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 undergraduate student Daniel King, who investigated Nancy Spero’s 2007 print, Maypole-War.
Nancy Spero (1926–2009), a noted second wave feminist artist, created works on paper and installations that protested the “pervasive abuse of power, western privilege, and male dominance” (Art 21). In 2007, she was invited to partake in the Femfolio project with other feminist artists. Her print, Maypole-War, echoes the thematic and aesthetic content of her “War” series, done during the Vietnam War, which used phallic imagery as a symbol of aggression. The subject of the print is a maypole, with strings attached to numerous severed heads.
Done as a digital print with hand lithography, the composition is predominantly black and white, with the exception of a few heads, which appear to have hues of green and brown similar to those found in army camouflage. The image is flat and does not convey any spatial depth because there is no surrounding environment to suggest in what space the maypole exists; the background, instead, is white. In addition, the maypole appears loosely drawn and the overall mood of the image is grim and despairing, expressing Spero’s angst towards war. The mood of the print is made evident by the open-mouthed and pained expressions that convey a message of destruction, leaving a viewer feeling similarly dumbfounded.
The bleak ambiance of Spero’s paintings and Maypole-War is appropriate considering the content of her message. Spero’s work often depicts women as the recipients of violence, like in her piece Search and Destroy (1967), in which a phallic shaped helicopter barrages a female subject with bullets and appears to be crashing into her pelvic area, suggesting rape. In contrast, Maypole-War conveys a similar message of pain and destruction but in a more subtle way. Spero’s choice to illustrate a maypole, which is also seen in other works of hers, is intriguing because a maypole is generally a symbol of celebration, one that signifies the return of summer and the renewal of life. Yet, in this image she invites the viewer to closely examine the death and carnage so that one could empathize with the grim mood of the print.
The strings pull away from the pole as opposed to wrapping around it, creating a tree-like form. Is Spero referencing the pagan association of the maypole to trees, which are sacred symbols? She also seems to depict the maypole as a phallic symbol, asserting male dominance and aggression. The maypole divides the composition in half and is the most prominent part of the piece; in addition, it corresponds with other phallic imagery in her work, such as Search and Destroy. In this context, the heads appear ejaculatory, streaming away from the maypole. Overall, Maypole-War’s gruesome and minimal imagery highlights the perspective of women who are traumatized by war.