In the contemporary art world feminist art has gained more and more popularity. In 2019 I even had the chance to assist to the first Biennale dedicated exclusively to women artists, which took place in Rabat, Morocco.
Before the year 2000 no one really dared to put vaginas or vulvas in public exhibitions, and in museums this idea was mostly unthinkable. As a matter of fact, in the 19th century, Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the world made a scandal for its realistic representation, but again Courbet wasn’t trying to exhibit the power of the female genitalia by defending feminist principles. His only concern was realism, and the woman was just a topic among many others.
And still Courbet’s representation was a mild illustration of the woman’s pubis, compared to what we see right now in public exhibitions, as for example Elsa Sahal’s sculpture that you can admire down below:
Elsa presents a human-sized fountain sculpture composed of stacked breasts, overhung by an open, wet, sensual, hypnotic vagina, which almost invites the viewer to an "interior" analysis. If the breasts are generally objectified and fetishized by the male gaze, the vagina itself, was neglected and even demonized by popular culture, which built around it myths, such as the vagina dentata (Latin for toothed vagina), a myth which promoted the idea of a devouring woman, a woman who consumes the penis through sexual contact. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used precisely this interpretation, bordering misogynism, of the vagina, to designate the male anxiety of castration by the vagina. From this perspective, Elsa Sahal's sculpture enhances the vagina by placing it at the top of the breasts, in a position that is at the level of the viewer's gaze. Thus, the vagina confronts the latter with a deliberately ignored reality. This feminist fountain is ultimately an irrefutable marker of the change of course, a course which says - The future is female, as another work of art indicates within the same exhibition of contemporary art.
The secular representation of the penis in patriarchal societies
From an early age, boys learn to draw schematically, with the greatest pride, their penises, on all surfaces they come across. The patriarchal society introduced us to the idea of the representation of the penis, or the allusion to the penis, as normality. In Ancient Greece or in Ancient Rome, we already perceive the cult of the phallus.
Regarding women, only the front part of their genitalia is shown, which reveals clean skin, without the slightest trace of hair, while the penis is explicitly represented, since it is a symbol of masculinity, and by masculinity I also mean power. If the female statues show their pubis with modesty, or they even hide it, the male statues have the benefit of a penis of which the anatomy is carried out in the smallest details, as we can see it in the following image presenting the Doriphorus of Polycletus, which we can compare with the statue of Aphrodite of Cnidus of Praxiteles. These two statues are made around the same time, but they present two disjointed situations: on one hand the pride of the phallus, and on the other hand, the shame of the pubis.
The Middle Ages, although very religious in representation, did not escaped these stereotypes. According to some contemporary researchers, the medieval abdomen of Jesus Christ exhibits precisely this obsession of the phallus. According to Alexandre Leupin, the male sex was, in the Middle Ages, sacred through the figure of Jesus. This abdominal iconic penis penetrates, unconsciously, the collective education and forges societal mentalities, reinforcing the patriarchal power. While the vagina remains taboo…
After the end of the Middle Ages, it will take another three centuries to do justice to the vagina, and yet, this was only done to a lesser extent. By the 18th century, with the emergence of libertinism, the idea that a woman could have impulses just like a man, and that she could experience sexual pleasure, began to creep into androcentric mentalities. The Marquis de Sade had to open the door to the recognition of the feminine sexual nature, although still in a misogynistic conjecture, a door which Sigmund Freud immediately closed, in order to attribute to the woman, as inherent characteristics, frigidity and hysteria.
In contemporary Japan a centuries-old festival of fertility (Kanamara matsuri), which celebrates the penis, completely ignoring the vagina, takes place every year. It is the penis that is credited with life, worshiped, and celebrated with gratitude and admiration. Men and women come together to share this fascination that the phallus arouses. Shaped by these cultural biases the woman accepts, without questioning, the superiority of the Penis.
Contemporary art and the representation of the vagina
Starting with the 20th century, women began to acknowledge their position and this awareness manifested itself in the arts. Thus, we see artists like Marina Abramovic, who in 1980 created together with Ulay, the performance Rest Energy, featuring a fragile, vulnerable woman in a position of inferiority in front of a man who holds the strings of power.
But this is not enough. Women had to go further, to show more, to make men understand that the vagina exists, and that it is perhaps physically much more powerful than the penis, if we refer to women who lift weights with their vaginas and who probably inspired the contemporary artist Milo Moire in making her work of art Plogged. Plogged is an artwork realized with splashed paint eggs from the artists vagina.x
And contemporary art reflects this new reality. As we can notice in the following sculpture exhibited at the Biennale of Venice:
In 2020, Elsa Sahal goes further and offers the city of Nantes a sculpture that she exhibited in Paris in 2012, entitled Fontaine. A feminine and feminist version of the Manneken Pis, of this little Belgian boy urinating without embarrassment in front of his audience.
The idea of this sculpture is to represent a little girl who defies the established order by urinating standing like boys, says the artist.
While the Fountain of Elsa Sahal has been vandalized and heavily criticized by the audience, the Manneken Pis is a symbol of pride since 1619, tourists taking every year thousands of pictures with this peeing statue, which nakedness doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
Despite the obvious gender struggle over monopoly, these empowered women artists make us believe that the days of the penis are over:
So, can the vagina be the new penis?