Women’s emotions are limited to suffering in art


Painting by Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger

“I am awake in the place where women die,” reads the black ink on skin, written and photographed by Jenny Holzer. “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself,” says Emily Dickinson, in her deepest moments of isolation. Both are women that men have referenced as geniuses to me. Both are women writing about the intricate loss of self that occurs while navigating womanhood.

Frida Kahlo’s portraits of her brutalized body, both after the trolley crash she was in, and her miscarriage, are some of her most famous. Her haunted eyes stare back at the viewer, dark and unforgiving. In one, her chest cavity is open, with metal poking out from behind bones. In the other, the child, born in pieces, is in a jar. I know what pulls me to her artwork: the honesty, the precision of representing herself as she was, the deliberate radicality. 

I know why I love women’s art, because I know why I love to be around other women. There is a safety in this airing of collective wounds we have sustained in our lives. There is a magic in it, the kind that can only be found with having our experiences validated and articulated. What I do not understand, and likely never will, is what draws men in. Do they not feel guilty? Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, between bouts of infidelity, praised these works. In a letter to a friend, she wrote that life had had two great accidents: “the trolley, and Diego.” 

It took me a long time to figure out that the only emotion women are permitted in art is suffering. It was something that has never left me. It was there in the curl of Etta James’ voice—“I’d rather go blind, than watch you walk away from me.” It was there in paintings of the Greeks Echo, Cassandra, and Psyche, all driven to insanity by love and rage and shame, and the lack of it. In every photograph taken of every wailing woman in the global south, whether from mutilation, loss, wreckage, or carnage, meant to be observed as if the photographer had curated the moment. Picasso’s “Guernica,” with a howling woman holding her child’s broken body at its center. Maya Angelou branding a Black woman’s laugh as “a survival apparatus.” Toni Morrison outlining the desperation of a woman unwanted—“a graveyard love.” 

I cannot find the words to describe the solace and the solidarity that my body manages to contain when I take these women’s stories in. Similarly, there is no clear way that I can articulate the disgust I feel when I see men offer their begrudging, reluctant admiration of these women. Once, I heard someone say “If I had to pick a woman, it’d probably be Georgia O’Keeffe. She really knew what she was doing.” To describe O’Keeffe, a woman who suffered through and survived a deep depression, as simply a woman aware of her craft, of her gift, is to erase every bit of her except the hands she used to paint. 

Perhaps even worse is the man who offers his enthusiastic and flimsy praise of these artists in search of praise of his own. While men have begun to try and occupy an active role in women’s liberation, and this may seem like significant progress, their participation erases neither their privilege nor their previous involvement. “Sylvia Plath was a genius,” they say, carefully, making sure to be heard by at least three women in the room. “She was just so raw, you know?” Rawness. The observation now exhibited as a compliment. To be utterly destroyed, to live such a stifled life that the last actions you took in it were to make your children a snack before sticking your head in an oven—there’s no need for Plath’s writings to be explored, or analyzed. The men of the art world have summarized her work for us in one, helpful word: raw. I don’t disagree with these observations. Plath, Angelou, Morrison, Holzer, all of them created unflinchingly honest work. Painful work. But just who do these men suppose made them feel that way?

This is not to say that women should stop making honest art. The days are gone where the only things we could exhibit were simple still lifes and lovelorn sonnets. Rather, this is more an effort to explore the ways that the deliberate manipulation of women’s emotions continues even in the perceived expressing of them.

The first time I painted myself, I was fifteen. I made every part of the painting myself, nailing the heavy planks of wood for a frame as tall as me, stretching the canvas until it was taut and my hands were raw. Self portraits had made me uncomfortable before, the act of staring at my own face in my tiny mirror, studying the anatomy of my own body, it felt like something that I couldn’t do for myself—that I could not study myself, because I existed to be studied. And then when I had finished it, added all the details, and spread the varnish, it felt impossible that anyone else but me could have done it, that anyone else could have looked at me so carefully. It made me look harder at the portraits of women painted by men, their soft eyes and pink cheeks, or their war-torn faces, their broken bodies. I arrived at the inevitable conclusion that there was no in between for men in art, that they either saw us as shells of human beings, or they saw only our pain, and the ways to exploit it.

When women are permitted only to make or to be depicted in art in a singular, dismissive way, it diminishes them. If the only time that a woman can be afforded with a modicum of respect is when she has written out the process of her own death, then her suffering overpowers her genius. If the only thing that rich men in the art world (an overpowering, invasive species) can reluctantly appreciate is the most unbearable heights of our pain, then we cease to be people, to be ourselves, and become instead what has happened to us.