Art and Disgust – A Female Perspective by Barbara O’Donnell

Image: Frida Kahlo’s “The Broken Column”

Wandering through the Tates and other venues in London recently, various representations of women were apparent. The majority of the subjects appeared to be female, and the majority of the artists male. This seems to have been going on forever and is the usual disservice to women on multiple levels; as if the sole thing women are good for is to be looked at.

The Guerilla Girls campaign poster was there, boldly asking the question: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?”  This campaign won’t be news to serious art fans or feminists, but it struck a chord with me, particularly in the moment.  It is, frighteningly, thirty years old, yet it seems like we need it more than ever.

Part of the current Tate Modern collection are photographs by Rineke Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer who specialises in single portraits. One series was of three postpartum women, each one at various stages in their life with their new child.

One photograph was taken of a woman an hour post-partum, one woman a day, the third a week.

The portrait: “Saskia, Harderwijk, Netherlands, March 16 1994”, was of the woman who was a week postpartum. All the women are photographed naked, holding their naked child protectively to themselves, child’s back to the camera.

Saskia stood out for me.

She showed signs of having had a difficult labour and birth, by the visible, incredibly crooked, fresh caesarean scar. Looking at it more closely, it was also showing signs of possible scar dehiscence.  It is reasonable to surmise that that caesarean section took place as an emergency, and was possibly performed by someone junior, unskilled or both.

In the weeks that followed that photo being taken, Saskia may very likely have found herself going back to the doctors for further treatment, in the middle of recovery from pregnancy and surgery, with a newborn to care for.  Often the treatment is allowing the scar to close by what is known as secondary intention, allowing it to heal naturally without further suturing, which takes some further weeks. It also involves more antibiotics and trips to the doctor, all the while limiting her return to normal activity and occasionally the ability to care for the newborn.

While explaining this to my friend, a young woman overhearing nearby, displayed every sign of being particularly disgusted by what I was saying.

Here is a portrait of a woman who has likely been to hell and back, physically and emotionally, and all another woman can muster is disgust.

Her reaction speaks volumes about the work that needs to be done amongst women themselves, around body image, acceptance and supporting each other.

The National Women’s Council of Ireland recently ran a workshop around the subject of body image, aimed at 16-24 year olds. Arguably, due to their age, these are the demographic most at risk of absorbing the current distortions around female body image and carrying it with them for life, passing it onto their own boys and girls.

The men need to be involved yes, but it is the women who are really bearing the burden, literally. The message still needs to go out to women of all ages.

Would this woman’s disgust have been lessened if the scar and postpartum belly had been photoshopped away, leaving Saskia looking like postpartum Barbie with a perfect child? Like she could step back into a little black dress at any moment, just so people could say how well she looked so quickly after the ordeal.

The photos themselves might be viewed as controversial.  But isn’t this the point of Art – to question, challenge our current perception of the world and hopefully bring us to a greater understanding of ourselves and others?

Alison Lapper’s self-sculpture, naked and disabled, proudly stood on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square; likely garnering a much bigger audience than anything in the Tate, even if by default. It was however, allowed to be there intentionally, to send its message of LGBTQ pride, body and disability acceptance.

Saskia’s portrait is what the Guerilla Girls wanted all along, representations of women in Art that are not solely focused on the sexual.

Saskia did one of the most natural things in the world – birth a child, ending up with a high level of medical intervention and all its consequences. She is beautiful, if literally scarred, and more so for having endured what she must have done. Her picture is put up in a world class gallery, and all another woman can muster is disgust.

When a ceramic object is broken in Japan, it is often mended using gold or silver, in a process called “kintsugi”, meaning golden joinery. This often leaves the item both more beautiful and precious than it was to begin with.  Some take the view that the object is all the more beautiful for it’s imperfections, and that the repair job elicits a kind of re-birth.  How is it that we cannot accord our women that level of respect?

The thing that disgusts me is how far we still have to go.

More about Saskia, and the portrait here:                                                                  

More about Guerilla Girls poster here:                                                                   

More about kintsugi here: