achieve a higher degree of experimentation and above all, the possibility of moving away from confrontation with the male artists who dominate the world of "canonical" visual arts.

Historically, the Performance and Body Art of the seventies are artistic forms engaged in the social issues and construction of female identity, and Ana Mendieta dedicates her career to these causes.

Born in 1948 in Havana from a politically active family in the country, in 1960 at the age of twelve she joined the Peter Pan operation which involved the immigration of about 14,000 children on US soil to flee the Fidel Castro regime. This forced displacement is to be considered the leading cause of the strong sense of non-belonging and divided identity that runs throughout her work.

Ana Mendieta's poetics is a synthesis between Body Art and Land Art, with such an involvement that the artist defines herself as "Earth-Body artist". Central relevance is given to the relationship between the human body and the Earth, intended as primordial Mother Nature. Probably to be considered as an expression of the desire to find a connection with one's homeland through the body, the study of the indigenous ritual practices becomes fundamental, including the Cuban Santeria. At that regard significant is Siluetas, a series of sculptures created between 1973 and 1980 in which, using natural elements, she reproduces female silhouettes similar to her own.

Since the beginning, the artist embraces feminist ideals, and in 1973 with Untitled (Rape Performance) she investigates the themes of violence against women. Ana Mendieta uses her own body to stage sexual abuse at her apartment. A weak light illuminates the semi-naked body lying on the table, bound and tormented by broken glass splinters. A significant visual impact is also inherent in Body Tracks (1982) in which she traces marks on a white canvas using her blood.

Ana Mendieta died prematurely in 1985 at the age of 38 falling from the 34th floor of her apartment where she lived with her husband, Carl Andre.


The investigation on the relationship within body, nature and the world is also Gina Pane's artistic research. Born in Biarritz in 1939, she is a versatile artist – mostly known for her Body Art performances - who considers each creative expression as a means of exploring her inner dimension.

In 1968 she approached the women's emancipation movement denouncing in many of her works the female’s subordinated condition. In the early Seventies, she staged Il Bianco non-Esiste: in front of a stunned crowd, the artist began to injure her face with a blade.

The lesions inflicted are a symbol of the injuries of those suffering abuses while the aim is to break down the aesthetic cage in which women are forced to live. From this moment on, it becomes clear that the theme of enduring physical pain will be constant in its performances, becoming the means to share suffering with the public. Sentimental Action of 1973 - carried out at the Centre Pompidou in Paris - is perhaps to be considered her most famous work. On this occasion, the performance is given a religious connotation: in front of women audience exclusively, the artist is dressed entirely in white with a bouquet of red roses in her hands. Removing the thorns one by one, she uses them to inflict injuries along her arms, transforming this instrument of pain into a symbol of the torment suspended between religiosity and the female condition of sorrow.

Her investigation leads her to live her body to discover weaknesses, limitations and shortcomings, as well as to become aware of her ghosts and find that they are nothing more than the product of the chimaeras created by society.

Gina Pane died in 1990 at the age of fifty-one due to cancer.

Laura Pieri


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