Thomas Ruff, Red Panties, from the "Nudes" series, 2001
Vajayjay, vaj, meat wallet, muff monster, bearded clam, furback turtle—whatever you call it, the vagina has been the most obsessed-over body part since apes began to walk upright. It’s certainly been the most culturally and politically contested. It’s no surprise, then, that for centuries (millennia, even) the subject has attracted all kinds of artists, and caused some of art history’s biggest flaps. With that in mind, we offer this brief history of the vagina in art, and all the hoo-ha surrounding it.
Aurignacian vulvar representation, circa 35,000 B.C., Vézère Valley, France
Life in the Pleistocene was relatively simple: One’s job was to eat and reproduce. Neither was easy back then, so Stone Age man turned to the mystical properties of cave art to help ensure the hunts for both game and the opposite sex. This image of a vulva, one of the earliest known examples of cave carving, is also one of the oldest known examples of artwork, period. There has been some argument among experts as to whether or not this circle with a slash through it is in fact a vagina. Perhaps—or maybe it’s just a early stab at depicting an ‘On’ button.
The Venus of Hohle Fels, circa 37,000 B.C., Schelklingen, Germany
Much clearer as to what it represents, this buxom figure made of ivory hails from southern Germany and may have been associated with some sort of fertility ritual. The carver was apparently both an ass and breast man.
Aphrodite in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin
Sometime during the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greeks came up with the ideal of the pube-free pudendum, and for the next millennia or so, depictions of depilated deltas became standard for classically inspired artists. However, the Greeks were believed to have vividly polychromed their marble sculpture with encaustic paints (pigments mixed with wax). It’s possible that this Venus and others like it were rendered with a full bush—meaning that the Brazilian paradigm followed by Renaissance Old Masters may have been the result of a big misunderstanding.
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
Titian was among the first of the Old Masters to push the envelope on the classically themed goddess of love. His Venus, with her combination of coyly covered maidenhead and come-hither look, created a scandal when it was unveiled. The painting is believed to have been commissioned by Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, to celebrate his marriage four years earlier.
Leonardo da Vinci, The Female Sexual Organs, circa 1510
The Renaissance represented a scientific as well as a cultural reawakening, and this anatomical dissection by Leonardo is perhaps the first attempt to render female genitalia in empirical terms—getting down, in other words, without getting dirty.
Goya, La maja desnuda (The Naked Maja), circa 1797–1800
The dawn of the 19th century marked the end of the Old Master period, and with it, the end of the classical female nude. This image, possibly the first depiction of female pubic hair in Western art history, is one of a pair that Goya painted of this model. (The other, showing her clothed, is called La maja vestida, or The Clothed Maja). Nobody knows who the subject is, or why Goya chose to immortalize her. One guess is that she’s María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez de Toledo, 13th Duchess of Alba, with whom Goya is rumored to have been romantically involved. Another speculation is that she’s Pepita Tudó, the young mistress of Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, Duke of Alcudia.
Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), 1866
Still revolutionary for its frank eroticism, this painting was created by Courbet for Khalil Bey, an Ottoman diplomat who had held posts in Athens and Saint Petersburg, Russia, before moving to Paris. The subject is unknown, though she is thought to be Joanna Hiffernan, one of Courbet’s favorite models at the time. Known as Jo, she was the mistress of James Whistler, an American expat painter and friend of Courbet.
Egon Schiele, Reclining Female Nude with Violet Stockings, 1910
Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a hotbed of sexual neuroses, so it makes sense that artists at the time gravitated toward erotica. Schiele, a leading figure of the period and something of an Expressionistic bad boy, created dozens of studies of females in unashamedly sexual positions (see the following image as well). Unable to afford proper artist’s models, he persuaded prostitutes and teenage shop girls to pose for him. This ultimately proved to be a problem. Kids from the neighborhood often congregated at his studio, much to the consternation of the folks in town, and in 1912, he was arrested on charges of seducing a minor. When police later raided his studio and confiscated nearly 100 sketches, he was further charged with distributing immoral material. After Schiele spent 21 days in prison, the rape allegation was dropped. He still was found guilty of displaying erotic pictures where children could see them, and had to serve an additional three days in jail.
Egon Schiele, Girl with Black Hair (Mädchen mit schwarzem Haar), 1911
Gustav Klimt, Reclining Semi-Nude Facing Right, 1914
Roughly a generation older than Schiele, Klimt, another major figure of the Vienna scene, was no slouch when it came to provocative depictions of women, though his shift to overtly sexual imagery came relatively late in his career.
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe—Torso, 1921
Americans are often considered puritanical, but that certainly wasn’t case among the founding members of this country’s avant-garde. Take Alfred Stieglitz. This image is one of some 350 he took of Georgia O’Keeffe between 1918 and 1925 as a “composite portrait.” Only a portion of these photographs were starkly sexual (he also took photos of O’Keeffe’s face and hands), but Torso testifies to Stieglitz’s erotic obsession with O’Keeffe, which began around 1917, while he was still married to his wife, Emily. Stieglitz’s first nude studies of O’Keeffe were taken at his home, even when Emily was there. As one might expect, this eventually led to a “it’s her or me” confrontation. Stieglitz divorced Emily in 1924, marrying O’Keeffe that same year. They remained married until Stieglitz’s death, though the fact that he dallied with other women was perhaps one reason that O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico to live by herself and work on her art.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926
This floral study has been interpreted as a literal lady-flower from almost the day it was painted, though O’Keeffe herself adamantly rejected such Freudian associations. And it’s true that sometimes a flower is just a flower—but c’mon!
Christian Schad, Two Girls, 1928
Schad was part of the German Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Realism”) movement in the decadent Berlin of the interwar years. His work was notable for its almost pornographic treatment of subjects like those depicted in Two Girls, and also for his clinical, almost academic approach to painting them. Although the women here are generally thought to be lesbians, they are both are staring at something or someone outside of the picture frame. Who that might be is suggested by the man’s wristwatch band laid on the pillow near the top right corner of the composition.
Otto Dix, Nude Girl With Gloves, 1932
Dix was also associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit, and while he did limn the occasional lewd subject, sex in his work was inevitably intertwined with death. You get a sense of that in this painting’s lugubrious overtones, with its skeletally thin model set against a funereal black background. The painting is also a homage to work of the great German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder.
René Magritte, Le Viol (The Rape), 1934
As its name implies, Surrealism was intent on upending conventional notions of reality, and the social order that was built on it. Artists associated with Surrealism turned to the world of dreams and the subconscious for their inspiration, and sex played no small part—so did the classical ideal of the female figure. In this image, Magritte transforms the features of a woman’s face into a naked female torso, with the breasts, navel and vagina substituting for the eyes, nose and mouth. If ever there were an icon for the objectification of women, this was it. Still, the title indicates that far from being blind to the painting’s implications, Magritte was essentially deconstructing them—or at the very least, acknowledging that beauty, in the Western tradition, was dependent on treating women as an object of the male gaze.
Meret Oppenheim, Object, 1936
Also known as Fur-lined Tea Cup, this work is one of Surrealism’s greatest hits. Its origin lies in a conversation between Oppenheim, Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a café in Paris. The story goes that Picasso, complimenting Oppenheim’s fur-trimmed bracelet, noted that just about anything could be covered with fur, to which Oppenheim replied, “Even this cup and saucer.” Soon after, when Surrealism’s supremo, André Breton, asked Oppenheim to exhibit in the first Surrealist exhibition dedicated to sculpture, she went out and bought a cup, saucer and spoon and applied pieces of pelt to them. The work’s sexual connotations are unmistakable, but unfortunately for Oppenheim, Object’s instant success meant that she was never able to top it.
Hans Bellmer, Plate from La Poupée, 1936
One of the more outré figures of modern art, Bellmer, a German artist who lived in Berlin, developed his work independently of the Surrealists that were based in Paris, though he would eventually join their ranks. As a child, he and his brother hid out from their tyrannical father in “a secret garden decorated with toys and souvenirs, and visited by young girls who joined in sexual games.” Sounds like a recipe for an erotically obsessed artistic genius! Bellmer was largely self-taught, having initially studied engineering, per the demands of his father. His creeptastic dolls, or poupées, were cobbled together complete with pudenda out of wood, plaster, broom handles, metal rods and ball joints. They were initially meant as a protest against the Nazi’s rise to power (Dad was an ardent Nazi, naturally)—the result of Bellmer’s renunciation of doing anything “useful” for the new regime. The poupées were inspired by memories of his secret garden and his sexual encounters there. Bellmer took photos of his creations, publishing them in a book that came to the attention of André Breton, who invited him to exhibit with the Surrealists.
Marcel Duchamp, Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas), 1946–1966
The inventor of the Readymade’s final work was anything but ready-made: He labored over the piece in secret for 20 years after supposedly giving up art to play chess. Created in his New York studio, the piece was moved to Philadelphia Museum of Art after Duchamp’s death in 1968, where it has resided ever since. Essentially a hidden room whose interior can only be viewed through the peephole of a locked wooden door, Étant donnés contains a sort of weird wax-museum-like scene: a naked woman splayed spread-eagle in the tall grass by a stream running from a distant waterfall, holding a gas lamp in her upraised hand. Over the decades, its meaning has been debated, though it’s generally agreed that the figure in the foreground, an armature covered in parchment, was based on one of Duchamp’s former lovers. Enigmatic to this day, Étant donnés serves as a perverse paean to the relationship between voyeurism and art.
Tom Wesselmann, Bathtub Collage #3, 1963
Pop artists as a whole mined Madison Avenue and Hollywood for their work, but no ’60s Pop artist exploited their sexual undertones as obviously as Tom Wesselmann did with his “Great American Nudes.” Bathtub Collage is a peculiar hybrid, an assemblage of actual objects from a bathroom (laundry hamper, towel, shower curtain, etc.) framing a cheery painting of a naked woman drying herself off. She’s notable for her lack of facial features, contrasted with the obvious effort put into depicting her pubic hair. The whole piece seems to wind up skewing to that one small area of the composition, suggesting that in the battle for the viewer’s attention, the prosaic is always outmatched by the profane.
Gerhard Richter, Student, 1967
Richter’s encounter with the work of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in the early 1960s led to the development of the blurring technique that has become his signature, his method for crystallizing the emptiness inherent in the imagery produced by mass culture in all of its forms. This includes pornography, of course, and in this painting, Richter negates the erotic charge of its source photograph, using his brush to obscure porn’s power to reveal or strip its subject bare. Something of the same thing happens with his choice of title, Student, the neutral tone of which pulls the figure of the young girl out of the realm of the salacious and into the world of the ordinary.
Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, Hon-en Katedral, 1966
With the rise of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s, the vagina’s representation in art took a turn, as women artists began to make references to it in their work. This wasn’t something new, exactly (see Georgia O’Keeffe), but it was different in that the vagina became a political symbol instead of a point of sexual fixation. This English title of this installation mounted at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet is She: A Cathedral, and its creators, Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, were both associated with Nouveau Réalisme, the French take on Pop Art. With its crowd waiting in line like churchgoers on a Sunday, the work proposed a kind of sacred space for the nascent sexual revolution.
Valie Export, Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), 1968
In 1968, Austrian performance artist Valie Export (neé Waltraud Lehner) entered a movie theater in Munich, Germany, wearing crotchless pants. She walked around the audience with her exposed genitals at eye level, a gesture meant to question the passive role of women in the movies, but also in keeping with her other performances that projected the private nature of sex into the public sphere. The photo here, and the image that follows, were taken a year later in Vienna, with the addition of the toy gun being held by the artist to make it resemble the posters produced by radical groups at the time.
Valie Export, Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), 1968
William N. Copley, Scottish Ms, 1974
Copley, the adopted scion of a wealthy Los Angeles publishing magnate and one of West Coast’s earliest dealers in modern art, was also a painter. In this image, he takes a tongue-in-cheek shot at feminism.
Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975
In her most famous piece, Schneemann, a pioneer of feminist performance art, stood naked on a table, painted her body with mud, and slowly pulled a paper scroll out of her vagina as she started to read from it.
Hannah Wilke, Corcoran Art Gallery, 1976
Another first-generation feminist artist, Wilke fashioned kneaded erasers into vaginal forms, using them in various pieces, including this collage where they seem to take over the venerable Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Hannah Wilke, So Help Me Hannah: What Does This Represent / What Do You Represent (Reinhardt), 1978–1984
In this performance self-portrait, Wilke makes a reference to a famous line taken from one of Ad Reinhardt’s “art-history comics,” in which a viewer points at an abstract painting and proclaims laughingly, “Ha ha, what does this represent?” while the painting shoots back, “What do you represent?” The question and response is repurposed here, perhaps to address Wilke’s nakedness.
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party, 1979
Chicago’s installation has become the bellwether representation of the vagina in art: A symbolic breaking of bread among famous female figures from history, each represented by a dinner plate containing a vaginal form intended as a likeness.
Judy Chicago, Emily Dickinson Plate from The Dinner Party, 1979
This detail imagines the famed American writer and poet as a series of lacy labial folds.
Marina Abramovic, Luminosity, 1997
In this durational performance, Abramovic sat naked on a wall-mounted bicycle seat for hours, creating a kind of crucifixion scene. The work was restaged using other performers during her MoMA retrospective.
Vanessa Beecroft, vb45.007.dr, 2001
The British artist is known for her performances in which phalanxes of naked women stand silently still in a kind of Nuremberg Rally of nookie.
Marina Abramovic, recreation of Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic), 2005
Abramovic, who believes that performance-art pieces can and should be remounted like theatrical plays, restaged Valie Export’s 1968 work as part of her 2005 Guggenheim show, “Five Easy Pieces.”
Eve Fowler, Untitled, 2005
Just as feminism has given way to postfeminism, the vagina’s representation in art has become more complicated with both male and female artists using its loaded history for various purposes. Fowler’s photographs, for example, portray androgynous sitters, including lesbians and transgender subjects. In this image, she evokes Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic as a marker of queer identity.
John Currin, Tolbrook, 2006
Unabashed celebrations of contemporary decadence, Currin’s paintings practically dare you to be shocked by their unflattering portrayals of female subjects, as if feminist critique had been hijacked by the male gaze. Here, a woman staring wistfully at her vagina with a porcelain dinner setting around her feet suggests nothing so much a send-up of the traditionally held view of the delicate female constitution.
Thomas Ruff, nudes on 15, 2006
This image is one of a series the German photographer has done over years, in which he appropriates porn images downloaded from the web.
Betty Tompkins, Cunt Painting #11, 2008
Tompkins also uses porn as a source for her paintings, and she’s done so for 40 years. The bluntness of her approach didn’t quite fit with the feminist milieu of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which is why her work has only recently gained a following.
Lisa Yuskavage, Triptych (detail), 2011
Yuskavage, like John Currin, upends representational conventions to somewhat ambiguous ends, though as a woman painter known for cheesecakey pneumatic nymphs worthy of Penthouse magazine, her intentions are presumed to be critically ironic.
Kembra Pfahler, Wall of Vagina, 2011
Pfahler, a musician and artist best known for fronting cult glam-punk band the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, performs as a goth version of the Femlin cartoon character created back in the 1950s by artist Leroy Nieman for Playboy. For the piece (the title of which echoes the famous Phil Spector “wall of sound”), Pfahler was aided by the Girls of Karen Black (GOKB), a group of döppelgangers forming a stack of bodies with Pfahler herself at the top. Using a turkey baster, another GOKB then squirted the resulting pile with thick white cream.
Mickalene Thomas, Origin of the Universe 2, 2012
Our survey ends near where it began, with this contemporary homage to Courbet by African-American artist Mickalene Thomas.