Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin - Two Feminist Artists that Confronted and Were Sucessful in Contesting Stereotypical Images of Women

Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin - Two Feminist Artists that Confronted and Were Sucessful in Contesting Stereotypical Images of Women

Everyone has a personal and different definition of feminism, whether it is positive or negative. There is not a definition of feminism universally accepted, but all the main types of feminism have the same aim: to free women from socially imposed identities and behaviours. One obvious way of doing so is to represent women in a different light than the usual stereotypes, which is most successfully done in art: challenging and playing with our perceptions, it is often art that enables the questioning of social norms.
Women are subjected to a lot of different stereotypes, and trying to list them all up seems to be an endless and vain task; however, those stereotypes can be put into different categories, depending on which area of feminine identity focus on. Through two examples, I am going to discuss the feminist representation in art of the female body first (traditionally as being an object of beauty, sensuality and eroticism), and then of the female role and relation to the world. Finally, I will try to nuance the success of such attempts: challenging stereotypes is still, in a way, remaining a prisoner of those stereotypes, since challenging something is always the result of what is being challenged.

THE FEMALE BODY AS REPRESENTING BEAUTY (The feminist representation in art of the female body):

Traditionally, female bodies are used to represent beauty and eroticism. Even when they are used to represent virtue (which is another traditional female quality), it is always done in opposition to sensationalism: a woman with virtue is the negation of eroticism, virtue does not have a positive content in this case, it is the absence of sensuality. Of course, female stereotypes have to be put in the light of their opposite, around which they have been constructed: male stereotypes. Male bodies are traditionally used to represent strength and power.
Both examples I have chosen challenge some clichés of the idea of a strong man against a beautiful woman by mixing up traditional roles, assigning to women some of the male characteristics, and vice versa.
The success of those images lies on the fact that they shock our perception and therefore urge us to review our natural way of relating to male and female identities, in order to understand this shock, but they do so in different ways.

‘Sarah Lucas’ work operates with a casual post-feminism that contrasts with the more ardent women’s art of the 1970s or even the theoretical rigor of the 1980s epitomized by Barbara Kruger. Lucas’ work is political in the sense that she espouses a British working class aesthetic’ (a).

‘Instead of portraying the feminine in terms of beauty, like Cindy Sherman before her, Lucas pursues a less than flattering autobiographical account of existence that includes, amongst other things, references to: the greasy English breakfast, toilets, garden gnomes, no frills supermarket tights, and cigarette addiction’ (a).

Sarah Lucas’s sculptures are suspended between the authentic and the representative. Her work deals with old-fashioned stereotypes of gender, brings up issues of class, sexuality and national identity.
‘Her sculptures are intended to provoke and amuse with their rough-hewn aesthetic and visual puns that examine gender in a tabloid-oriented society’ (Adams, Jardine, Maloney, Rosenthal and Shone, 1997, p. 201).

Sarah Lucas integrates her own image into her work and very often poses as a self-conscious androgynous character.
One of her work, a self-portrait titled “Eating a banana” and made in 1990, was displayed to confront sexual stereotypes of women.

Sarah Lucas’s work is going against the traditional images of women categorized as seductress or muse. She challenges those stereotypes by adopting self-consciously masculine poses, gestures and also by wearing unisex clothing like jeans and tee shirts in order to show an androgynous image of herself and slightly aggressive sometimes. She consciously projects an anti-aesthetic butch image of herself.

In 1992, Sarah Lucas exhibited an installation: “Two Fried Eggs and Kebab”. Everyday, she had to buy a kebab and cook fried eggs in order to place them carefully on a table. It is a reference to the human body and it represents a female body lying down. It questions the gender definitions and challenges a dominating manly culture.

The eggs obviously represent the breast and there is an exciting contrast between the softness of the eggs and the hardness of the table on which they are specifically and carefully placed. The breast is also a metaphor to stimulate sexuality.

‘Held to their chairs by some unforgiving masculist clamps, the bunnies had a sort of authentically seedy, post-fucked, spunked-on look. They were ranked like sexual conquests, pocketed, in a horrible polygamy, by the malign presence of the overbearingly male snooker table’ (c).

Snooker tables are very often placed in pubs and are traditionally male spaces/territories. They touch notions of Englishness and masculine stereotypes.
It is obvious that the balls over the green felt of the snooker table have a sexual connotation.
‘The bunnies comment on the male objectification of the female body’ (Muir and Wallis, 2004, p. 100).
Each bunny wears different colored stockings. Those colors represent the set of snooker balls.
The bunnies are placed on office chairs like a group of secretaries. The secretary being such a stereotype of a sexy submissive woman working in the office of her dominant male boss.
The legs of the female bunny figures represent feminity (by wearing stockings) and the implicit sensuality (the legs of some bunnies are slightly apart).
The legs have stockings on, which can be contradictory as it suggests the flesh but it is not completely naked. Nudity in art is traditionally used to represent women, with the only exception of Greek male statues.
“Pauline Bunny” is the only mannequin out of eight to be called like that because it is the skinniest. The others are simply titled “Bunny”. “Pauline Bunny” wears black stockings because black represents the seduction and it is also the most alluring color out of all the other ones. Likewise in contemporary fashion, the skinny female figures are the most demanded.
‘In truth, there has always been a disconnection between the way Sarah Lucas represents herself and gender generally in her work and the way she conducts her own private and sexual life.
The work, and the personal image Sarah Lucas has projected in her many self-portraits, portray a tough and androgynous female who, it might be inferred, accepts sex as a risibly uncomplicated, even abject exchange, driven by lust, and dismally mechanical’ (b).

This “Self-portrait with Fried Eggs” made in 1996 shows clearly the gender issues and the stereotypes related to men and women.
By wearing an old baggy jean, a tee shirt and masculine flat shoes, Sarah Lucas represents the opposite of the feminine stereotype. Her pose is also masculine but it plays with sexual arousal by having legs apart. By having her arms apart on the armchair, Sarah Lucas gives an impression of confidence and at the same time she gives an aggressive look. Having two fried eggs over her breast is a kind of rebellion to this female stereotype made by society and it is an allusion to sex. She covers her real breast with eggs to draw attention to them. Women’s body is commercial and displayed for pleasure so that is why she is replacing this traditional representation by showing an aggressive image of a woman’s body in order to bring confusion.
It is a contradiction between men and women, giving an impression of anger against the female stereotypes. She is playing with those two identities to confront the female stereotype: feminity realized in childbearing and child-raising, domestic and reproductive roles.
‘Previous sculptures felt urgent and contemporary, bawdy, almost vulgar, in their depiction of women and men as the sum of their sexual parts’ (b).
Her work “Au Naturel”, 1994, was an installation representing male and female body parts/sex. An assemblage of an empty bucket and two melons represent female genitalia (the bucket being the vagina and the two melons being the breast) while a cucumber and a pair of oranges represent the male sex (the cucumber evoking the penis).
By using that, Sarah Lucas represents a world of fantasy and plays with unrealistic ideals, while showing us the paradoxes created by those stereotyped identities.
At the same time, those images are creating the possibility of mixed identities, of juxtaposition on one body of what would usually be seen as contradictory characteristics.

Through Sarah Lucas’s work, sex appears with no apparent morality attached. The morality usually involves guilt, embarrassment or shame. The simple material she uses emphasizes desire in general, as those objects placed on a mattress allude to the genitals and sex.

‘Lucas’ work is at its best when she is dredging the depths of tabloid sexism while simultaneously making high art references. This in a nutshell is the rhetorical mechanism used by Lucas and it is evident in a number of successful works’ (a).

Women artists dived into subjects that used to be taboo. Autobiography, politics, rape and blood were some of those taboos and such subjects produced powerful feminist art.
Women are seen as creatures of nature while men are identified with culture.
Through her work, Tracey Emin communicates her emotions. All her work is very personal, autobiographical and one of her work, an installation and book called “Exploration of the Soul”, includes a dramatic rape scene while she was a virgin at the age of thirteen. This violent introduction to sex had a devastating emotional effect and made her create work as a therapy by using her past, her private emotions and her turbulent experiences. Her work is a narrative performance filled with love, pain, abuse and survival.
Tracy Emin has shaken off the conventional role of an artist by using her own memory and the mess of her own past, creating fragments of her life for the viewer.

“Exploration of the Soul” recounts significant moments of Tacey Emin’s life, from her birth to the age of thirteen. The installation is made of A4 blue paper sheets relating her life through poetic texts. In the centre of the installation, there are two photographs, one of herself and the other one of her twin brother Paul.
‘Emin, above all, has re-invented feminist perspectives, she embraces the great female personae previously excluded: bitch, stripper, whore, and fashion model – flaunting an aggressive, sleazy eroticism. Her new feminist is a powerful, self-reliant personality with a sharp, unflinching voice’ (d).
Tracey Emin's installation “My Bed” shows her own bed. Her artwork goes against the traditional view and duties of women with her unmade dirty linen bed, which shows the dirt of weeks, maybe even months of usage from sleeping. There was head marks of sweat and wear on the pillow and the duvet. Conventionally and normally not many women would allow this to happen neither would they be so bold as to show at an exhibition their dirt, unchanged, unwashed bed, for fear that their own sexuality would be under threat in their womanhood and what women generally are supposed to stand for (for example cleanliness). My Bed” reflects her life as detritus. The bed is covered of soiled linen and beside is cluttered with various things such as Vodka bottles, cigarette butts, dirty knickers, used condoms and discarded pharmaceuticals.

One of Tracey Emin’s best-known works is “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95”, made in 1995. It is an installation of a tent with the names of all the people she has slept with. Their names are sewn inside the tent. She had no shame of listing all about her sexual conquests, a topic normally kept intimate. But “slept with” really meant slept with as the names sewn inside the tent included relatives she slept with as a child and her grandmother, her twin brother, her two aborted children and even her teddy bear were part of the list!
The tent has 102 names sewn on it and it shows intimacy and love in its different forms.

Tracey Emin’s work has an immediate impact to the viewers and it has often a sexually provocative attitude. Her work belongs to the tradition of feminist talk.
The fact that she uses sewing a lot into her work, which is a traditional handcraft technique used by women, is one of the stereotypes regarding females!
‘Emin’s work resonates with the feminist tenets of the ‘personal as political’’ (e).

Tracey Emin continued her sewing work with “To Meet My Past” in 2002. This time she sewed on quilt. The quilts were traditionally made by women and, by using them, Tracey Emin is dealing with once again a stereotype linked to women. By using a quilt, she is confessing her past and in the tradition of quilts being used to record memories.
“To Meet My Past” is an installation made of a four-poster bed, mattress, appliquéd linens and curtains.
The background is made of nice pink flowers and has been decorated with the words: ''Weird sex''.
The bed reflects sexuality and the quilt provides comfort.
By showing in another work a bed, Tracey Emin is challenging stereotypes, as no women would like to show their most personal space that is the bed.

She is showing her own insecurities and imperfection to the rest of the world instead of being ashamed of it.
By exposing herself in such a direct and brutal manner and by revealing her painful situations of her past, Tracey Emin succeeded as a feminist artist.

Tracey Emin also used the theme of pregnancy in her art in general. Having had two abortions in the early 1990’s, that made her examine the theme of motherhood and she reflected it in her work through texts, embroidered blankets, sculptures and films.
She is speaking out loud about abortion, even though it is a taboo topic in some places in the world. By doing so, she is showing that her emotions are more important than what anyone could ever think or react towards this subject.

The work “I do not expect to be a mother” that Tracey Emin produced in 2002 is about her two abortions and the fact that she is a single woman. She has even embroidered on the quilt the sentence “But I do expect to die alone”, showing that she wonders whether or not the family tree will end up with her. Through this work, she is opposing the most important role of a woman that society put on stereotype of women as a mother and in any society.

We have learnt through many examples that artists like Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are known as feminist artists in the art world. They both have challenged female stereotypes in different ways through their artwork and they both succeeded in contesting those stereotypes of women and by changing those images.

The main conclusion coming out of this essay is that those feminist artists, Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin, testify their experiences, often against denial and disdain. This is what both artists did and showed through their work. They both oppose the traditional classy feminine portrait that occurs for stereotyped women. Women do not need to be associated only with beauty and sexuality. Especially, Sarah Lucas succeeded at confronting the stereotype of a woman that could be described as a pretty person that men would desire. Tracey Emin, on the other hand, stood up against the most stereotyped role of women that people in all civilizations have: women as a mother and lover.

Male artists are not questioned as much as female artists when their work is all about themselves. After all, so much of the slander towards those two feminist artists, adds up to what people have been saying to women for centuries and centuries: shut up woman and get back inside the house! This stereotype is definitely challenged by the work of Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin.

Adams, B., Jardine, L., Maloney, M., Rosenthal, N. and Shone, R. (1997). Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection. London: Royal Academy of Arts.
Muir, G. and Wallis, C. (2004). In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. London: Tate Publishing.
[a] 6 May 2011
[b] 26 April 2011
[c] 22 April 2011
[d] 25 April 2011
[e] 2 May 2011