Isabel Hardingham is a part-time Gallery Assistant at the V&A, a role that she combines with being Senior Bookshop Associate at the Architectural Association Bookshop. Working inside the Disobedient Objects exhibition, she reflects on the impact that the Guerrilla Girls made on her as an art history student and on the ongoing relevance of their work
The Guerrilla Girls became an all-female force in the art world in the mid-1980’s. They have devoted nearly thirty years to feminist and anti-racist concerns. The V&A is fortunate to have one of their early works on display as part of the exhibition Disobedient Objects: ‘Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.’
The output of the Guerrilla Girls is characteristically conspicuous and controversial. They use art to make a statement. The Guerrilla Girls reference art history in order to change the future of artistic practice. The members take pseudonyms from female artists in history. They also deconstruct famous masterpieces in their own works. I was introduced to the Guerrilla Girls as a naïve art history student, studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Being exposed to their work was both liberating and unsettling. The poster ‘Do Women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’, features ‘La Grande Odalisque’, 1814 by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres’ nude is depicted as a monotone cut-out, reclining on magenta drapery; her head is replaced by a Gorilla mask. At first, the transformation of the image within a crude, gigantic poster seemed disrespectful to me. I had seen Ingres’ painting first-hand at the Louvre; I greatly admired the seamless, sensual brushwork of the original.
However, the Guerrilla Girls’ poster was unquestionably mesmerizing. I recognised that their message was intelligent and important. I came to appreciate the efficacy of using a renowned painting to communicate with the public. The poster was originally displayed in advertising space on buses. This was terminated by the New York City bus company, considering the poster content to be inappropriate. The poster was self-funded by the Guerrilla Girls, as was the case with all their early works. As a group the Guerrilla Girls were anonymous, wearing trademark black gorilla masks. The individual members are also artists in their own right. The Guerrilla Girls initially taught me to question the objectification of women in traditional western painting. They have published the title ‘The Guerrilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art’ 1995. Although I am not an artist, I am grateful to be made aware of gender disparity in galleries and museums. I believe that the Guerrilla Girls promote opportunities for women in all aspects of the art scene.
The most recent output of the Guerrilla Girls touches on the music industry: ‘Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into Music Videos While 99% of the Guys are Dressed?’, 2014. This poster is a ‘remix’ of the 1989 Metropolitan Museum or Met. work. The candid, humorous nature of the Met. Museum poster proves a successful format almost 30 years later. The Guerrilla Girls refrain to comment on the careers of living female artists. In my personal with communication the Guerrilla Girls, they cited an admiration for the creative and confrontational costumes of Lady Gaga. The Guerrilla Girls continue to be reliable participants in current feminist protest.
The 1989 Met. Museum poster has been periodically updated by the Guerrilla Girls. The subtitle for the 2012 reworking now reads: ‘Less that 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are female’. The iconic Met. Museum poster is accompanied by correspondences and gorilla masks in the Disobedient Objects exhibition. The presence of their work is attracting the attention of a diverse audience. The costumed mannequins have proved to be a source of fascination for young girls in particular; the monumental forms are symbols of strength and ambition. The Guerrilla Girls have supported the exhibition with a late-night visit to the V&A. They retrospectively described the exhibition Disobedient Objects as ‘really outside the box’. They continue to wear the notorious gorilla masks as the ‘conscience of the art world’.