In his 2009 novel What is Contemporary Art? Australian art historian and critic Terry Smith proposed that “contemporary art practice is saturated by a deep, detailed … knowledge of art history”. With an analysis of the work of Australian feminist artists Francis Phoenix and Julie Rrap and their relationship with Gustave Courbet’s 1866 work L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) this essay will not only endeavor to support Terry Smith’s claim, but will also discuss the power contemporary art has to inform and sustain artworks of the past. Supported by the theory of art historians Terry Smith, Donald Kuspit, and Mieke Bal, the essay will explore the correlation between contemporary and historical art in relation to the practices of Australian artists of the feminist movements of the 1970s and 1980s and their re-evaluation of art history.
In order to understand the complex relationship between contemporary and historical art, it is essential to have an understanding of the different states they exist in. Terry Smith describes contemporary art as existing in a ‘post-historical’ state beyond time and history, in contrast to the highly categorized and historical practices of the Modernist era. Smith describes a growing doubt in historical thinking and the Modernist need to categorize, as seen in the fact that no dominant period defining artistic style has emerged since the 1970s. However, Smith argues that despite this disconnect with the nature of history, “contemporary art practice is saturated with a deep, detailed … knowledge of art history” and that artists today carry many of the unsolved legacies of the past in their work.
Art critic Donald Kuspit goes even further than Smith, saying that contemporary art has made a mockery of art history. By definition, Kuspit points out that “the contemporary is not the historical” and that “the destabilization of art history has revealed the futile and damaging efforts art history has made to find consistency in an inconsistent contemporary”. Kuspit describes the positives of post-modernization of works that destabilizes and desacralizes art, suggesting that from this process, art becomes a communication device open to criticism and re-interpretation. He even goes as far to say that historical art can once again become contemporary though this process.
Cultural theorist Mieke Bal in her book Quoting Caravaggio explores the question of whether historical art has to be the foundation to understanding contemporary art. For example, does one needs to be aware of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series (1947) in order to understand Sean Gladwell’s Approach to Mundi Mundi (2008) video art?
If we were to go a step further, Bal’s question could be extended to; is the understanding of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly Series altered with an awareness of Sean Gladwell’s work? With reference to Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, I will now address these questions of a symbiotic relationship between historical art and contemporary art through an analysis of the work of contemporary Australian feminist artists Francis Phoenix and Julie Rrap.
Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde depicts a cropped view of a woman’s genitals. It is celebrated as a highly provocative, erotic painting within the art world and which escapes pornographic status “thanks to Courbet's great virtuosity and the refinement of his amber colour scheme”. Courbet’s painting has been criticized for its disembodiment of the woman, and the unrealistic way in which the legs are open but the vagina remains passively closed, not allowing the ‘eye’ of the woman to return the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer. Earlier this year, performance artist Deborah de Robertis acted upon this criticism by exposing her vagina to an audience in front of Courbet’s painting in the Musée D’Orsay.
De Robertis’ performance represents a very direct example of how Contemporary art is informed by historical art. It also shows how historical art can become once again contemporary through criticism and re-interpretation.
Perhaps a more indirect example can be seen in Francis Phoenix’s textile work Period Piece (1976). The 1970s represented a highly active time for Australian Feminist artists with the establishment of the Women’s Art Movement (WAM). The movement was based on the notion that the personal is political, validating the use of personal experience and emotions within art. The WAM artists, including Francis Phoenix, celebrated ‘feminine qualities’ in their art such as compassion and emotion, and even feminine biology such as the vagina and menstrual cycles referred to as ‘core-imagery’. Phoenix was strongly engaged with the craft movement and used textiles to create her works of ‘core imagery’, with works such as Period Piece, a playful soft sculpture that depicting a vagina. The piece is made out of a collection of zippers in varying shades of red, with a smaller, contained zipper in the center to represent the vaginal opening. The viewer is invited to zip or unzip the middle zipper if they dare. The interactive nature of the work gives it a similarly challenging presence to De Robertis’ performance work in front of L’Origine du Monde in that the viewer is being asked to do something; whether that is interacting with an exposed human being or touching and altering a depiction of the taboo body part. The viewer in these works is no longer allowed to be merely a passive, voyeuristic peeping tom.
Phoenix’s subject matter is similarly confronting and erotic and yet at the same time distinct from Courbet’s own depiction of the female genitalia. Phoenix’s work reclaims her body through the traditionally feminine medium of textiles, removing it from its history as an embodiment of male fears and desires. Phoenix’s depiction of the vagina is undoubtedly engaged with the historical depictions of the sex organ throughout art history. The title Period Piece is in itself embracing this connection to history, as Phoenix uses a clever play on words referring to both ‘period piece’ artwork from another era, and the menstrual cycle a woman. This re-discussion of the sexual imagery means that, in relation to Phoenix’s work, Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde is forced to re-open itself to contemporary criticism and interpretation.
Another example of this symbiotic relationship between Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde and Contemporary art is in Julie Rrap’s work Honey Ants (1999). Honey Ants is a work from the artist’s series Porous Bodies (1999). The work is a video still from an installation the artist made where she appropriated the image from Courbet’s L’Origin du Monde and painted the cropped figure using honey. She allowed ants to gather on the work, feeding and entrapping themselves in the honey.
Julie Rrap started working in the 1980s, a time that was heavily influenced by art theory. Feminist Australian art in the 1980s was distinct from that of the 1970s as it represented a break from cultural feminism, which was more interested in the development of a feminine aesthetic, rediscovering lost histories, and celebrating ‘feminine’ attributes rather than in gaining an absolute equality between the sexes. Feminist artists of the 1980s directed their efforts towards dismantling male histories such as the Modernist canon and male domination of art history.
Working within this environment, Rrap’s work is a prime example of how artists use their knowledge of art history to subvert and revive historical artworks to allow for re-interpretation and criticism. Rrap’s criticism of the voyeuristic gaze or male gaze throughout art history extends into many of the artist’s works such as Persona and Shadow (1984) and Secret Strategies/Ideal Spaces (1987). Rrap works almost exclusively with the human form, often playing with the traditions of passive subject and active maker in her self-portraits where she can be both subject and maker. Many feminist artists of the 1970s believed that the representation of the female figure was off-limits due to its long history subjected to the aggressive and violating nature of the voyeuristic male gaze, however, in the 1980s artists such as Rrap began to reclaim their bodies in their work, undermining and rewriting the history of the nude.
If art historian Donald Kuspit believes that in order to alter and re-engage with past art the contemporary artist must first destabilize and desacralize the historical work, than what better way to destabilize and desacralize a work than to paint it in honey? In her work Honey Ants, Rrap has created an ephemeral work with a completely inarchivable medium, which is purposefully exposed to the natural elements to deteriorate and decay. True to Rrap’s playful nature, she replaces Courbet’s impenetrable, glorified figure with a sticky, oozing, considerably more realistic, recreation of a woman’s genitals. With much wit and irony, Rrap allows the ants to prey on the honey they desire, but shows that in their glutton they become entrapped in the substance and die. In Rrap’s work, Kuspit’s ‘mockery of art history’ has been realized on two levels, both in destroying the illusion of an artwork’s permanent physical presence, and also in Rrap’s undermining of the voyeuristic gaze so strongly attached to L’Origine du Monde.
Despite being a very rich and useful example, feminist art of the 1970s and 1980s is only one of many different artistic agendas that are critically engaged with art history and the individual works and ideologies within its canon. As shown in this essay and supported by multiple distinguished art critics and historians, these contemporary artistic agendas are not only highly engaged with art history, but also have the power to revive and re-open historical artworks to contemporary interpretation and criticism. In the words of 20th century poet T.S. Eliot:
Whoever has approved this idea of order… will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
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