Who does she think she is?

For centuries, to proclaim oneself as both female and an artist was to risk being seen as decadent, sexually suspect, `unnatural'. And yet there is a rich history of self-portraiture by women who, undeterred by the restrictions of `femininity', have insisted on making their own image. By Suzanne Moore

To look at the self-portraiture of today's female artists - Sarah Lucas suggestively holding a fish outside a men's lavatory or Cindy Sherman's continual play with her own image and identity - it is difficult to imagine a time when the very act of a woman portraying herself was riven with controversy and impropriety.

An intriguing new book by Frances Borzello, Seeing Ourselves: Women's Self Portraits, uncovers not only some hidden treasures but beautifully illustrates the struggle that women have had in order to do what men have taken for granted: simply to represent themselves. Despite the difficulties of being a female artist through the centuries - "the obstacle race", as Germaine Greer memorably described it - Borzello was amazed to find "images of pride, wit and intelligence" that "kept staring back at me from the self-portraits". Such a book could not have been possible without the past three decades of concerted feminist art-historical research. Nonetheless it is difficult to construct what we might call a genre of female self-portraiture, or something as grand as a tradition, for that implies a self-conscious understanding among artists of what had gone before. Borzello argues that this lack of historical awareness is not the same as a lack of history and takes us as far back as 1355, where she finds the first female self-portraits in Boccaccio's illustrations for his manuscript Concerning Famous Women.

What she unearths is the nature of the self-portrait as a kind of language full of its own codes and conventions, many of them unavailable to women. It was fine, for instance, for Joshua Reynolds to paint himself in robes to show he was a doctor of philosophy, or for Rembrandt to refer to Titian in his own self-portrait, but such options were not available to women who, until the 19th century, had problems in depicting themselves as artists at all. Sofonisba Anguissola, in a self-portrait of 1554, shows her signature in a book that she is holding, to ensure that we know the painting is her own work. Not only were women not allowed to enter the academy or to make live drawings of nude males, but to proclaim oneself as both female and an artist was to risk being seen as decadent, as taking oneself too seriously and being sexually suspect.

Women had to be careful to accentuate their femininity; so, unlike their male contemporaries, they could not show themselves in working clothes, because to appear untidy would be a slight on their very morality. Nevertheless, as early as 1633 we find a wonderfully relaxed and self-confident self- portrait by Judith Leyster which has a real air of modernity about it. By 1762 Anna Dorothea Therbusch was able to paint herself as she saw herself, a short-sighted middle-aged woman. Until then, in many of the images that Borzello finds, the woman painting herself is still the object of the male gaze. The artist, even at her easel, could never be at ease: she must be wearing lace and jewels; to find unkempt hair or any hint of scruffiness is unusual.

The difficulty of being both subject and object is evident in many of these images and yet a breathtaking spontaneity shines out of some of them. The enlightenment cult of motherhood enabled women to draw themselves with their babies. In 1789 Marie-Nicole Dumont, in The Artist At Her Occupations, shows herself tending to her baby with an easel and paint in one hand, a kind of 18th-century version of having it all. Yet it was not really until the 19th century that women were able to begin to adopt the public persona of an artist. In 1825, Hortense Haudebourt-Lescot became the first woman in Western art to show herself in an artist's beret. She also added a brush and gold chain as symbols of her professional status. The boldness of this is striking, for women were still protected from the world in order to maintain their respectability. The Russian Marie Bashkirtseff, one of a generation of women who went to Paris to study art in the 1870s, writes plaintively: "What I long for is the freedom of going about alone, of coming and going, of sitting on the seats in the Tuileries ... of walking about the old streets at night; that's what I long for; and that's the freedom without which one can't become a real artist. Do you imagine I can get much good from what I see, chaperoned as I am, and when in order to go to the Louvre, I must wait for my carriage, my lady companion or my family?"

There were improved institutional opportunities for women in the second half of the 19th century but the teacher-pupil relationship, never mind the relationship between the artist and model, was not the same for women as it was for men. The birth of photography, however, opened up a playfulness in female self-portraiture, an immediacy and exploration of gender that would not look out of place amongst the work of contemporary artists. In painting, women began to co-opt male gestures, staring back out from their portraits brush in hand, hand over eyes, a masculine gesture of activity, of endeavour, of not caring how they appeared to the viewer.

Here were women looking at themselves instead of portraying themselves as objects to be looked at and by the beginning of the 20th century a few women at least were able to embrace the persona of the artist as Bohemian. Suzanne Valadon, Gwen John and Paula Modersohn-Becker all produced bold and unapologetic work. Many images of the time reveal a fascination with nudity and with mirrors, a questioning of the ways of looking at femininity itself. Women were also challenging the relationship between artist and model. In 1931 Charlotte Berend-Corinth painted Self Portrait with Model showing the model as an equal to her own self-image rather than as a sexual adjunct. Still it was not easy; we know, for example, that in 1911 Sickert was busy excluding women from his Camden Town group.

It was in the the Thirties and Forties that sexuality itself bursts out of many of women's images of themselves. Women began to feel free enough to paint and photograph themselves in masculine poses or dressed as men, showing an uninhibited sexuality that could be simultaneously butch and femme. At a time when many female Surrealists were disappointing in always having to present themselves as mysterious, beautiful archetypes, Frida Kahlo's series of astonishing self-portraits revealed the agony of her damaged spine and the pain of her miscarriages. My Birth (1932), in which her own head emerges between her legs - Kahlo giving birth to herself - remains one of the most incredible and shocking images of the 20th century.

If women felt they could give birth to their own creativity - for so long the very possibility of being able to create life had excluded them from serious artistic creation - the past 40 years have seen women reclaim, proclaim and deconstruct female identity using the self-portrait. Feminism meant a flurry of activity in the Seventies, much of it confrontational and body-based performance art. Borzello includes performance art under the category of self-portraiture, examining the work of Judy Chicago, Jo Spence, Hannah Wilke and Carolee Schneeman. Schneeman pulled a scrolled up poem about a male filmmaker's view of female art from her own vagina and read it out. Wilke stuck chewing gum all over her naked torso in SOS - Starification Object Series. The body is diseased, is anorexic, is cancerous, is pathologised, is pregnant: all that had been hidden was now in your face.

One might argue that the contemporary emphasis on the body was prefigured and made possible by the overtly feminist work of the Seventies and Eighties. Yet now some of the most interesting female artists are working in a way that undermines the very idea of the self-portrait. The work of Cindy Sherman, for instance, asks the question, which self is being portrayed in any image? Sherman has famously said that she always chooses the photograph in which she can no longer recognise herself. Sarah Lucas has said of her own bolshy self-portraits, "I define myself by what I don't want to be, really."

It is as if the female self-portrait has come full circle: from having to negotiate the restrictive codes of femininity by any means necessary, it is now permissible to play with these codes until they shatter not simply the notion of femininity but the very idea of ego itself. Who is the self in the self-portrait? What happens when a sexual object turns herself into a sexual subject and then deliberately objectifies herself? What happens when women look back instead of becoming preoccupied by what they look like? What does it mean for a woman, like Tracey Emin, unashamedly to proclaim her life a work of art?

These are not new questions. Women have been asking them with ingenuity for hundreds of years. But it is only now that we can begin to appreciate the contribution that the bravery of these women has made to our own self-image. The fact that we can see something of ourselves in the way that women saw themselves hundreds of years ago is testament not only to the power of these images, but surely proof that self-images are still changing, still challenging, still worth looking at

"Seeing Ourselves: Women's Self-Portraits", by Frances Borzello, is published by Thames & Hudson on 6 April, price pounds 28.

Me, myself, I (left to right): with Branded (1992), part of a series of monumental nude self-portraits, Jenny Saville confronts notions of the perfect body; for her 1974 performance SOS - Starification Object Series, Hannah Wilke stuck chewing gum in labial folds all over her naked torso. In the 16th century it was difficult for women to depict themselves as artists at all: Sofonisba Anguissola, in this 1554 self- portrait, holds up her signature to ensure that we know the painting is hers

Real women (left to right): in early self-portraits women had to be careful to accentuate their femininity but in 1762 Anna Dorothea Therbusch dared to paint herself as she saw herself, a short-sighted middle-aged woman; even earlier, in Self-Portrait as La Pittura (c1630-37), Artemisia Gentileschi skirted the problem by combining her own features with the allegorical image of Painting in the throes of creation.

Far right: the advent of photography opened up a playfulness in female self-portraiture and in the 1920s Claude Cahun anticipated the work of Cindy Sherman with her exploration of masks, roles, gender and perception

Renata Rampazzi's Self-Portrait from Below (1975) was part of the Seventies feminist movement to reclaim the female body from centuries of depiction by men. Caught between brushes and belly (far right): Me and My Baby (1992), Gillian Melling's defiant expression the dilemma still alive in the 20th century

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