Body & Soul: Higgins’ new exhibition explores the representation of women in art

On Saturday 2 April, a new exhibition exploring how women have been represented in art over the past two centuries, opens at The Higgins Bedford.

Highlights in the Body & Soul exhibition – all drawn from the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery Collection – include artworks by Edgar Degas, Edvard Munch, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer, Henri Matisse, Gwen John, Roy Litchenstein, Lucian Freud and Chila Burman.

Women have always been popular subjects in art, with their appearance, clothing or personality chosen as the focus of the artist’s work.

Through a selection of sculptures, prints, oils and watercolours, this exhibition examines how beauty and femininity have been celebrated and challenged through the ages, and encourages visitors to question their own modern perceptions.

Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Woman with a Brooch (Madonna), 1903 © The Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery

Many of the artworks are by male artists and range from the soulful to the physical. Women are seen as objects of desire for the ‘male gaze’ and passive vehicles of male creativity, but also recognised as creative people in their own right, going beyond traditional stereotypes.

From Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s drawing of Elizabeth Siddal related to a story he wrote, in which a beautiful woman was the image of his own soul, to Phil May’s ‘Woman in Black’, conveying self-assurance and holding our gaze in a manner that contemporary viewers would recognise, this exhibition presents various ideas and intentions behind the artists’ representations of the women in their work.

Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Woman with Arm Tattoo, 1996 © The Lucian Freud Archive. All Rights Reserved 2022 : Bridgeman Images

However, the female artists’ representations of women are vastly different to their male counterparts, showing a deeper insight into women’s experiences.

Chila Burman’s self-portrait shows how a contemporary woman would like to see herself: strong and self-confident, aware of the cultures that have shaped her world, whereas Gwen John, Dora Carrington and Käthe Kollwitz present a sympathetic insight into the stages of a woman’s life.

Nina Hamnett’s drawing, the most recent acquisition to the collections and on display at The Higgins Bedford for the first time, defies the conventional norms of female beauty to portray a modern woman’s body.

Chila Burman, born 1957, Self Portrait, 1996 – 2004 © Chila Kumari Singh Burman. All rights reserved, DACS 2021

Victoria Partridge, keeper of fine and decorative art and co-curator of the exhibition, said: “The theme of Body and Soul has caused us to look at images of women in the collection with fresh eyes and a modern perspective and I am sure the works on display will cause debate amongst our visitors.

“I am delighted that the exhibition also contains the first showing of the collection’s newest acquisition, a drawing by Nina Hamnett”.

Dr Mary O’Neill, co-curator of the exhibition said: “This has been a fantastic opportunity to research wonderful images, discover the stories behind them and, especially, think about them from today’s perspective”.

Fellow co-curator, Professor Christiana Payne, said: “Working on this exhibition gave us new perspectives on things we thought we knew about – including fashion and femininity – and really made us think about some tricky topical issues, which we hope we have gotten right”.

Body & Soul is free to visit and will run until 2nd October 2022.

To accompany the exhibition, visitors will be able to enjoy a series of events including tours, lectures and a Study Day.

A fully coloured catalogue offering an in-depth view of the artworks with essays by the curators will also be available from The Higgins Bedford shop.

For more information, visit the Higgins Bedford website here.

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