The human body has always been at the center of how we understand facets of identity such as gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. Throughout art history, the female body has been idealized and objectified, most often through the eyes of male artists.

The very first depiction of the female body - a prehistoric figurine called 'The Venus of Willendorf' - presented the female body as bulbous and exaggerated, as a symbol of fertility and motherhood. Exaggeration and idealization of the female figure continued throughout Greek and Roman art and sculpture, leading into the Renaissance and Baroque periods where artists like Sandro Botticelli and Diego Velázquez celebrated women for their beauty but dismissed them of compositions that held more complex meanings or true reflections of the female experience.

Diego Velázquez, 'The Rokeby Venus' (1647). Courtesy of The National Gallery.

As in Velázquez's famous depiction of 'The Rokeby Venus', as well as virtually all pictures of women, passivity is the norm, whether manifested as softness, slack musculature, or a deferential pose.

However, in recent decades, female artists made it their mission to actively reclaim the body as a subject in order to open up new dialogs relating to the contemporary female experience. No longer concerned with idealizing the beauty and curves of the female figure, they are using their brush strokes to break down the body and its historic symbolism, presenting it as something which is constantly changing and evolving, a true reflection of our time.

Tracey Emin, 'There was a moment' (2019). Courtesy of Xavier Hufkins.

Many of the female painters leading this act of reclaiming the female body and the female narrative in art are also blurring the lines between abstraction and figuration. A curious balance between the two genres of painting allows for these artists to approach ideas surrounding the body and identity without playing into the idealization that female bodies have been subjected to throughout art history.

The work of British artist, Tracey Emin, exemplifies this blurring of genres. Using her own body as her subject, she maps out only the faint outline and curves of her figure, then begins layering explosions of blood red paint, bruises the body with pinks strokes, and washes the canvas over with cool tones to envelop the body in a haze of emotion. For Emin, her work is fiercely personal and intimate, using her paintings as a form of cathartic release in response to the traumatic events she’s endured throughout her life and career. Many of the paintings pull from her experience of abortions, sexual abuse and battling cancer, and by balancing her self-portraiture with layers of abstraction, erasure, and haziness, she is able to open up the dialogue to sensitive or taboo topics without alienating the viewer or playing into traditional notions of femininity.

Cecily Brown, 'Body [After Sickert]' (2022). Courtesy of Thomas Dane Gallery.

Some artists have taken a more targeted aim at the traditions in painting and their depictions of the female form. Painter Cecily Brown, draws from the compositions of her predecessors and transforms them into scenes of ecstasy and sexual encounters, with bodies blending and overlapping together, a melting pot of contemporary intimacy and expression. This is most evident in her painting, 'Body [After Sickert]' (2022), with which she reconstructs Walter Sickert's 'Reclining Nude (Thin Adeline)' (1906). Brown creates an abstracted version of Sickert's composition of a naked woman sprawled across the bed. As if in an attempt to remove his male gaze, she removes the woman of any identity and washes her body over with frenetic, rosey strokes. While Sickert's female body was stationary, cold-skinned and objectified, Brown's female body is in motion and alive. Blurring the lines between figuration and abstraction, her art invades and destroys the notion that sex should be kept private and behind closed doors. She releases her bodies into a world of passion and unbound intimacy.

Christina Quarles, 'Tomorrow Comes Today' (2020). Courtesy of Pilar Corrias.

Female artists are continuously finding unique ways to merge figuration with abstraction. For American artist, Christina Quarles, she pushes bodies into a space where they bend and contort into mutated, horror-like forms. As the bodies on her canvases twist and dislocate, she creates an approach to the contemporary body that reflects a overarching desire to tap into something that hovers between the masculine and feminine, the grotesque and the beautiful, and that highlights the fluidity and diversity of gender and sexuality in the 21st century. As with Tracey Emin and Cecily Brown, Quarles challenges the dominant narratives surrounding the contemporary body and create a space for diverse expressions of sex, gender and identity.