Pride Month: 4 Legendary Artists Who Questioned Identity and Gender
To celebrate Pride Month 2021, Artmajeur has decided to honor legendary artists and their artworks that explore questions of gender and identity.
If there is one thing Harry Potter taught us, it's that no one deserves to live in a closet. Whether they're heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, transsexual, transgender, pansexual, queer, LGBTQ+ friendly or non-binary, many creative minds have been able to make fun of imposed labels to claim an acceptance of oneself - and of the other - freed from dusty societal constraints. Today, let's take a look at 4 genius artists who have shaken up the codes of the genre.
1. Frida Kahlo
The unbreakable Mexican artist couldn't be left out of this ranking - and it's a good thing - because we love her! After having evoked her fascinating life trajectory in our article on 3 tortured artists with tragic destinies, and after having highlighted her uninhibited feminism within the misogynistic artistic microcosm of the middle 20th century (4 Extraordinarily Badass Women Who Changed the Very Patriarchal History of Art), today we focus on the (many) contributions of the artist in the quest for sexual emancipation and the fight against gender-based discrimination.
Although she was openly bisexual, Frida Kahlo never wished to highlight this theme in her work. However, there're many masterpieces in which the artist questions her gender identity. The most eloquent of them is certainly the Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940. MoMA, New York.
This artwork follows her brutal breakup with Diego Rivera, her soul mate, which plunged her into intense despair. She's seated in the center of an empty room, wearing a drab, baggy suit, with a chisel in her right hand and strands of hair scattered all around her. The artist casts a quiet, proud look, defying the observer.
Usually, abandonment (divorce) and cut hair (loss of attractiveness) are synonymous with disgrace and humiliation. Yet, Frida's pose and her disdainful look don't coincide with these allegations. The message she's trying to convey is much more positive: self-confidence is a way to regain lost dignity. To hell with the old far-fetched dogmas, Frida thus gets rid of her role tainted with femininity and servile beauty, to reach a well-deserved appeasement. Here, her personality will be judged by the exclusive prism of her creativity and her freedom of being. This self-portrait is a chrysalis with which the artist operates a mutation of her life trajectory.
2. Andy Warhol and Christopher Makos
Whether you love him or hate him, Andy Warhol has skilfully managed to overturn the archaic codes of contemporary art and its trade. Today, we will not focus on his artworks recycling popular culture (often to excess), but we'll highlight a series of less famous and yet much more daring photographic shots.
Christopher Makos, Altered Images, 1981.
Created with his photographer friend Christopher Makos, this series called 'Altered Images' features Andy Warhol in a completely new style - a sort of casual chic drag queen - with different wigs, ties and fancy make-up.
We know that the American artist, as famous as he was controversial, led a life of abundance and eccentricity. An extrovert and openly gay, his many original and talented friends used to tell him intimate stories and anecdotes to stimulate his creativity. This photo series, like many of the artist's artworks and drawings, contributes to the deconstruction of gender and identity norms that pained young Andy so much as he was stigmatized and discriminated against in his youth for his unusual extravagance and unjustly abnormalized sexual orientation (welcome to the 1940s).
3. Lucian Freud
Lucian Freud's art is so symbolic that it's almost psychoanalytical. It's hard not to expect mountains of reflections when analyzing the work of the grandson of the illustrious Sigmund Freud. Although the English artist had an epistolary love affair with the poet Stephen Spender in his youth, his aspirations were then clearly directed towards heterosexuality. He had more than 14 children with different women, beating the record once held by Pablo Picasso and his questionable lifestyle.
Lucian Freud, Nude with Leg Up, 1992. Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC.
Having quickly become a master in the art of nude painting, Lucian Freud wished above all to put his genius of the brush at the service of realism. To freeze on the canvas these naked bodies, tortuous, colored and ungainly, he endeavored to select unusual models, far from the classic academism. Men, women, old people, young people, obese, stunted, rich or poor, it didn't matter to Lucian. He wanted to represent unusual figures and bodies, which he knew how to sublimate with a few brushstrokes.
Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995. Private collection.
Because he didn't focus only on the representation of perfect female bodies (as the artistic tradition wished it), his art allowed to revolutionize the genre, while fighting against the discriminations linked to the sex, to the age or to the unsightly overweight. Thanks to him, the spectator can then more easily accept himself, with his imperfections and the subtleties of his body. Disrupting the codes and contributing to the happiness of humanity, isn't that what we should expect from a genius artist?
4. Keith Haring
As obvious as Frida Kahlo's, Keith Haring's presence in this article will not surprise anyone. A brilliant artist and famous LGBT personality, Keith Haring has dedicated his life to the democratization of art and the beautification of the daily life of New Yorkers. Taken by the ravages of AIDS at only 31 years old, he's still acclaimed around the world for his simplistic, linear, yet surprisingly talkative artworks.
If his art could be summed up in one word, it would certainly be "unabashed". His frescoes and drawings all carry messages, sometimes joyful, sometimes violent, and often melancholic. His lines have a childish appearance, his drawings are accessible to the greatest number and easily understandable for a young public. However, their themes are generally strong, virulent and describe painful or delicate situations such as homophobia, racism, illness, domestic violence or sex.
These harsh and complex subjects are the result of centuries of societal dogma and a more or less ridiculous normative heritage. Yet, with a particular ease, he manages to tackle them without offending, easily, peacefully, making them almost absurd. With him, preconceived ideas and discriminations seem as perishable as graffiti in the New York subway. He simplifies art, he simplifies life, in short: he clarifies.
Keith Haring, Untitled, 1988.
This article is a selection of chosen pieces that obviously doesn't reflect the diversity of artists and artworks that have contributed to the LGBTQIA+ cause and the fight against gender discrimination. We could also have mentioned Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tracey Emin, Ricky Cohete, Kehinde Wiley... or the iconic duos Gilbert and George and Pierre et Gilles.
Whatever the case, these positions are less and less trivial, which seems to bode well for the future: mentalities are evolving, these themes appear less "shocking" to public opinion, and the art world seems well ahead of other sectors in this acceptance of others - of their choices, their desires and their aspirations.
Kehinde Wiley, The Siesta, 2019.
For the more curious, feel free to browse our selection of artworks dedicated to Pride Month, available on Artmajeur.
Let's be free, let's be proud!