Connect with us

DailyArtMagazine.com – Art History Stories

Masking and Unmasking Women in Art

Dorothea Tanning, Children’s Game 1942, Dorothea Tanning Foundation, © VG Bild-Kunst 2019

Bodies And Erotic Art

Masking and Unmasking Women in Art

Just a few weeks ago, Venice was transformed into a different world. It was carnival and people in masks were strolling through the city. There is a fascination with wearing a mask: one hides behind it and becomes someone else for a time. This also counts for the woman we see on this photograph. A man helps her to put on a mask and her face becomes partially golden, framed with blue feathers. She looks like a fairy queen.

Masking and Unmasking Women

Photograph of a man helping a woman to put on a mask, Venice

Putting on a Mask

However, wearing a mask does not only mean becoming another character. It can also cause a split between the woman and her body. In 1881, Thomas Copperthwaite Eakins released a series of photographs. They depict a naked woman shown from different perspectives. One thing that remains constant is her face, which is covered by a dark mask. This mask, however, provides her with another role. It hides her face behind a black curtain, thereby concealing the most individual part of her. Thus, she becomes more an object, her nakedness exposed to the viewer.

We can see that wearing a mask can mean that a woman takes on a new role. However, it can also lead to her being degraded and reduced to a mere body, with the mask hiding her face.

Masking and Unmasking Women

Thomas Copperthwaite Eakins, Woman with Mask, 1881

To Take Off a Mask


In Venice, the carnival was over after a few days. The masks were taken off and people became themselves again, returning to their routine life. But what if the mask belongs to normal life, if wearing a mask is somehow part of a woman’s day?

In his poem A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed from 1734, Jonathan Swift describes a process. Corinna, a prostitute, takes off her clothes and body parts such as her artificial eyes. What lies behind her beauty mask is this:


Corinna wakes. A dreadful Sight!
Behold the Ruins of the Night!
Corinna in the Morning dizen’d
Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison’d.

Swift describes in a brutally honest way the unmasking of Corinna, the unmasking of her body and of her as a person, too. This poem leaves the reader sad and feeling pity for its protagonist. But now it is time to let an artist enter the stage who has created a painting that does not ask for pity but displays female action.

Revealing a Female Body

Masking and Unmasking Women

Dorothea Tanning, Children’s Game 1942, Dorothea Tanning Foundation, © VG Bild-Kunst 2019


In 1942 Dorothea Tanning painted Children’s Game. In this painting we see three girls: Two of them are standing in front of a wall, the other is lying close to the picture’s border. The two girls at the wall are tearing pieces of the wallpaper down. This action is full of movement: The girl’s hair and the wallpaper all fly up. With all their power, the girls try to pull the wallpaper down.

They have succeeded and we can see what lies behind the wallpaper. No bricks are revealed but rather two images of a female body. One shows an opening that resembles a Vagina. The other reveals a stomach as well as a woman’s intimate area.


Tanning’s painting is disturbing and it doesn’t really depict a children’s game. The dark corridor with only a sliver of light in the distance appears to be more a prison for the girls. They again try to free themselves from it by tearing down the wallpaper. With its perfect surface the wallpaper reminds us of empty and perfect images.

No more Masks?

One can think of any images of a woman’s body: Under this surface, the real female body comes through. Thus, the girls try to free themselves from their prison by unmasking the female body that is hidden behind the empty wallpaper, the empty images. This female body could belong to them or to us viewers. One thing is for sure, it cannot be covered anymore; no more masks for today.


Masking and unmasking is about covering and revealing; it is about becoming a fairy queen, being humiliated and also about freeing oneself. With regard to women, it may not be a question if a woman is wearing a mask. Moreover, one has to ask, was it the woman who chose her mask and can she also decide when to take it off?

Learn more:

  

Katharina holds a phd in Art History. In her studies she concentrated on women and art. Now, she likes very much the combination of women, children and art. Her nearly three year old daughter has a great influence on this. Never before has Katharina been so often to museums as with her. Besides, Katharina is writing on her blog ArtStories.

 

Comments

More in Bodies And Erotic Art

  • Art History 101

    Five Ways to Enjoy Your Vacation Time Inspired by Art History

    By

    The first half of the year ended. It is always interesting to breathe, take stock of what we have done so far, and prepare for the second semester. For this, it is important to rest and summer vacation seems a perfect time. Here are five tips...

  • Art History 101

    Logomania – Words in Art

    By

    What do Jean-Michel Basquiat, The François Vase, Tracey Emin and Xu Bing have in common? Words! So, in the spirit of light summer reading, let’s have a romp through a collection of four unrelated artworks from around the world. The pen is mightier than the sword,...

  • 21st century

    Sketchbook Project Invites Worldwide Participation

    By

    New York City is home to some of the most prestigious art organizations in the world. Artists work and dream for years to reach the halls of the MoMA, the Whitney, and the Met – and for countless creatives, this dream will remain just that. But...

  • Art State of Mind

    You Got a Fast Car: Automobile Art

    By

    I’m desperately trying to pass my driving license exam (so far no good). I thought that maybe art and Tracy Chapman could give me some speeding vibes in the car? Renaissance Vehicle This drawing presents the original idea for the first self-propelled vehicle in history. Leonardo...

  • Come out to play Clifford and Rosemary Ellis Come out to play Clifford and Rosemary Ellis

    20th century

    Take a Trip with Rosemary Ellis

    By

    As we head into summer holiday season, let’s take a look back at the gorgeous travel posters designed by British artist Rosemary Ellis. One of the most prominent illustrators of her age, Rosemary Ellis is not a household name – but she should be! Rosemary (maiden...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy