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There is a huge range of ways that gender has been understood and represented in the history of art. We look at a few examples that show us gender is a concept that has never been fixed: Hermaphroditos by the ancient Greeks, Titian's Venus of Urbino, Baule portrait masks, the photographs of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, and Maya stone carvings.

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When we consider how gender is defined and discussed today, it's tempting to think of the present moment as somehow aberrant—a dramatic break from a past where the roles and characteristics of men and women have been fixed and clearly definable.

But in looking back through art history, we can find a huge range of ways that gender has been understood and represented, at different times and around the world. Today we're going to think about gender not so much biologically, but in terms of how we differentiate men and women socially and culturally.

The art and objects humans have made give us a lens through which we can see how concepts of gender have been reinforced, and also questioned, by individual artists and communities. And sure, there is a way to view all art ever made through this lens, and from the oldest traces of human activity we've found. Like this tiny and very busty Ice Age figure carved from mammoth ivory and found in a German cave.

Or a recent study analyzing relative finger lengths in the hand stencils of prehistoric cave art sites in France and Spain, which found that about three-quarters of the handprints were female. And in recent history and today, artists offer us a multitude of ways to think about gender and its fluidity. Like Greer Lankton's disquieting doll sculptures and environments from the 1980s and 90s, and.

Ma Liuming's performances as his feminine alter-ego Fen-Ma Liuming in Beijing's East. Village in the 1990s. And there's also Kehinde Wiley's monumental portraits of young black and brown men--paintings that provoke us to think about what it means to be masculine and powerful in the world today.

And Wu Tsang's 2012 film Wildness, which tells a story about intersecting Latinx and. LGBTQ communities in one Los Angeles bar. Gender is an impossible and sprawling topic, but one we're going to dive into anyway, stepping our way through a handful of works that address just a few of the many ways we humans have negotiated this ever-changing idea.

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This is the second of five videos focusing on a much-discussed aspect of life today, and looking back to see how people from the past have made objects and artworks that speak to it in some way. This is Art about Gender. The tradition of the reclining nude runs deep in the history of European art.

This sculpture is a 2nd century Roman copy of an even older Greek original, and it was designed to be seen in two stages. First from the rear, like you're seeing it now, and second from the front, which reveals the subject to be the Greek deity Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, whose body was merged with that of the nymph Salmacis. Hermaphroditos thus has the physical characteristics you might associate with a woman, like curves and breasts, along with male genitalia.

This kind of surprise move is typical of art from the Hellenistic period. The wealthy of Rome would have sculptures like this in their homes and gardens, with these kinds of theatrical effects intended as titillating amusement. But while the intersexuality of this figure was readily accepted in mythology and art, in actual ancient Rome the birth of an intersex person was regarded as a bad omen, and those who were born that way were often killed.

So you can see sculptures such as this, of which there are a number of versions surviving, as being a site where Romans could safely explore a heavily stigmatized human condition, while also tricking their friends into falling for this beautiful and surprising being. . This image of the reclining nude began to really catch fire during the Italian Renaissance, when these ancient Greek and Roman sculptures displaying idealized human bodies—both female and male—began to be unearthed and studied. You can see echoes of our Sleeping Hermaphroditos in this awake, unidentified woman in Venetian artist Titian's 1538 painting Venus of Urbino, as he didn't title it, but it came to be called.

The moniker of “Venus” was often attached to nude figures as a way of making the subject acceptable for admiration and contemplation. Taking in such a painting as this wouldn't be crassly ogling a naked lady, but appreciating a platonic ideal of beauty. 

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Her torso is unnaturally long and her feet impossibly small, but no matter.

Titian's masterful handling of paint, building up layer after translucent layer, gives her a soft and sensuous glow. This Ur-woman, nestled within a composition so strong and successful, served as inspiration for numerous artists to follow. That is, until Édouard Manet abruptly removed the soft focus with his 1863 Olympia, which offended audiences with its sexual frankness.

Instead of an anonymous possible goddess, Manet gives us a Parisian prostitute with a name and a direct gaze. In contrast to the subtle gradations of Titian's expertly modeled flesh, Olympia is flatly painted, overexposed almost, and much more realistically proportioned. In the background of the Titian, servants are pulling her clothes from a wedding chest--she's taken.

But in Manet's we have a black woman, a servant named Laure, offering her flowers, presumably a gift from a recently arrived guest, who might even be you! These differences may seem small now, but they had a huge impact on the way the two works were read. In Manet's time, the industrial revolution in Europe had produced a new middle class, and also an increased codification of gender roles.

Women who weren't working in the factories were assigned more fully to the private or interior realm, and men to the public or exterior. Painters including Mary Cassatt offered a challenge to those expectations, showing Parisian women out and about, not just being looked at, but also doing the looking. Manet's reclining nude was seen unacceptable, because he had broken the code for how women were supposed to be portrayed.

He, and Cassatt, and many others to follow steadily chipped away at that code, challenging audiences to consider the realities of life, gender expectations, and the implications of the very act of looking. How an idealized woman should look and act was explored through different materials and means in the Baule village of Kami in Côte d'Ivoire in the early 1900s.

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 This is a type of mask the Baule call a Mblo that was part of performances called Gbagba.

It was not an object made to be seen on it's own like this or admired on a wall or pedestal, but rather worn along with a costume and danced by a male performer, as part of a series of skits involving singing, dancing, drumming, and oration. It's a portrait mask, carved by artist Owie Kimou around 1913 to represent a woman named. Moya Yanso, who was much admired for her beauty.

It was commissioned by Yanso's husband, a well-known dancer and first performer of the mask. It's an idealized depiction of Yanso, with a high forehead communicating her intellectual enlightenment. Her look is introspective, with large downcast eyes—a signal of modesty and respect to others.

The smooth surface of the carved, painted wood connotes cleanliness and health, with the triangular brass ornaments reflecting light and adding to its radiance when danced. The mask communicates Yanso's inner as well as outer beauty, with more realistic details such as her hairstyle joined with more imaginative ones like the elaborate, abstracted headdress. Yanso accompanied the mask when it was performed, and we can see her here, later in life, with her stepson, who holds the mask.

It was eventually sold, after the tradition mostly came to an end in the 1980s. But while it was still alive, the intention of the mblo was to honor a member of Baule society, and convey ideals of womanhood and beauty to other members of the community. Women would never wear the mask—it was men who did the commissioning, carving, and performing—but they attended and critiqued the performances.

The male dancer would imitate the movements and dancing of a woman, and the audience would assess the accuracy of the representation. It's in this communal setting where gender expectations were actively negotiated. Ideals proposed by men, but requiring the acceptance of the community's women.

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The mask served, then, as an active agent through which the Baule deciphered their values together. During the same time Moya Yanso's mask was being performed in Cote D'Ivoire, artists. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were exploring their own gender expression some three thousand miles north in France.

In a series of self-portrait photographs taken throughout her life, beginning when she was a teenager, Cahun assumed a wide array of guises. A dapper gentleman. A little girl in a cupboard.

A yogi. A sailor. Some of the identities were clearly masculine.

And some clearly feminine. And there was plenty of in between, like this coy bodybuilder, whose shirt reads: I AM IN. TRAINING.

DON'T KISS ME. Using makeup, costumes, and props, changing backgrounds, and a variety of experimental darkroom techniques, these images offer up a panoply of personas that subvert and challenge the gender norms of the day, and also question the premise that an identity is something stable or fixed. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore were the gender-neutral pseudonyms adopted by Lucy Schwob and Suzanne.

Malherbe around 1917. They were step-sisters and became life-long collaborators and romantic partners. Moore was an illustrator and designer, and Cahun a poet, essayist, and photographer.

It's widely thought that Moore had a hand in the creation of all of these images, but the two officially worked together on the photo montages that accompany Cahun's 1930 essay Disavowels. Cahun translated into French Havelock Ellis's 1912 theorization on the possibility of a third sex, one that joins masculine and feminine traits but exists as neither. And Cahun wrote on the subject, explaining in Disavowels: “Shuffle the cards.

Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation.

Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” The photographs were seen by few other than Cahun and Moore during their lifetimes. And they only began to come to light through the work of researchers and curators in the late 1980s and early 90s.

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The way that we frame and discuss their work today relies on terminology that didn't exist when the images were created.

It's only viewing it, now, from the present that we can see it as the pioneering work that it is, as predecessor to the numerous works since the 1970s that explore gender, sexuality, race, and identity. Oh, and uh... selfies. . Analyzing the past from the present has many pitfalls, of course.

When we observe and interpret the art or material output of any culture, we often unwittingly impose our own assumptions and biases from the present. Archeologists and historians studying the ancient Maya have been especially sensitive to this, examining and reexamining material remains to gain a more holistic understanding of Maya culture, including their conceptions of gender. Particularly revealing are a series limestone relief-carvings found in a palace building in Yaxchilán, located in what is now southern Mexico close to the Guatemala border.

These are lintels, or the beams at the top of doorways that you would view from below. And they depict moments in the life of Lady K'abal Xook, the principal wife of Shield. Jaguar II, who ruled Yaxchilán beginning in the year 681 CE.

He commissioned a number of buildings and sculptural works during his reign, some of which give us a sense of the prominent role women played in Maya society. In this lintel, which was originally painted, you can see Lady Xook as a key protagonist in Shield Jaguar's story, shown next to him at nearly equal size. She helps him dress for battle, holding his jaguar war helmet and donning plenty royal regalia of her own.

Two lintels depict Lady Xook engaging in bloodletting ceremonies, a common ritual among rulers and elites. Here she pulls a thorned cord through her tongue to bleed onto paper in a basket below. Letting blood was a way to honor and feed the gods, carried out to commemorate important events like the dedication of a building or birth of a child.

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Rulers were believed to be descendants of the gods, and bloodletting a way to maintain order in the cosmos as well as the community. Here we see Lady Xook, adorned with a headdress, Sun God pectoral, and elaborate jewelry likely made of jade, kneeling with an offering off blood-stained paper. The ritual has achieved its sought-after effect, hallucinations that allow her access to other realms, in this case the appearance of a vision serpent from whose mouth a powerful figure emerges.

This act would have demonstrated Lady Xook's considerable strength, and also her suitability as a royal figure, signaling both her importance and reinforcing the legitimacy of her husband's rule. While the vast majority of figures from Classic Maya art are male, the central role of women can be gleaned not only from their exceptional appearances as ruling or warrior women, but also through hieroglyphic inscriptions on the carvings. The Maya's advanced writing system names individuals using strings of syllabic glyphs.

And studies have revealed that those holding positions of power were described using a combination of traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine glyphs. Showing that leaders, regardless of gender, exhibited a balance of gender traits. It's through these naming conventions, as well as depictions like those of Lady Xook, that we begin to glimpse a Maya approach to gender construction that rests less on a strict polarity and more on a complementary, reciprocal approach to personhood and power. ///.

There is a tremendous amount of relevant art that we're leaving out of this discussion. Including several videos worth of material depicting gender-bending deities, like the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, a Buddhist deity that originated in India as a male figure, and went on to take a number of forms, some female, when it migrated to China and was called Guanyin. But while we've barely scratched the surface of this topic, I hope the artworks and objects we've discussed spur you to begin your own investigations into gender ideas of the past and present.

How we read these objects can often say as much about us as it does about the people who made them. 

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And as we do the important but delicate work of interpretation, it's critical to be aware of our own biases, as well as those that inevitably informed research and histories of the past. We humans love a clear binary, but unfortunately art history can't provide the evidence to support one.

As these works show us, gender complexity is nothing new. What are the works that for you open up productive discussions about the way gender has been expressed and performed and represented? Let's talk about them in the comments, and also discuss how and whether these objects from art history shed light on the issues that surround us today. .

This episode was made in partnership with Smarthistory, an outstanding resource for anyone curious about art and cultural objects from around the world. Their videos and website bring together the expertise of more than 300 art historians, archaeologists, and curators, and cover a huge range of topics and cultures from prehistory to today. Subscribe to their YouTube channel, and visit to learn about some of the artworks and histories discussed in this video, and many, many more.