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Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves

UCL Institute of Archaeology

The earliest prehistoric representations of humans are female. This is a fact confirmed by the artefacts that remain from the Palaeolithic era; they are the distinctly (even grotesquely) female sculptures, the so-called ‘Venus’ figurines whose providence is Central and Eastern Europe, dating to between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE. The general assumption about these prehistoric figurines is that they were carved, by male artists from female life models. Successive generations of white, European, male archaeologists have gone unchallenged in their interpretation of these artefacts as being the products of their artistic antecedents – also white, European, male – setting a sexist precedent by applying a prehistoric variant of the male gaze to their female life models. However, the latest evidence from the field of archaeology is challenging the inherent sexism of these interpretations and individuals in the field are beginning to wonder whether we are allowing our own social and cultural views to influence our past, all the way back to prehistory and to our earliest artistic endeavours. Are the Venus figurines the earliest instance of gender stereotyping or as Professor LeRoy McDermott of the Department of Art and Design at UCM maintains, the earliest examples of female artistry, self-portraiture and evidence of prehistoric female self-empowerment.

Among the most famous prehistoric women is the 'Venus of Willendorf’. She is typical of the impossibly voluptuous, improbably curvy, overtly sexualised female form that has all the "alien appeal" (Getting to the Bottom of Kim Kardashian’s Alien Appeal, November 12, 2014) of Kim Kardashian as seen on the controversial cover for Paper Magazine’s Winter 2014 issue. The reason for this assumption is that artisans, like fashion photographers today – including the legendary French photographer Jean-Paul Goude who shot Kim Kardashian for Paper Magazine – have traditionally been male, white and of European heritage. The exaggerated forms of the figurines, accentuating the ‘feminine’ features, the fecundity the form, the sexual fact and sexualised fiction persist not only in geological layers of artefacts but in the layers of language of representation of the female form entrenched in art, culture, and society today. Professor LeRoy McDermott has peeled some of those layers away in his paper ‘Self-Representation in Upper Palaeolithic Female Figurines’ proposing a ground-breaking thesis that literally challenges our perspective and shifts our point of view. Could these figurines be self-portraits by female artists looking at their own body?
A female Paleolithic figurine Venus of Willendorf Wellcome M0000440
Venus of Willendorf is held in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. It is carved from an oolitic limestone that is not local to the area, and tinted with red ochre and it is named after the site in Austria where it was unearthed.
‘Break The Internet’ cover of Paper Magazine, Winter 2014

At school, we were taught that these carved sculptures were a ‘female ideal of beauty’, votive objects of the ancient cult of the all-powerful ‘fertility goddess’. This view was first challenged for us at art school ten years ago by Professor Ruth Whitehouse, a Emeritus Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology at UCL, when she casually debunked the Venus cult as a myth while Ana (this was before the Ladies of the Press*) was in her office one day, desperately trying to find a way to sneak into her MA anthropology classes while she was supposed to be sculpting something at the art school around the corner. We met Professor Whitehouse again a couple of weeks ago at her UCL offices – although retired, she still specialises in research into prehistoric religion and ritual and more recently gender in archaeology. We asked her to elaborate on the misconceptions about cult of the female goddess. She gave us the distinct impression that we had a collectively distorted view of these female figurines, an adoring sort of positive discrimination perpetuated by generations of unchallenged (and let’s face it male) anthropologists; a lyrical interpretation at best and sweeping assumption at worst. We will post our conversation with Professor Whitehouse, a truly remarkable archaeologist and first female Professor of the Institute of Archaeology (ever!) separately, but suffice to say that it confirmed for us that the historical stereotyping of women, even prehistoric women, has no end.

The most striking thing about the Venus figurines is their consistently anatomically ‘incorrect’ proportions; a button head, sitting on rounded shoulders, soft arms cradling enormous, undulating breasts draping over an inflated Buddha-like (some speculate “pregnant”) abdomen, a pair of well rounded buttocks weighing on tapered legs, ending in tiny feet that are reminiscent of the Chinese tradition of bound feet. Why were these female figurines not designed to stand? What is the significance of that freestanding sculpture that doesn’t stand? Reading Professor McDermott’s paper, which compares modern bodies with prehistoric artefacts, the answer may lie in a revolutionary shift in perception to one of self-regard by the artist whereby the stylistic aspect of the form e.g. the exaggerated breasts an belly, disappearing arms and tapered legs, correspond perfectly with the perspective reality of what is seen. It is not difficult to imagine that the Venus figurines were carved by reclining, well-proportioned women (possibly pregnant at the time?), looking down at their own bodies as seen from above.

Autogenous visual information of the upper body. Top, photographic simulation of what a six-months-pregnant 26-year-old Caucasian female of average weight sees when looking down while standing erect; bottom, same view of Willendorf no. 1 (cast).
Oblique aerial views of front body surfaces. Top, 30-year-old Caucasian female, four months pregnant; bottom, same view of figurine from Lespugue (cast).

The two black and white images and captions above are taken from the UCMO website, admittedly without permission but used to illustrate the point of view, in a free publication that tries to challenge female stereotypes – goddammit!

Were these prehistoric female artists the stylistic antecedents of more contemporary artists such as Frida Kahlo who likewise made characteristically distorted top-down paintings while bed-bound during long stints of illnesses or in her bathtub? The fact that Venus figurines are palm-sized statuettes would certainly support the hypothesis of a self-portrait being made by a carver cupping the stone with one hand and carving it with the other. It is likely too that the laborious process would have necessitated the artist to be in a comfortable pose for long periods of time: a reclining pose.

Frida Kahlo, ‘What I Saw in the Water’ or ‘What the Water Gave Me’ (1938), oil on canvas, 91 x 70.5 cm. (Paris, Daniel Filipacchi collection)
Frida Kahlo painting in bed.

Since Professor McDermott's paper was first published in print in 1979 and published online in 1998, is has taken some time for this reinterpretation of the Venus figurines to hit the social media big time. Even then, we came across the article via “goddess cult” type, esoteric pages on Facebook which eventually led to scientific pages on the UCMO website – after some digging of course! The comments page on the website which published the paper in full is an interesting read with academics both supporting and challenging Professor McDermott’s view. We did manage to ask Professor Whitehouse whether she had come across Professor McDermott's paper and for the most part she discounted it with an amusing, self-evident statement, along the lines of it being improbable that a female artist wouldn't have had access to other females as life models, which lead to chuckles as we collectively invented surreal scenarios that would lead a prehistoric female artist to have to resort to her own body for inspiration e.g. Plato’s cave style, self-imposed, solitary confinement, severe myopia etc. While Professor McDermott's hypothesis does seems illogical, the fundamental shift away from the objectifying male gaze to a self-regarding female gaze i.e. a shift from how men see women to how women see themselves, is however important as it illustrates the impact our own perceptions in the present have on the past, and ultimately, the future. Whether Professor McDermott is right or wrong remains to be seen and is still up for debate, as is the challenge to historical gender stereotypes of women from prehistory to the present day.

The paper Self-Representation in Upper Paleolithic Female Figurines by Professor Leroy McDermott sited here was itself reprinted from CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY published by the University of Chicago Press. Used with permission.© 1996 by Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved.