Vagina and vulva in art
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 vulva or vagina, 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.
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. The vagina has been known by many names, 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". 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. 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 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 any 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.
The ancient Sumerians regarded the vulva as sacred and a vast number of Sumerian poems praising the vulva of the goddess Inanna have survived. In Sumerian religion, the goddess Nin-imma is the divine personification of female genitalia. Her name literally means "lady female genitals". She appears in one version of the myth of Enki and Ninsikila in which she is the daughter of Enki and Ninkurra. Enki rapes her and causes her to give birth to Uttu, the goddess of weaving and vegetation. Vaginal fluid is always described in Sumerian texts as tasting "sweet" and, in a Sumerian Bridal Hymn, a young maiden rejoices that her vulva has grown hair. Clay models of vulvae were discovered in the temple of Inanna at Ashur; these models likely served as some form of amulets, possibly to protect against impotency.
11th and 12th centuryEdit
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. 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. Another theory, espoused by Joanne McMahon and Jack Roberts, is that the carvings are remnants of a pre-Christian fertility or mother goddess religion. 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.
The vagina loquens, or "talking vagina", is a significant tradition in literature and art, dating back to ancient folklore motifs. These tales usually involve vaginas talking due to the effect of magic or charms, and often admitting to their unchastity.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.).
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.
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". 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". The officials said the works had been damaged during transportation. 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".
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. 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. Stories accompanying the photos discuss various themes, including ageing, pregnancy, Brazilian waxing, first sexual encounter and poor body image. In Sydney the exhibition was visited by police responding to a complaint that the images were visible from the street. Images were required to be censored as part of a group exhibition at The Sydney Fringe.
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 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. 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.
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. 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.
- Stone, Linda (2002). New Directions in Anthropological Kinship. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 164. ISBN 058538424X. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
- Hutcherson, Hilda (2003). What Your Mother Never Told You about Sex. Penguin. p. 8. ISBN 0399528539. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
- LaFont, Suzanne (2003). Constructing Sexualities: Readings in Sexuality, Gender, and Culture. Prentice Hall. p. 145. ISBN 013009661X. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
- Ensler, Eve (2001). The Vagina Monologues: The V-Day Edition. Random House LLC. ISBN 0375506586. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
- Denise Linn (2009). Secret Language of Signs. Random House Publishing Group. p. 276. ISBN 0307559556. Retrieved November 21, 2014.
- Ponna Wignaraja, Akmal Hussain (1989). The Challenge in South Asia: Development, Democracy and Regional Cooperation. United Nations University Press. p. 309. ISBN 0803996039. Retrieved November 21, 2014.
- Dening, Sarah (1996). "Chapter 3: Sex in Ancient Civilizations". The Mythology of Sex. London, England: Macmillian. ISBN 978-0-02-861207-2.
- Leick, Gwendolyn (2013) , Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature, New York City, New York: Routledge, p. 96, ISBN 978-1-134-92074-7
- Ceccarelli, Manuel (2016). Enki und Ninmah: Eine mythische Erzählung in sumerischer Sprache. Orientalische Relionen in der Antik. 16. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. p. 21. ISBN 978-3-16-154278-7.
- Launderville, Dale (2010). Celibacy in the Ancient World: Its Ideal and Practice in Pre-Hellenistic Israel, Mesopotamia, and Greece. A Michael Glazier Book. Collegeville, Maryland: Liturgical Press. p. 184. ISBN 978-0-8146-5734-8.
- Jacobsen, Thorkild (1987). The Harps that Once...: Sumerian Poetry in Translation. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 195. ISBN 0300072783.
- Black, Jeremy; Green, Anthony (1992). Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. The British Museum Press. pp. 150–152. ISBN 0-7141-1705-6.
- Andersen, Jorgen The Witch on the Wall (1977) Rosenkilde & Bagger ISBN 978-87-423-0182-1
- Weir, Anthony & Jerman, James Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches, London: B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1986
- McMahon, J. & Roberts, J. The Sheela-na-Gigs of Ireland and Britain: The Divine Hag of the Christian Celts – An Illustrated Guide, Mercier Press Ltd. (2000) ISBN 978-1-85635-294-9
- Goode, Starr. "'Sheela na gig: The Dark Goddess of Sacred Power". Inner Traditions. Inner Traditions. Retrieved 6 January 2017.
- Vance Randolph, Gershon Legman (1992). Unprintable Ozark Folksongs and Folklore: Blow the candle out. University of Arkansas Press. pp. 819–820. ISBN 1557282374.
- Slavoj Zizek (2004). Organs without bodies: Deleuze and consequences. Routledge. p. 173. ISBN 0415969212. Retrieved 2015-10-21.
- Rankin, Lissa (2010). What's Up Down There?: Questions You'd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend. St. Martin's Press. p. 59. ISBN 978-0-312-64436-9. Retrieved 2012-02-11.
- "Biography - 1965-69", Niki de Saint Phalle Foundation, Retrieved 8 November 2014.
- Tripp, Andrew. ""In sorrow, she created delight": An Appeal for a Greater Appraisal of the Life and Art of Niki de Saint Phalle". www.academia.edu. Academia. p. 10. Retrieved 24 October 2015.
- "Brooklyn Museum: Place Settings". www.brooklynmuseum.org.
- Reilly, Maura. "founding curator". www.brooklynmuseum.org. Retrieved 16 December 2014.
- Georgia O'Keeffe Place Setting, Brooklyn Museum, retrieved June 5, 2015
- Paola Uparella Carlos A. Jáuregui , "The Vagina and the Eye of Power (Essay on Genitalia and Visual Sovereignty)", H-ART. REVISTA DE HISTORIA, TEORIA Y CRITICA DE ARTE , 3 (Julio-Diciembre). https://doi.org/10.25025/hart03.2018.04
- Paola Uparella and Carlos A. Jáuregui , "The Vagina and the Eye of Power (Essay on Genitalia and Visual Sovereignty)", H-ART. REVISTA DE HISTORIA, TEORIA Y CRITICA DE ARTE , 3 (Julio-Diciembre). https://doi.org/10.25025/hart03.2018.04
- Ensler, Eve (2001). The Vagina Monologues: The V-Day Edition. Random House LLC. ISBN 0375506586. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
- Coleman, Christine (2006). Coming to Read "The Vagina Monologues": A Biomythographical Unravelling of the Narrative. University of New Brunswick. ISBN 0494466553. Retrieved June 9, 2014.
- Kate Deimling (8 June 2011). "Vagina Art Veiled at Azerbaijan's Venice Biennale Pavilion, Causing Some to Cry Censorship". Blouin Art Info.
- Rob Sharp Venetian mask: Azerbaijan censors its own Biennale entry, The Independent (London), 4 June 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-30.
- Dan Duray Aidan Salakhova Sculptures To Be Removed From Azerbaijan Biennale Pavilion, The New York Observer, 8 June 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-30.
- Stern, Mark Joseph (3 July 2012). "France Wants To Punish Facebook For Censoring A Painting of A Vagina. Terrible Idea". Slate.
- Denson, G. Roger (2 February 2013). "150-Year-Old Painting STILL Too Graphic For Facebook". Huffington Post.
- McCroy, Winnie (10 October 2013). "Controversial Madonna Painting Opens Magnet HIV Clinic Art Show". www.edgemedianetwork.com. Edge Media Network. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
- Carbone, Suzanne (14 March 2013). "Here's a lesson on vaginas 101". The Age. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
- Hansen, David (24 April 2014). "Hansen: The Shame and Joy of 101 Vaginas". Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
- Price, Jenna (November 20, 2012). "Bodybits 101: the personal side of Selfies". Canberra Times. Fairfax Media.
- Bielski, Zosia (June 12, 2014). "Controversial exhibit unveils natural beauty of 101 women". Globe and Mail. Globe and Mail.
- Stubbs, Vanessa (28 June 2013). "Hide the vagina". MX - Sydney. News Ltd.
- Sano, Melanie (1 July 2013). "Police Monitor Vagina Exhibition". Visual Arts Hub. Retrieved 29 June 2014.
- Hunt, Adam (September 19, 2013). "Vagina censorship offensive". City Hub. Altmedia.
- Frank, Priscilla (8 December 2014). "Yes, Usher Charged His Phone In A Vagina. And No, It Was Not Art (NSFW)". Huffington Post. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
- Duran, Jose (5 December 2014). "Meet Lena Marquise, The Performance Artist Behind The Vagina Phone Charger (NSFW)". Miami New Times. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
- Sargent, Jordan (4 December 2014). "Usher Charged His Phone Inside a Woman's Vagina at Art Basel". Gawker. Archived from the original on 13 April 2015. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
- Sanchez, Karizza (4 December 2014). "Usher May or May Not Have Charged His Phone With a Woman's Vagina at Art Basel, but It Sure Looks Like It". Complex. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
- "Usher Tests the Limits of Art With This Vagina Phone-Charger: NSFW". Billboard. 4 December 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
- "Usher Charges Iphone In Woman's Vagina". TMZ. 4 December 2014. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
- "JJ Brine's 'VECTOR Gallery' In New York City". The Huffington Post. Retrieved January 24, 2014.
- "JJ Brine's 'VECTOR Gallery' Creation". Asthma Magazine. Retrieved December 1, 2014.
- McCurry, Justin (15 July 2014). "Vagina selfie for 3D printers lands Japanese artist in trouble". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 July 2014.
- Frank, Priscilla (6 August 2015). "Anish Kapoor Put A Vagina Sculpture In Versailles' Garden, And People Are Unimpressed". The Huffington Post.