Frida Kahlo, Retaliation, Independence and Assertion- A Painting Analysis

Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) created the painting “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” in 1940. It was painted in the aftermath of her divorce to her husband Diego Rivera who had been unfaithful to the artist.

Kahlo was already known for her challenges to gender construction. As a younger woman she had posed in family photographic portraits wearing a suit, a shocking act of defiance in an era in which female dress codes were both limited and enforced by convention. Her androgynous appearance was therefore early evidence of a fierce independent and rebellious spirit which would translate to both the artist’s later life and work.


Frida kahlo, family portrait, age 17, (far left)

Kahlo’s 1940 portrait is an embodiment of such bold defiance. Once again the artist steps outside the boundaries of social norms and also the perceived ‘feminine’ artistic practices expected of the female self-portraitist of her day, by presenting herself dressed in ‘masculine’ attire.

As a response to Rivera’s affairs with other women, the artist represents herself boldly in her ex-husband’s suit, as she seizes for herself the social privileges of her former male partner. Rivera was regarded as a great artist of his time and had gained both wealth and fame. Kahlo’s work, however, received little attention in comparison and her international success was only granted posthumously.

The 1940 portrait portrays a complex act of female retaliation, independence and assertion in reaction to a context of societal and marital female subordination and personal trauma. The out sized suit, as an embodiment of male authority to which the artist lays claim, acts as armour, a statement of both courage and self-protection. The figure’s gaze is defiantly engaging, the expression is one of strength.


Frida Kahlo, “Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair” 1940

In addition to wearing a suit, the artist portrays herself in the aftermath of cutting her own hair short. Kahlo subverts existing power structures, defying gendered conventions. In doing so she frees her painted self of the limitations of imposed femininity. Hair is strewn around the scene as if the subject of an act of previous rage and frenzy. The lyric at the top of the painting reads “Look, if I loved you it was because of your hair. Now that you are without hair, I don’t love you anymore”. The artist portrays herself as empowered by her own actions, her own self imposed loss, estranging herself from her former life.

Kahlo’s symbolic painting works as a personification of a woman’s anger, defiance and independence. The scissors are a tool utilised to reflect that the figure is in charge of her own destiny.

They are also significantly held at a level suggestive of castration.


Public Art and Ideological Censorship

Women are hugely under represented in public art. Using the UK as an example, research carried out by campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez stated that out of over 900 public statues in Britain, only 158 are of lone women.

Despite exceptions, such as Queen Victoria, the most common representations of women are allegorical figures, for example representing ‘Justice’, or mythical and religious figures, such as near naked mermaids, goddesses and angels. Womanhood is thus publicly presented as abstract or illusion, objects of fantasy and projection, or vessels for announcement. This, in turn, is reflective of enduring practices to utilise women’s bodies in specific ways, including as titillation for the male gaze and as contemporary  commodities for advertisements.

That women are reflected in this way and not in terms of their lives and achievements is therefore not only indicative of their erasure from public life and societal value, but negates the idea of female humanity.

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Conversely, male-centric public representation endorses the idea that men alone have guided both history and culture. In fact such perceptions are so embedded that they have become virtually unquestionable norms.


For centuries in the West public art has been utilised to communicate certain messages to a vast audience in order to sanction specific values and beliefs. In terms of figurative art, this may be encoded with signs of status, worth and power. A history of mostly male-only representation therefore is itself representative of a shameful gendered hierarchy, utilising visual propaganda and ideological censorship.

The failure to represent women, half the human population, is indicative of a failure of culture.

Campaigners have highlighted such inequality, aiming to raise the public profile of women as integral to a fair and just society. Taxes from women equally fund public art, yet public representation remains inexcusably male.

Womanhood, and indeed culture itself, can only benefit from the removal of such binding perimeters.



Elizabeth Catlett: Homage To My Black Sisters

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

From And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) was an African-American artist, printmaker and sculptor known for her focus on African-American issues, which often highlighted black female experience. She was born and raised in Washington DC and came from a family of freed slaves. Despite a mid-20th century culture of devastating racism and segregation in the US, Catlett became a highly educated woman and artist. She attended Washington’s Howard University, at which her professors included the artist Lois Mailou Jones, a highly influential figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

Catlett developed her art by focusing on her concerns involving social issues, which contrasted to the US art establishment’s promotion of fashionable genres such as Abstract Expressionism. After moving to Mexico for a period of her life the artist became highly influenced by the political activism of such organisations as the People’s Graphic Arts Workshop. In turn, Catlett saw an opportunity to give a voice through her figurative realist artworks, to the often silent endurance and strength through oppression of her fellow African American women.

In 1946 Catlett created a series of fifteen linocuts entitled The Negro Woman series. Here the artist highlighted inspirational African American women such as Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Also included was Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist who was born into slavery, and responsible for freeing  whole families of slaves through her activism with the Underground Railroad. The artist also highlighted Phillis Wheatley in her artworks,  celebrating the first published African-American female poet.


In Phillis Wheatley I proved intellectual equality in the midst of slavery from The Negro Woman series; 1946 by Elizabeth Catlett.


However, Catlett included in her focus more anonymous and forgotten women, by creating work with titles such as ‘I have always worked in America’ featuring women doing household chores. In this approach the artist celebrated every  African American woman, from those  who gave the world songs, those who studied, those who struggled, who organised, to those who feared, in fact all who endured and fought back against the injustices of racism and misogyny.


I have always worked hard in America from The Negro Woman series; 1946 by Elizabeth Catlett

 In her later iconic work The Sharecropper (1952) Catlett highlighted sharecropping, a Southern United States practice widespread after the emancipation of salves . This system largely upheld the practices and values of slavery as white landlords exploited their black workforces. Catlett had been raised learning stories of the horrific injustices against her own enslaved family from her grandmother. The image she created significantly reflects an African American female sharecropper, giving a platform to explore a particular and often neglected perspective of race, class in addition to gender role. The image itself is one embodying resilience and strength, not defeat, in which the artist clearly honors her female ancestors’ endurance despite the highly oppressive regime they lived through as African Americans and as women.


The Sharecropper; 1952 by Elizabeth Catlett


Catlett followed this pattern of celebrating the strength of her sisters throughout her life and work. As a civil rights activist, educator as well as artist, she created work not only reflecting the struggles of various African American social movements, but also stayed true to the feminism which informed her art. From the Chicago Renaissance of the 1940s, to the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1970’s/80’s and beyond, Catlett created art which maintained black female representation and perspective. Utilising themes from motherhood to activism, while producing work such as Mother and Child, 1956 and Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968 the artist placed African American women at centre stage, on both a personal and political level.


Mother and Child, 1956 and Homage to My Young Black Sisters, 1968 by Elizabeth Catlett

Black women have been cast in the role of carrying on the survival of black people through their position as mothers and wives, protection and educating and stimulating children and black men. We can learn from black women. They have had to struggle for centuries. I feel that we have so much more to express and that we should demand to be heard and demand to be seen because we know and feel and can express so much, contribute so much…. Elizabeth Catlett.


The Black Woman Speaks; 1960 by Elizabeth Catlett









Book Review: Renée Radell Web Of Circumstance by Eleanor Heartney


Published by Predmore Press (New York)

In 1971 art historian Linda Nochlin created the premise “Why have there been no great women artists”, exploring the historical, cultural and social limitations imposed on women artists. This is intriguingly where author Eleanor Heartney begins her exploration of American Figurative Expressionist painter Renée Radell in her new book Renée Radell Web Of Circumstance. 

Radell began to be recognised as a painter in a mid-late 20th century age incorporating artists approaching a variety of philosophical and political issues within their work. Movements such as Abstract Expressionism, underpinned by the theoretical perspectives of Greenberg, were no longer dominating US culture. The contemporary radical and multifaceted art of the era, characterised as the arrival of postmodernism, was certainly suited to Radell’s complex philosophical and existential themes in her work. However the artist was also creating her paintings in a context of rising social issues, including demands for women’s liberation.

Heartney’s introduction to Radell highlighting Nochlin’s provocative statement, therefore, is not only indicative of the challenging cultural nature of the era, but of an intention to explore the painter, her work and life as both artist and woman in an age of potential for radical change.

The author enables the reader an understanding of Radell by introducing her biography, her early life and achievements such as noting her education in the Detroit Arts and Crafts Movement. However it is her insights into the more personal aspects of the painter’s life which develops a more concise and importantly, more warmly perceptive picture of an artist, a woman, a mother, a wife. That Radell, when married and mother to five offspring, utilised her kitchen as a studio and her refrigerator as easel, is not only testament to Nochlin’s acknowledgement of gendered limitations and sardonic reference to “kitchen creativity”. It is also evidence of a woman’s ability to typically achieve against the odds, while provoking a darkly humorous insight into the challenges of family life, akin to the motifs within the work of the artist herself.

Heartney highlights Radell’s work and particularly female perspectives with such recurring themes as family, motherhood, brides and female aging. The author however reflects on the rejection of the sentimentality of artists like Cassatt, by pondering Radell’s work such as Solace (1958) in which the bond between mother and child is portrayed as both enduringly loving and darkly fraught. However Radell’s work is shown to portray many aspects of human life and Heartney allows the work to unravel in its own complexity, enabling the artist’s weaving of expressionism with allegory, realism with the existential, to become intriguingly unveiled.


Renée Radell, Solace 1958, watercolor on paper 24 x 18 in

The author takes the reader on a journey through a lifetime of work, as Radell herself utilised the theme of the passage of time, in terms of choice and fate, life and death. It is not only a literal trek from a life in rural Michigan to the bright lights of the New York art world, but also an expedition through an artist’s exploration of the metaphysical and all that is human existence. The influence of the artwork of Käthe Kollwitz is acknowledged in reference to themes ranging from morality to social justice, community to isolation, reversed hierarchies to the darker undercurrents of the political system. All are probed against the backdrop of Radell’s own experience, such as her upbringing within Catholicism and her family experience of enforced economic demotion as a result of the Great Depression. In Radell’s international award winning work The Tide (1966), for example, Heartney highlights the painter’s grimly metaphorical reference to a prevailing current in which workers are passively doomed, while one figure’s resistance offers a glimmer of hope.


Renée Radell, The Tide 1966, acrylic on Masonite 44 x 60 in.

In turn, Heartney fortifies the text with quotes from writers, poets and philosophers such as T.S Elliot, Emily Dickinson and Yeats, framing Radell’s complex artworks in the high cultural context they deserve. With many pages devoted to the artwork itself however, Heartney enables the reader to focus on the huge body of work Radell has enriched the world with herself, from sketches to painting and murals. Heartney ends Web of Circumstance referring once again to Nochlin’s article asserting that there have indeed been great women artists, and in the case of Renée Radell the reader will certainly be inclined to agree.

P L Henderson



Ana Mendieta, A Women’s Art is Life and Death

Ana Mendieta(1948–1984) was a Cuban born artist who lived in political exile in the United States. She created her artwork, combining feminism with photography, and also land, body and performance art. Ana was a member of the AIR all-women gallery in New York.


Ana Mendieta died in 1984 after falling from her 34th floor apartment in New York. Knowing her fear of heights, her friends did not believe the possibility of suicide. Many however, did think her death was also not an accident and accused her partner, sculptor Carl Andre, of pushing her out of the window in a drunken rage during an argument. Her friends stated that Ana was successful at the time of her death, more so than Andre and she was not depressed.

When the police arrived, Andre had scratch marks on his nose and arms. His statements to the authorities differed from his message to the emergency services. Andre was arrested and charged with murder. In court a doorman testified that he heard a woman screaming “No” several times, then heard the thud of her body as it hit the street below. Andre’s decision was to be tried by a judge rather than a jury, resulting in him receiving no cross-examination by the prosecution. He was eventually acquitted.

His lawyers used examples of Ana’s artwork to suggest that she committed suicide. Ana’s friends stated that many powerful figures in the New York scene had colluded in that. This reading of her work, however, failed to acknowledge the politics which informed Mendieta’s life and art. In turn, many believed that this lead to a conclusion on the death of Ana which enabled the system to discount the possibility of male violence.

Her artwork was actually often influenced by questions relating to ideas of home, place and boundaries due to her exiled status. However, this also related to her feminism, which often crossed the ‘borders’ on the expected in terms of female expression. Ana created “Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants)” in the early 1970’s, for example, a performance which questioned expectations on female representation and the restrictions imposed by ideals of femininity.


Ana’s ‘Silueta’ series comprised of a series of outdoor performances which were documented in film and photograph. Firstly Mendieta preformed the event. The artist utilised her body to create imprints with low relief in various substances (e.g. earth, ice, gunpowder), to create the appearance of silhouettes on the ground. This was then followed by transformation of that image by differing processes (e.g. melting ice, weathering). The idea was therefore to represent an on-going, shifting process. This, in turn, may be viewed as the process of life itself (rather than relating to some kind of ‘death-wish’…..)


The central motif of the artists’ goddess-like yet absent form, connects her female form to the land. In doing so Ana explored womanhood and the effects of subjectivity as well as the social processes that inform gender construction. In addition she highlighted issues of ethnicity, spirituality, ritual, territory, memory and loss of status, but always in relation her sex.


Ana’s artwork is also perceived as yonic art-reflective and suggestive of female genitalia, all, in turn, indicative of Ana’s feminist ideals. Ana’s use of goddess imagery reclaimed not only women’s power but was an expression of her own identify, as she controlled her own female body within the image and her imagery. ‘Silueta’ highlights Ana as artist/subject which itself challenges how women are portrayed and treated as a result of masculinist ideals.

That her work was read so negatively in court can be viewed as a result of a culture which is continually misreading and in fact hostile to much female/feminist expression.


In 1973 Ana also created a performance of the scene of a rape – ‘Untitled (Rape Scene)’ in which her use of blood was intended to carry a strongly political feminist message – to bring awareness of male violence against women.


Ana Mendieta (1948-1984).



Further info:

Protesters Demand “Where Is Ana Mendieta?” in Tate Modern Expansion




Gentileschi’s Revenge, ‘Penis Envy’ and the Male gaze

Despite her exclusion from art education and resources on the grounds of her sex, the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) became one of the most accomplished painters of the Italian Baroque period.

She often painted herself for her work as she was unable to access models, therefore imparting a sense of her own physicality, spirit and experience into the images she created. Her rare talent and skills eventually allowed her something even rarer- independent womanhood.

Gentileschi’s ability to carve out a profession as a female artist is an exceeding rare case in the context of Western history. It’s therefore interesting to consider how she presents her female subjects.

Unlike many of her male contemporaries who commonly highlighted women as objects of beauty, emphasizing their passivity or alternatively as seductresses (based on the virgin/whore dichotomy), Gentileschi created work highlighting the emotional, mental and physical power and/or suffering of her females.

Artemisia was, however, raped aged 18. Her attacker had previously raped his sister-in-law and wife. The artist was tortured during the resulting trial to “prove” she was telling the truth, as was common practice. Officers of the court routinely used thumbscrews on women in such cases which would sometimes break bones. Artemisia’s sexual history, ‘virtue’ and ‘honour’ were repeatedly questioned and she faced many months of intense and devastating public scrutiny. Eventually her attacker was found guilty. He was, however, soon released from prison on the orders of the judge.

Due to the apparent ‘shame’ brought to Artemisia’s character by these events, she was forced to move to another city and was sold off into marriage to an elderly friend of her father’s. They soon separated.

In the same year as her trial ended Artemisia produced this artwork (below).


The title and subject matter depicts Judith Slaying Holofernes (c.1620).

‘Judith’ was regarded as an icon of female power within the Baroque period. Artemisia’s heroine appears strong, muscular and dominating. The painting depicts Judith working in unison with her female servant as she utilises her sword to tear into her prone male victim as he is held down. There is a immediate impression of force, struggle and hopeless resistance and a shocking and bloody realism to the brutality of the violence.

It is not difficult to surmise that the artist has created an allegorical, cathartic work. She appears to subvert her own experience of male sexual violence by reflecting a role reversal of the violating, brutal act. As men were the main sex to buy, sell and view such works for many centuries, it may be presumed that Artemisia wanted her male audience to contemplate and feel the horrors and reality of being victims of extreme violence, as if it was their own experience.

Artemisia survived her abuse by both attacker and state and went on to live an unusually independent life through her art. She produced many more paintings depicting strong women struggling/battling against male dominance. And so she received many derogatory epitaphs as a result of unsettling the patriarchs…..

Having considered the context behind Artemisia’s painting which included her educational exclusion, her rape and subsequent rape trial, it interesting to compare the work with that of a male artist. Although Franz Stuck’s interpretation, ‘ Judith’ (1924) (below), features the same mythical scene, it incorporates very different messages for the viewer.


Franz Stuck, ‘ Judith’ (1924)

Despite alluding to the theme of the myth, here Judith is still, statue-like, passive.The female figure is sexualized, an object of male fantasy for the male gaze as the painter directs the viewer’s eye to the naked female torso for their voyeuristic pleasure. There is a dream-like quality to Judith and despite the fact she is holding a sword, she is portrayed as more playful temptress to both male character Holofernes and male viewer alike, rather than the cunning assassin of myth.

The painting is also interspersed with allusions and motifs relating to the psychological theories of Freud, and the era in which it was created. Judith holds an erect sword, a phallic object, alluding to such condescending ideas as female ‘penis envy’, involving girls devotion to the father and blaming the mother for their female ‘disadvantage’. (Female oppression is therefore accepted as biological and not through patriarchal societal, economic and cultural repression). The work similarly implies castration anxiety, fear of emasculation, loss of male power and patriarchal control.

In contrast, Gentileschi’s version highlights Judith as a non-idealized woman, as the artist is more concerned with being representative of female strength, determination and struggle. Judith is portrayed in an active role, she is subject not object.

In “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” feminist Laura Mulvey highlights the male gaze, stating that women were/are objectified in film because heterosexual men are largely in control of the camera. In the art world, likewise, men have controlled the canvas artistically, socially and economically for centuries and the images they impart.

Not only is Judith used by Stuck as a vehicle and embodiment of male fear, but akin to the most common narratives in contemporary heterosexual pornography, the female is representative of a non-human vessel to hold and satisfy male heterosexual fantasy and desire.

Gentileschi’s perspective is that of a woman. Her painting is of metaphorical revenge and of expressing female rage in a culture colluding in the sexual, psychological, physical abuse of women by men.

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Male perspectives, like Stuck’s, however are still pervasive in Western culture, in turn normalising certain views of acceptable/unacceptable womanhood….in film, advertising, pornography, media……and so on.

This, in turn creates what feminist artist and writer Valie Export describes as ‘a masculine reality’ detrimental to the experience of actually being FEMALE.





Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis

Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis (1844-1907) was a US sculptor and was the first artist of African-American and Native American heritage to gain international fame in the Western art world.

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Lewis began her art studies at Oberlin College, which was not only one of the first higher educational institutions in the US to admit women, but also to allow entry to people of colour.

This stage of the sculptor’s life was not without incident however. Here Lewis was accused of trying to poison two of her female classmates with what turned out to be an aphrodisiac. In turn, the school supported Lewis against criminal charges. She was however severely beaten by unknown assailants from the area as a result.

In 1864 Lewis moved to Boston to pursue her wish to become a sculptor and it was here she gained a tutor in the genre. In an era of slavery, Lewis was utilised as a symbol by white abolitionists and by the abolitionist press. However, the sculptor began to create works reflecting her own perceptions of the issues surrounding her, depicting abolitionist, African American, Native American and also religious and classical themes.

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Edmonia Lewis: Forever Free, 1867 i. Celebrates the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of slaves

In the following years Lewis moved to Rome where she worked relentlessly on her sculptures. She lived in a bohemian, expat colony and became involved in the lesbian art circles of the city. Lewis herself is thought to have had same-sex relationships. The sculptor was professionally supported there by lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman and sculptor Harriet Hosmer who were already established on this scene.

Lewis found a greater freedom in Italy than in the US as Rome appeared to offer a more tolerant and less racially divided society. She worked in a Neoclassical style and also in the area of naturalism. The sculptor continued to pursue themes which were integral to her personal and political outlook, concentrating on sculpture that related to African/Native American lives. However much of the work the sculptor created was deliberately appealing to a white European/Western audience as the market dictated certain aesthetics and Lewis did not want to be pigeon-holed. This has to be viewed within the context of an oppressive and limiting racist, misogynistic culture. However as Lewis’ work began to sell for large amounts of money, as her reputation and fame grew, she may certainly be viewed as a shrewd and highly influential pioneer within the art world for women of colour.

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Edmonia Lewis: Hiawatha, marble, 1868

Her work ‘Death of Cleopatra’ was perhaps the major turning point in her career. It was exhibited in Philadelphia, at the first official World Fair to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. Few white women had access to exhibit their work on such a large stage in that era, let alone a woman of colour. Critics highlighted Lewis’s original approach and this, in turn, lead to later commissions from the President among others high ranking people in US society.


Edmonia Lewis: The Death of Cleopatra, marble, 1867

It is believed that Lewis spent the last months of her life in Hammersmith, London and that she is buried in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in the city.

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Edmonia ‘Wildfire’ Lewis deserves huge respect for her place in the history of women’s art and significantly in the struggle of women of colour in the arts and wider culture.


See Red Women’s Workshop

The London based See Red Women’s Workshop came to life in 1973 and finally stopped producing artworks / posters in 1990. This women-only printing collective was foundered on the premise of counteracting and challenging the negative imagery focusing on females in the media and the advertising industry, later supporting a wide range of community projects.

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Part of the ethos of the collective was to create a positive environment for women to work within the group, which in turn reflected the feminist politics of the age. Many of those involved had already experienced women’s consciousness raising groups and had also previously worked in radical groups. In turn, the artwork that was produced was not credited to a single artist but regarded as a collective effort. This lack of ego, individualism and hierarchy, with a focus on the collective was certainly viewed as connecting to ideas of sisterhood and indicative of women-only collaboration.

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It is imperative to recognise the primary value of the women-only space that was utilised by the collective. This provided a sense of unity for the women printmakers and artists, enabling an atmosphere of mutual understanding and trust in which the sharing of knowledge and skills was the foundation of the work they created.

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The group aimed to produce posters which would reflect the politics of the women’s liberation movement. Many of the posters produced were based on the personal lives of the women involved, such as issues of oppression regarding childcare, work or domestic situations. This highlighting of the common experiences of women of the era was clearly vital, not only in creating recognisable imagery, but in terms of bringing visual understanding to the feminist politics of women’s liberation.

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Many of the issues the posters raised, in turn, are still very relevant to women/feminism today and the work of See Red Women’s Workshop, therefore, is both timeless and highly valuable.

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for further Information:





Ceija Stojka, Painter of the Roma Holocaust

Ceija Stojka (1933 – 2013) was an Austrian-Romani painter, in addition to being a writer and musician. She was also a survivor of the Holocaust. Ceija spent the later years of her life creating artworks to raise awareness of the more than a million Roma estimated to have been murdered under the rule of the Nazis.


The painter’s haunting and deeply disturbing imagery recalls how Ceija and her family were the target of the Nazis, interned in Dachau, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. In the four years of suffering the artist endured, almost  200 members of her extended family perished.

During this period gypsies were forced to register as members of another “race” and their campgrounds were enclosed by fences and patrolled by police. In 1941, at which time Ceija was 8 years old, her father was deported to the Dachau concentration camp. He was later murdered. In 1943 Ceija and her remaining family were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Nazi death camp for Gypsies. Here Ceija’s mother saved her life by insisting her ten year old child was in fact sixteen and thus able to work. The family literally lived in the shadow of the gas chambers, under constant threat of hunger, torture and death. Ceija was twelve years old by the time the concentration camp was liberated in 1945.


(“Mama in Auschwitz”)

After the war there was little acknowledgement of the suffering the Roma community had endured. In fact Roma persecution continued in the post war period and beyond. Ceija did not begin painting until the age of fifty six, but her intent was to highlight the humanity and plight of her people by focusing on her own experiences. Ceija’s paintings range from a nostalgic view of Romani life before WW2 to the highly disturbing experience of Nazi rule and the death camps. Her work may be described as a hybrid between folk art and German expressionism,  a highly disturbing contrast between the simplistic and childlike and the horror of her subject matter.

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‘Even Death is Afraid of Auschwitz’ is an example of her work,  a series of ink drawings and gouaches that the painter worked on throughout the 1980s, which graphically convey the full horror of Nazi atrocities.

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The artwork and writing of the inspiring Ceija Stojka are not simply the legacy of her own suffering and survival, but, in turn, have brought international attention to the previously largely ignored Roma genocide under Nazi rule.


Ceija Stojka (1933 – 2013)










Camille Claudel, an Unromantic Reality

Until recently the life and work of French sculptor Camille Claudel (1864-1943) has been largely overshadowed by her much celebrated partner and fellow sculptor Auguste Rodin.  As Rodin’s lover, Claudel has often simply been reduced to an artist’s muse, a beautiful and tragic backdrop to the life of one of the art world’s greatest masters.

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(Camille Claudel c. 1884)

Inscribed into Western art history is the ideal of the artist as the lone male genius. In contrast to the genius of men, the artist’s muse is widely perceived as female. The artist commands the active role in this relationship. The muse is the passive decorative object on to which he may project his deepest desires, fantasies and fears. Picasso’s muse, for example, was famously Dora Maar, an artist in her own right, yet known more for her association with the painter than for her own work.

Camille Claudel, like Dora Maar, is often viewed through the lens of her lover’s perceived genius. Rodin was a much more prolific sculptor than Claudel, but it is believed he was enabled in this task by the help of his younger lover. The role of the muse is often to provide sexual, emotional and practical comfort, it is female sacrifice which in turn enables the work of the male heroic figure.

Many art historians now believe it was Claudel who was the more talented pioneer of the two however.

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(Camille Claudel in the studio, c.1896)

Claudel met Rodin at his workshop at the age of nineteen; he was twenty four years older and also married. Rodin would not leave his wife for Claudel, aiming to keep both women in his life. The male sculptor was a known womanizer, a reputation celebrated in the mythology of the male artist. Such a sexual affair between a much younger female student and an older male tutor is one which has been played out again and again, not only indicative of the art world however, but of the gender roles and negative power relationships of wider society.

Claudel faced many trials as a woman and as a female artist. Her talent was recognised and supported by her father but other members of her family were against Claudel’s involvement in the often scandalous art world.  As a woman in late 19th century French society, the support of her family was crucial to survival. The sculptor was also forced to have an abortion during her relationship to an increasingly unfaithful Rodin. As their relationship deteriorated, significantly Claudel’s work progressively flourished however, as she exhibited her work at the Paris Salon.

After the breakdown of the relationship, which many believed was connected to the rivalry her sculptures posed to that of her ex-lover’s, Claudel became more reclusive and obsessive about her work.  Despite her obvious talent, it was the fact that she was a woman that was a barrier to the support and funding she needed as an artist. After her father died her family also withdrew any financial aid and the artist was forced into extreme poverty. The sculptor accused Rodin of threatening to kill her and her brother is believed to have been extremely jealous of her talents. Sculpting was an expensive business and the hostility and neglect of her ex-lover, family and art world all took its toll on Claudel who was showing signs of great distress.

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(Camille Claudel, Torso of a woman squatting, 1885)

In the early years of the 20th century a form was signed by Claudel’s brother committing her in an asylum , despite the efforts of doctors who tried to tell her family it was inappropriate and that the artist was clear-headed. At this time it was common for women to be placed indefinitely in insane asylums for reasons from ‘hysteria’ to adultery, and often at the hands of male relatives who had authority over their sisters, mothers, nieces and daughters. During her incarceration the letters Claudel wrote to friends clearly showed she was lucid.

Claudel, however, was kept in the asylum for the remaining thirty years of her life. She died in 1943 and it is believed her brother did not attend her funeral.

Camille Claudel’s life was not romantically tragic, but indicative of cultural and societal persecution of women.

In recent years the work of this hugely skilled and pioneering sculptor has been more positively highlighted and the oppressive circumstances of her life dissected to create a more deservedly insightful view of Camille Claudel herself.  Her legacy is not only her work but the recognition of the life she endured as a woman, and a female artist.