Professor Jennifer Borland’s Gender in Visual Culture seminar recently studied the Femfolio, a portfolio of prints by artists whose work was central to the feminist movement of the 1970s created at the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions. This week’s post is adapted from a paper by graduate student Krystle Brewer, who investigated Joan Snyder’s 2007 print, Angry Women.
Feminist artist Joan Snyder is most known for her bright colors, gestural line quality, and abstraction. Snyder also uses words and illegible scribbles as aesthetic elements in her work. Angry Women, a 2007 print from the Femfolio, is an anomaly in its use of figures, although it retains the other visual aspects characteristic of her work. Because of Snyder’s use of female figures and the harsh words “angry women” scribbled across the picture plane, the print initially seems as though it is just another work to be added to the expanse of angry feminist art. In fact, Snyder is criticizing this assumption.
Angry Women is a digital print of two abstracted nude female figures among gestural brushwork and drips with additional layers of lithography and hand coloring. Snyder uses quick movements of dry brush in a pale purple that contrasts to the appropriate wetness of the red pigment used for the tongue and vulva of her figures. Although red is commonly indicative of anger, hatred, or death, the artist uses a cooler red for the purpose of more naturalistically coloring body parts. Incorporated with her brushwork, she uses sporadic drips of paint and a prominent black contour line that visually contains the otherwise unorganized forms.
The open composition has two figures: one more dominant, the other recessed and more abstracted. Both run off the edges of the picture plane. The dominant figure has her one visible arm raised and her legs spread prominently, in a pose that displays her breasts and vulva. Her mouth is open with teeth exposed and her elongated tongue points downward, to her genitals. (Although these forms are arguably unclear, another work by Snyder, titled Flowerfield/Tongue, 1999, uses the same rectangle of teeth and pendulum-like form also to represent a mouth and tongue.) The upper half of the recessed figure is abstracted past comprehension, but her spread legs, with bent knees and pronounced vulva, are easily discernable.
Below the first figure are the boldly printed words “angry women.” Above the titular phrase, almost incomprehensible, are the words “sad and” which makes the phrase in fact read “sad and angry women.” Looking back at the dominant figure’s facial expression, her eyebrows are furrowed in an anger but the expression of her eyes actually reads as sadness. The “feminist” often gets classified as an angry, man-hating lesbian, but Snyder includes this underlying emotion of sadness to evoke sympathy for the inequalities women endured.
In the lower left quadrant there are two more groups of words. The first is “Kali” written forwards, backwards, and on top of itself. Kali is the Hindu goddess of empowerment. This suggests that women are powerful—if not over all mortals, at least over their own lives and environments. Next to this are the words “Venus of Willendorf” and a sketch of the limestone figure herself. Again Snyder names another woman of divinity (today, the figure is more commonly known as the “Woman of Willendorf,” since the figure predates Venus by a millennium). Venus is the Greek goddess of love and Kali, in addition to being the goddess of empowerment, is often a symbol of death. This binary of love and death seems to mimic the dual emotions of the women depicted as sad and angry.
Snyder uses Woman of Willendorf and Kali to place images of women in a historical narrative, but also, in the case of the former, because of the problems associated with its interpretation. There is really nothing known about the figure or the civilization that produced it; all associations tied to it have been projected onto it by later cultures. Just as assumptions about her religious import have accreted to the Woman of Willendorf, Snyder argues that although feminists are not just angry women, this assumption has been projected onto members of the feminist movement.
In this print, Snyder argues that feminist women are actually empowered, but they continue to have an image of anger and hatred projected upon them. In this work, she is giving the viewer exactly what they assume they will get from a feminist artist: anger and vaginas. The subtle use of the Woman of Willendorf, the added “sad and,” and her nonviolent color scheme undermines viewer’s ability to see the image as the angry feminist print they are expecting, because it also depicts Snyder’s sadness that the feminist movement she helped to build has been reduced down to “angry women.” In the broader expanse of her work, she is not an artist to convey anger but to convey the female experience through color and form.