“You are here to serve your masters.” This is a line from the S&M classic Story of O (1954), a tale about a career woman who succumbs to sexual slavery in a secluded château at the behest of her lover, René.
American artist Judy Chicago has reprinted a section of the text beneath a photograph of a gun pointed directly at the naked backside of a woman on all fours. The image is called Love Story (1971). Following the Fifty Shades phenomenon this year, it appears timely.
While Chicago’s artistic descendants, such as Tracey Emin, have adopted a more equivocal approach to feminism, this compact survey of her work is a reminder of the debt we owe to the women’s movement of the 1970s. The task of challenging submissive representations of women remains urgent.
Chicago was born into a progressive Jewish family in 1939. She changed her surname to Chicago - her birthplace - in 1970 in a bid to rid herself of male domination. She is best known for The Dinner Party (1979), a spectacular homage to 1,038 women in history, now permanently housed at The Brooklyn Museum, New York.
Ben Uri Museum focuses on Chicago’s other projects, notably documentations of Womanhouse, a derelict Hollywood mansion that she helped to transform into a centre for feminist art in 1972. Ablutions was a performance piece that involved women covering themselves in cow’s blood, eggs, and clay, to a soundtrack of rape testimonies.
Women and Smoke (1972) points to a kind of feminist creation myth, tinged with Californian hippydom. The photographs show more naked women, painted green, and sitting in the desert surrounded by jets of brilliantly coloured smoke. It is not clear whether they are expecting rescue or starting a brand new society without men; the latter seems more likely.
The inclusion of works by Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgeois, and Emin, highlights the thematic continuities between different generations of female artists. But while Chicago stressed the personal as political – intimate revelation as a route to broader understanding – Emin’s wounded self-explorations appear more along the lines of the personal as personal.
Chicago’s signature style of lapping, graphic, psychedelic vulvas belongs to its time; her butterflies as symbols of female liberation have long been hijacked by self-help culture. But her contribution remains significant; this kind of art should not be seen as embarrassingly committed, but a resource that we can learn from.
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