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The art of the vulva: do we have a problem with vaginal symbols?

The art of the vulva: do we have a problem with vaginal symbols?

When it comes to genitalia representation, we’re so invested with phallic icons that anyone can legitimately claim to be an expert on dick-drawing. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve actually seen a penis in the flesh or not.

However, things change if we think about vaginas. We’ve all come out from one, but hardly anybody knows how to draw it. And don’t even get us started on how to draw a clitoris.

As if there was such thing as a mono-dimensional image of a vagina! Just like penises, vaginas come in all shapes and sizes. Yet you’ll be lucky if anyone – mostly men, but also women – knows how to draw one without going for the safe, stylized triangle.

Vaginal disch-art

Why is it so? Well, this has nothing to do with one’s artistic skills. And it has everything to do with the way vaginas are concealed as something it would be either disrespectful or disgusting to show.

The patriarchy has taught us that female sexuality is something to enjoy in private, if at all. Therefore, penises can be boldly put on display, while vaginas need to stay where they belong: covered by virginal underwear.

Many artists have challenged that assumption throughout the years, coming up with some interesting vaginal depictions.

One might argue that femininity has always been a popular subject in fine arts.

While the female body has always been represented in traditional arts as a symbol of fertility, vaginas were rarely shown in an accurate manner. And such works of arts were hardly ever accessible to the general public.

That was up until the realism of French painter Gustave Courbet took the game to a more graphic level.

‘The Mona Lisa of vaginas’

L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet, 1886.

Courbet will be forever remembered for his most provocative painting, celebrating the power of female sexuality. It is so famous it has earned the title of ‘the Mona Lisa of vaginas’.

Finished in 1886, L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) has been on display at the Musée d’Orsay since 1995, shocking patrons with its graphic content.

If you think shock might be a thing of the past, an urban legend to scare the new generations, you need to think twice. Facebook banned the painting in 2011, in the middle of a prude wave affecting all other NSFW works of art.

Portraying a woman with her legs spread open, the work of art shows a vagina in all its hairy majesty. It is not possible to identify the model as her face is not in the frame. It’s rather her vagina to be the focal point, one of the first mainstream examples in arts.

Recently, however, the mystery on the identity of the model has been solved. Experts say they are ‘99% sure’ the painting depicts the Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux. She was also a mistress of the Ottoman diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha.

What do you see here?

Beanman and Beanwoman Prepare to Attack the Vagina by Utagawa Kunisada, 1827.

What Courbet did was groundbreaking in many regards, but it wasn’t certainly the first depiction of the female reproductive organ in history.

The Japanese print artist Utagawa Kunisada used the traditional ukiyo-e woodblocks to create Beanman and Beanwoman Prepare to Attack the Vagina, a print dating back to 1827, more than sixty years before Courbet.

In the print, the labia and the interiors are even more visible than in L’Origine du Monde, where they appeared to be partly concealed by a wild, unapologetic bush.

After Courbet, other Western artists took upon themselves to show the female body in a new light.

Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele inherited Gustav Klimt’s focus on erotic images of the female body. He created several sensuous paintings and sketches featuring women, even in clearly sexual, queer depictions.

Reclining Nude With Yellow Towel by Egon Schiele, 1917.

In terms of female genitalia, Reclining Nude With Yellow Towel is one of the most prominent examples. The early Expressionist painting dates back to 1917 and features a female figure leaning on one side and spreading her legs to reveal her vagina to the looker.

American painter Georgia O’Keeffe is among those artists honoring a delicate yet raw femininity.

Despite the artist rejected the interpretations of her nearly 200 flower paintings as depicting female genitalia, there is one that leaves little to the imagination.

Sometimes called Black Iris III, this floral painting is among the most popular works of Georgia O’Keeffe.

O’Keeffe painted Black Iris in 1926. The enlarged flower has darker petals resembling the labia majora and minora. There is also an evocative darker area leading to the center of the flower, suggesting the entrance to the reproductive canal.

There’s a vulva on my plate!

Contemporary art has several and more daring examples of vaginal depictions in arts.

In 1966, Niki de Saint-Phalle, Jean Tinguely och Per Olov Ultvedt created an installation for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Visitors entering Hon – en katedral at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm.

Hon – en katedral (She – A Cathedral) was a giant sculpture of a pregnant woman lying on her back with her legs open. Visitors can literally enter the artwork, 75 feet wide and 20 feet tall. On the inside, patrons could find an aquarium, a cinema showing a Greta Garbo’s movie, a bar and much more.

In the late 70s, The Dinner Party was perhaps the most ambitious work featuring the female body.

Judy Chicago created one of the first feminist artworks, conflating inspirational women and the idea of a blooming female sexuality.

The plate representing women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony at The Dinner Party table.

Chicago figuratively brought some of the most inspirational women in history at the same table. First exhibited in 1979, the artwork features Virginia Woolf, Susan B. Anthony, and again Georgia O’Keeffe among the guests. Each place-setting at the triangular giant table includes a hand-painted china plate, depicting a brightly-colored, stylized vulva.

In more recent years, different, anatomical vaginas became the protagonists of The Great Wall of Vagina.

Jamie McCartney unveiled The Great Wall of Vagina in Brighton, UK.

Created by Jamie McCartney, the 2011 artwork displays the casts of 400 women’s vulvas. Its aim is to normalize the idea that there is no such thing as the ‘perfect vagina’. On the contrary, every possible variant is perfectly normal.

The clitoris and other stories

A rainbow clitoris appeared on a sidewalk in Brighton last December. | Photo: @clitorosity/Instagram

Women, men, and non-binaries might have a hard time trying to crack the anatomy of the clitoris.

American artist Laura Kingsley created Clitorosity, a project raising awareness on the key to the female pleasure. Traveling the world, Kingsley graced different locations with sidewalk chalk arts portraying the little pleasure button. Which doesn’t look like a button at all.

‘After giving talks to hundreds of people on my college campus on the clitoris and sexual communication, I realized how surprised the majority of the people were when they saw an anatomical clitoris diagram for the first time,’ Kingsley told Bustle last March.

‘Clitorosity was born from a dream of a collaborative and creative way to spark more of these conversations and spread awareness about the full structure of the clitoris.’

While Kingsley is still on her educative mission, vagina artworks from around the world could soon have their own permanent home.

The Vagina Museum could become a reality. Based in the UK, the project aimed to create the world’s first museum dedicated to the vulva. If you’re wondering, there’s already one for penis art in Iceland.

‘We’re currently very much in the startup stage. We’re doing traveling exhibitions and looking for a temporary space for about 2-3 years,’ the project’s director Florence Schechter told Gay Star News.

Following its launch in 2017, Schechter hopes to turn her project in a permanent museum by 2032. There’s plenty of time to catch up on the female anatomy until then.

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