What motivated Feminism in Art?

As said in Parker and Pollock’s reading, Painted Ladies, to be a great art master one had to be male as only males were given the necessary ‘tools’ of becoming one. Namely the academic skills as well as the power to have access. This essay aims to critique the ideological construct of Modern Art. It will make reference to the artwork Self portrait, 1906 by  Paula Modersohn-Becker,  as the artist attempts to redefine the female figure.

Modern Art has ideologies that were born long before ‘Modern Art’ was defined. During the Renaissance up until the nineteenth century, an artists success was defined by their skills in representing the human figure. Artists were taught to stay the female body. However women were not denied this privilege. The male access to the female body is form of power and control. Therefore males during this time had the ‘tools’ of being well trained as artists as well as having power and control over the female body and therefore were permitted to become great ‘masters’.

In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self Portrait of 1906, the artist tries to redefine the female figure. Previously the female figure had been one that males have access to, one that is ‘passive, available (…) frankly desirable and over sexualised'(Parker and Pollock). Although the title suggests that the painting is a portrait of the artist, she has failed to make it one the does not subject her as a woman. Due to the parallel that is established between woman and nature, the image is a depiction of a self possessed individual.

What also critiques against Modersohn-Becker’s self portrait is that she used Gauguin’s paintings as reference. Gaugin has a long history of being a man who used women as objects in his paintings and very much asserted his male and dominant power upon them, in real life and very blatantly in his paintings.

In conclusion, Paula Modersohn-Becker in her self portrait has tried to address the issue of the female body within Modern Art, saying that it needs to become one rid of passiveness and desire only. She has managed to question the patriarchal society and ideologies around being a female artist and what it means the be one. However in her artwork she has failed to achieve her aim.


Parker, R & Pollock, G. 1981. Painted ladies, in Old mistresses: women, art and ideology.London: Routlege & Kegan Paul:114-133 [Chapter 4].

Cover image – Zinaida Serebriakova’s Nude. Available from: http://www.webetc.info/art/Art-Folders/Russia/Serebriakova/serebriakova-nude.jpg


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