Deborah Cullen

A Long History

Rape and sexual violence has long been the subject of artworks. Taking the Renaissance as a starting point, Titian’s 1560 Europa (and Ruben’s 1628 copy, Rape of Europa),Rembrandt’s 1632 Abduction of Europa, and Poussin’s 1637 Rape of the Sabine Women are familiar images that utilize visual allegories of rape and violence to produce metaphorical, mythical images of conquest, colonialism, and power.

Later artists were more specific in rooting atrocities in time and place. Francisco de Goya’sc.1810 Disasters of Warseries included several plates of sexual attack; Edgar Degas’ painting Interior (also known as The Rape), 1868 has been connected to contemporaneous realistic literature on the harrowing lives of prostitutes; Käthe Kollwitz’s 1907 intaglio, Raped is a devastating image of aftermath. These artists imply the violence is a consequence of conflict, economic deprivation, and social ills.Of all the artists linked to Surrealism, perhaps the most powerful work created in this vein is Marcel Duchamp’s installation, Étant donnés (1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage), 1946-1966. Viewed through a peephole, the viewer gazes upon a headless, strangely-torn woman’s body lying in a disquieting wooded scene. In the aftermath of World War II, there could be various ways to view this unsettling undertaking.

The feminist movement of the 1960s spawned very direct actions that sought to address difficult topics such as sexual violence and abuse. For example, in Valie Export’s 1968 Genital Panic she walked a seated theatre audience wearing crotchless pants and pointing a machine gun at the viewer’s heads. In 1973, art student Ana Mendieta created works in response to a local rape and murder. She smeared her lower half with blood, was tied to a table with her dress pulled up, and the audience was invited to enter and encounter the disturbing tableau. Louise Bourgeois’sculptural installations were known for their sexually explicit and traumatic nature. Pieces like Destruction of the Father, 1974, indicted her tyrannical and philandering father. In 1977, Suzanne Lacey and Leslie Labowitz mapped the numerous sites of rape in Los Angeles, offered self-defense classes, and more, in their ambitious performative work, Three Weeks in May.

By the 1980s, horrific events became more commonplace topics in both the news and in art. Sue Coe’s Woman Walks into Bar - Is Raped by Four Men on the Pool Table - While 20 Watch, 1983, sets in stark relief an incident in which bystanders did nothing to prevent a public attack. Faith Ringgold investigated history and gave an outlet to first person narrative in her Slave Rape Story Quilt, 1984-1985. Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1985 was a confessional photo series that bravely documented a group of friends as they hung out, used drugs, had sex, and physically and emotionally abused one another. David Wojnarowicz’s entire indelible oeuvre, in both visual imagery and writing, tackles rape, violence, and brutality, particularly against queer populations or those struggling with AIDS. Among others, Wojnarowicz created Gang Rape, 1983, a harrowing prison scene.

In 1993, The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted the exhibition, “The Subject of Rape” including works by Lorna Simpson, Nancy Spero, Sue Williams, and David Wojnarowicz, among others. Tracey Emin’s works, including Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, 1997, and My Bed, 1999, raise the specter of intimacy, consent, relationships and power dynamics, especially when taken in light of the fact that she has divulged that she suffered an unreported rape at age 13.

Artists have gone further in their explorations of sexuality, coercion,and boundaries. For example, performance artist and proponent of institutional critique, Andrea Fraser, has questioned and exposed business dealings as, or as part of, the artworld. Her video Untitled, 2003, depicts Fraser having sex with an art collector who paid $20,000 to participate. She raises difficult questions around sales, stardom, and consent.Jordan Wolfson’s Female Figure, 2014 a life size, scantily-clad, soot-smeared automaton, faces a mirror, using facial recognition software to interact with visitors. As the robotuncannily shimmies to songs including Robin Thicke’s misogynist anthem, “Blurred Lines,” and viewers watch, seeing themselves also reflected in the mirror, we have to ask: where is this discussion going to go?

Even from this selective history of art over centuries, which sets a context for any current works in this vein, we can see that there remains room for much more exploration, visualization, and effort. Perhaps the “Sexual Respect Initiative Arts Option”will help us further.By instigating a kaleidoscope of works, including spoken word and poetry, songs both abstract and lyrical, dance responses, short plays, photography, drawing, painting, comic books, and other artistic forms, the issues—far from being exhausted—can be more fully considered, discussed, and hopefully, one day, obliterated.


Deborah Cullen
Director & Chief Curator
The Wallach Art Gallery


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