Vagina and vulva in art

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The vagina and vulva have been depicted in art from prehistory to the contemporary art era of the 21st century. Visual art forms representing the female genitals encompass two-dimensional (e.g. paintings) and three-dimensional (e.g., statuettes). As long ago as 35,000 years ago, people sculpted Venus figurines that exaggerated the abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, or vulva.

In 1866, Gustave Courbet painted a picture of a nude woman which depicted the female genitals, entitled "The Origin of the World". In the 20th and 21st century, artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Megumi Igarashi and Anish Kapoor have created artworks that depict the vagina or vulva. Sometimes these are explicitly works of feminist art: Judy Chicago created The Dinner Party to celebrate 39 women of history and myth, many of whom had fallen into obscurity. Other artists deny that their works reference the female genitalia, although critics view them as such; the flower paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe are a case in point.

There have long been folklore traditions, such as the vagina loquens ("talking vagina") and the vagina dentata ("toothed vagina"). Playwright Eve Ensler wrote The Vagina Monologues, a popular stage work about many aspects of women's sexuality. In some cases, vagina- or vulva-themed art has attracted controversy and led to legal issues or official censorship pertaining to perceptions of obscenity.

Cultural aspects[edit]

The vagina represents a powerful symbol as the yoni in Hindu thought. Pictured is a stone yoni found in Cát Tiên sanctuary, Lam Dong, Vietnam.

Various perceptions of the vagina have existed throughout history, including the belief it is the center of sexual desire, a metaphor for life via birth, inferior to the penis, visually unappealing, inherently unpleasant to smell, or otherwise vulgar.[1][2][3] The vagina has been known by many names,[4] including the ancient vulgarism "cunt", euphemisms ("lady garden"), slang ("pussy"), and derogatory epithets. Some cultures view the vulva as something shameful that should be hidden. For example, the term pudendum, the Latin term used in medical English for the external genitalia, literally means "shameful thing".

Positive views of the vagina use it to represent female sexuality, spirituality, or life, e.g. as a "powerful symbol of womanliness, openness, acceptance, and receptivity ... the inner valley spirit".[5] Hinduism has given the world the symbol of the yoni, and this may indicate the value that Hindu society has given female sexuality and the vagina's ability to birth life.[6] Other ancient cultures celebrated and even worshipped the vulva, for example in some ancient Middle Eastern religions and the paleolithic artworks dubbed "Old Europe" by archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. As an aspect of Goddess worship such reverence may be part of modern Neopagan beliefs.



The Venus of Hohle Fels sculpture, which is at least 35,000 years old, is the oldest example of a vulva in art.

Two-dimensional and three-dimensional representations of the vulva, i.e. paintings and figurines, exist from tens of millennia ago. They are some of the earliest works of prehistoric art.

The cave of Chufín located in the town of Riclones in Cantabria (Spain) has prehistoric rock art which may be a depiction of the vulva. The cave was occupied at different periods, the oldest being around 20,000 years ago. Aside from schematic engravings and paintings of animals, there are also many symbols, such as a those known as "sticks". There is also a large number of drawings using points (puntillaje), including one which has been interpreted as a representation of a vulva.

A Venus figurine is an Upper Paleolithic statuette portraying a woman. Most have been unearthed in Europe, but others have been found as far away as Siberia, extending their distribution across much of Eurasia. Most of them date from the Gravettian period (28,000–22,000 years ago), but examples exist as early as the Venus of Hohle Fels, which dates back at least 35,000 years to the Aurignacian, and as late as the Venus of Monruz, from about 11,000 years ago in the Magdalenian.

These figurines were carved from soft stone (such as steatite, calcite or limestone), bone or ivory, or formed of clay and fired. The latter are among the oldest ceramics known. In total, over a hundred such figurines are known; virtually all of modest size, between 4 cm and 25 cm in height. Most of them have small heads, wide hips, and legs that taper to a point. Various figurines exaggerate the abdomen, hips, breasts, thighs, or vulva. In contrast, arms and feet are often absent, and the head is usually small and faceless.

Ancient times[edit]

The ancient Sumerians regarded the vulva as sacred[7][8] and a vast number of Sumerian poems praising the vulva of the goddess Inanna have survived.[8] In Sumerian religion, the goddess Nin-imma is the divine personification of female genitalia.[9][10] Her name literally means "lady female genitals".[10] She appears in one version of the myth of Enki and Ninsikila in which she is the daughter of Enki and Ninkurra.[10][11] Enki rapes her and causes her to give birth to Uttu, the goddess of weaving and vegetation.[10][11] Vaginal fluid is always described in Sumerian texts as tasting "sweet"[8] and, in a Sumerian Bridal Hymn, a young maiden rejoices that her vulva has grown hair.[8] Clay models of vulvae were discovered in the temple of Inanna at Ashur;[12] these models likely served as some form of amulets, possibly to protect against impotency.[12]

11th and 12th century[edit]

A 12th century sheela na gig on the church at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England

Sheela na gigs are 11th and 12th century figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. They are architectural grotesques found on churches, castles, and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Great Britain, sometimes together with male figures. One of the best examples may be found in the Round Tower at Rattoo, in County Kerry, Ireland. There is a replica of the round tower sheela na gig in the county museum in Tralee town. Another well-known example may be seen at Kilpeck in Herefordshire, England.

Such carvings are said to ward off death and evil.[13][14] Other grotesques, such as gargoyles and hunky punks, were frequently part of church decorations all over Europe. It is commonly said that their purpose was to keep evil spirits away through the use of apotropaic magic. They often are positioned over doors or windows, presumably to protect these openings.

Weir and Jerman argue that their location on churches and the grotesque features of the figures, by medieval standards, suggests that they represented female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting.[14] Another theory, espoused by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts, is that the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or mother goddess religion.[15] A 2016 book by Starr Goode called the Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power, traces these images throughout history and contributes a discussion of the universality of "female sacred display" in it meanings and functions back to the origins of culture as seen in the Paleolithic cave art through the inclusion of the image in contemporary art, particularly feminist art.[16]

Folklore traditions[edit]

The vagina loquens, or "talking vagina", is a significant tradition in literature and art, dating back to ancient folklore motifs.[17][18] These tales usually involve vaginas talking due to the effect of magic or charms, and often admitting to their unchastity.[17]

Another folk tale concerns the vagina dentata ("toothed vagina"). The implication of these tales is that sexual intercourse might result in injury, emasculation, or castration for the man involved. These stories were frequently told as cautionary tales warning of the dangers of unknown women and to discourage rape.[19]

Contemporary art[edit]

While Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings have been interpreted by some modern feminist artists as stylized depictions of the vulva, O'Keeffe herself consistently denied these Freudian interpretations of her paintings (pictured is "Blue and Green Music", 1921).

In 1966, the French artist Niki de Saint Phalle collaborated with Dadaist artist Jean Tinguely and Per Olof Ultvedt on a large sculpture installation entitled "hon-en katedral" (also spelled "Hon-en-Katedrall", which means "she-a cathedral") for Moderna Museet, in Stockholm, Sweden. The outer form is a giant reclining sculpture of a woman with her legs spread. Museum patrons can go inside her body by entering a door-sized vaginal opening.[20] Saint Phalle stated that the sculpture represented a fertility goddess who was able to receive visitors into her body and then "give birth" to them again.[21] Inside her body is a screen showing Greta Garbo films, a goldfish pond and a soft drink vending machine. The piece elicited immense public reaction in magazines and newspapers throughout the world.

From 1974 to 1979, Judy Chicago, a feminist artist, created the vulva-themed installation artwork "The Dinner Party". It consists of 39 elaborate place settings arranged along a triangular table for 39 mythical and historical famous women. Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Theodora of Byzantium are among those honoured. Each plate, except the one corresponding to Sojourner Truth (a Black woman), depicts a brightly-colored, elaborately styled butterfly-vulva form.[22] After it was produced, despite resistance from the art world, it toured to 16 venues in six countries to a viewing audience of 15 million.[23] Since 2007, it has been on permanent exhibition in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Chicago gave Georgia O'Keeffe a prominent place in The Dinner Party, because some modern feminists believe that O'Keeffe's detailed flower paintings such as Black Iris III (1926) evoke a veiled representation of female genitalia. O'Keeffe consistently denied the validity these Freudian interpretations of her art.[24]

American Annie Sprinkle turned her genitals into performance art with her "Public Cervix Announcement", first unveiled in the early 1980s and then reprised for her 1990s touring show, "Post-Porn Modernist". In it, she lay back in a reclining chair on a low stage, inserted a speculum into her vagina, and invited members of the audience to look at her cervix.[25] The phrase was taken up in 2018 by cancer charities in Britain[26] and Australia[27] asking women to take a Pap test to rule out cervical cancer.

Modern artistic representation of the vagina coincides with 18th century anatomical dissection and identification of the genitalia (i.e., William Hunter). Contemporary art, from a feminist perspective, has revisited and deconstructed the androcentric view of woman genitalia and the stereotypical identification with female subjectivity (i.e., Ana Mendieta, Enrique Chagoya, Vik Muniz, Candice Lin, etc.).[28]

The London performance art group the Neo Naturists had a song and an act called "Cunt Power", a name which potter Grayson Perry borrowed for one of his early works: "An unglazed piece of modest dimensions, made from terracotta like clay – labia carefully formed with once wet material, about it’s midriff".[29]

The Vagina Monologues, a 1996 episodic play by Eve Ensler, has contributed to making female sexuality a topic of public discourse. It is made up of a varying number of monologues read by a number of women. Initially, Ensler performed every monologue herself, with subsequent performances featuring three actresses; latter versions feature a different actress for every role. Each of the monologues deals with an aspect of the feminine experience, touching on matters such as sexual activity, love, rape, menstruation, female genital mutilation, masturbation, birth, orgasm, the various common names for the vagina, or simply as a physical aspect of the body. A recurring theme throughout the pieces is the vagina as a tool of female empowerment, and the ultimate embodiment of individuality.[30][31]

Jamie McCartney, based in Brighton on the south coast of England, created the Great Wall of Vagina, made from dozens of casts of real vulvas, showing widespread variation.

On 22 October 2001 the television sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, showed an episode where Marie made an abstract sculpture that many thought looked "inappropriate" While it was clear what it was meant to look like, the "v" word was never used.

Aidan Salahova is an Azerbaijanian artist, gallerist and public person. In an article entitled "Vagina Art Veiled at Azerbaijan's Venice Biennale Pavilion, Causing Some to Cry Censorship", Kate Deimling stated that in 2011, Salahova's "Black Stone", a "sculpture depicting the black stone in Mecca venerated by Muslims within a vagina-like marble frame, were both covered up".[32] She was representing the Azerbaijan Pavilion among other national artists at the 54th Venice Biennale. Two of her artworks previously approved by the ministry of culture were ordered to be covered and eventually removed from the exhibition a day before the opening, "because of government sensitives towards the nation's status as a secular Muslim country".[33] The officials said the works had been damaged during transportation.[34] Commenting on the conflict, the pavilion curator Beral Madra stated that the concept of the removed sculptures had been misinterpreted by the government, and added that in over 25 years of curating she had not "ever experienced this kind of conflict".

In 2012, an image of an 1866 Gustave Courbet painting of the female genitals, entitled "The Origin of the World", being posted on Facebook led to a legal dispute. After a French teacher posted an image of the painting, Facebook considered the image to be pornographic and suspended his account for violating its terms of use.[35] The Huffington Post called the painting "a frank image of a vagina."[36] Mark Stern of Slate, who called the painting a stunning, brilliant "....cornerstone of the French Realistic movement", states that the teacher then sued the website for allegedly violating his freedom of speech.[35] In October 2013, artist Peter Reynosa created a "... red and white acrylic painting [that] depicts [pop singer] Madonna painted in the shape of a defiant yonic symbol that looks like a vagina or vulva."[37]

101 Vagina is a 2013 black-and-white photo-book by Philip Werner, with a foreword by Toni Childs. The book contains 101 close-up nude photos shot in a non-provocative way, along with an accompanying story or message written by each woman about her vagina. The book's photos and stories were exhibited five times in Australia in 2013, with a US and Canadian tour in 2014 taking in six locations.[38][39] Werner was initially inspired by The Vagina Monologues and subjects were found via social media after Werner publicised his objective to create a book that had both an educational and celebratory goal.[38][40] Stories accompanying the photos discuss various themes, including ageing, pregnancy, Brazilian waxing, first sexual encounter and poor body image.[41] In Sydney the exhibition was visited by police responding to a complaint that the images were visible from the street.[42][43] Images were required to be censored as part of a group exhibition at The Sydney Fringe.[44]

Lena Marquise is a Russian-born, American visual and performance artist. Her work often covers the subjects of sex work and censorship, eliciting critical response for its controversial eroticism. In 2014, at Art Basel Miami, Marquise performed in an installation artwork, "Body As Commodity", at VECTOR Gallery. In this artwork, she charged cellphones with her vagina. Musical artist Usher visited VECTOR Gallery on December 3, 2014, and he participated by charging his cell phone[45][46][47][48][49][50] inside the installation. It was the top story generated during Art Basel. VECTOR Gallery is curated and operated by JJ Brine, who is an American visual artist and gallerist. He has drawn attention and critical response for his use of controversial Satanic imagery.[51] Brine and Lena Marquise have previously collaborated on an erotic Satanic short film "The Visitor" written by Brine and performed by Marquise as the Biblical Mary where she masturbates with a knife while chanting patriarchal verses as a commentary on mass genital mutilation in Egypt.[52]

In Japan, artist Megumi Igarashi has drawn attention for her work featuring vaginas and vulvas, which she considers "overly hidden" in Japan compared to male genitalia. In July 2014, Igarashi was arrested by Japanese authorities for distributing 3D data of her vulva to contributors of her crowdsource campaign. She has also made vagina-themed sculptures.[53] While police charged Igarashi for her vulva- and vagina-themed artworks, there are several phallus festivals in Japan in which participants parade with massive penis sculptures, a practice which is deemed acceptable by authorities.

In 2015 Anish Kapoor, a Turner Prize-winning artist, created controversy with his sculpture entitled "Dirty Corner", a "massive steel funnel set in broken stone, placed in the garden of the...Palace of Versailles", which he claims is a depiction of the vagina of the former Queen of France.[54] In 2016, Lori-Malépart Traversy made an animated documentary about the unrecognized anatomy of the clitoris.[55] In 2017, Alli Sebastian Wolf created a golden 100:1 scale model anatomical of a clitoris, called the Glitoris and said, she hopes knowledge of the clitoris will soon become so uncontroversial that making art about them would be as irrelevant as making art about penises.[56]

See also[edit]


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