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Subject Matters: Portrayals of Women in Art

02/18/2015 10:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Reflecting cultures, times and places, artworks are often more than what meets the eye. When we are aware of their contextual significance, they become rich historical documents enmeshed with important messages. How subjects are depicted within art --through coloration and composition -- allows us an honest glimpse into society's view of them, especially in the case of marginalized or underrepresented populations.

Using four works from online auction house Auctionata's upcoming Contemporary Art sale, this post analyzes the representation of women over the course of several decades and various locations. By revealing the different forces behind production, we shed light on the main theme connecting them. With the fast-changing landscape of the art market comes a deeper understanding of the works circulating. Here, we consider the evolving artistic representation of women between the 1960s and today.

Roy Lichtenstein, Offset Lithograph, "Blonde Waiting," c. 1964

In this lithograph by Roy Lichtenstein, a beautiful blond leans in front of a clock, her chin resting on crossed arms as she waits. The use of a flattened cartoon aesthetic to depict a primed subject, paired with her passive position, speaks to the accessory role of women during the 1960s. The compositional arrangement zeroes in on her voluminous hair and exasperated expression; even though she's prepared, she finds herself at the whim of whatever or whomever she's expecting. In the interim, she's rendered inert, a metaphor for the larger societal role of women at the time. Yet simultaneously, the planed technique and perspective of Lichtenstein's style are designed to impart an attractive, advertorial effect.

Mel Ramos, Offset Lithograph, "A.C. Annie," USA, 1972

In this provocative portrait, Mel Ramos juxtaposed a naked woman with a common household item. The model, who is said to have been Playboy bunny Sally Duberson, poses seductively against a hardware tool scaled to her size. Her naked, tan body and colored hair accentuate the portrait and engage viewers. At the same time, the print's glossy, pin-up style and use of a celebrity as subject speaks to the entertainment culture of the time, which reveled in bombshell beauties and general indulgence.

Interestingly, Ramos insisted his works were not political. Instead, he claimed, his goal was to achieve humorous, ironic imagery through absurd pairings. Contextualizing Duberson's role in Playboy with the mass sales of AC tools at department stores like Sears, we begin to understand how underhanded the message of the piece truly is. Ramos's suggestive composition questions a culture that rotates around public goods and its effect on feminine norms and industry. At the same time, this portrait is a celebration of the female form. In all, the piece elicits a highly riveting response, the result of the emergence of women's mutual power and vulnerability into the public sphere.

Mr. Brainwash, Screenprint & Acrylic, "Queen Aviator #2," 2013

Mr. Brainwash blurred the boundaries between culture, race and class with his eclectic style in "Queen Aviator #2." Here, he interposed popular culture with one of the most prominent historical figures living today.

Art historical analysis holds that the widespread use of technology has connected us further, bringing society closer in a colorful collision of different nationalities, cultures and social groupings. The bright hues dripping from the top of this piece, as well as the queen's crown, fur coat, chain necklace and aviator glasses explode in a visual experience whereby the queen, traditionally beholden to social norms, blurs boundaries and integrates herself into several different cultures at once. At the same time, she radiates a cool confidence with her straightforward gaze, upright position and relaxed, seemingly amused expression. The absurdist work fascinates viewers with the notion that the queen would position herself in this way...while entertaining the possibility that she might. In total, not only does this piece speak of the social, technological and political progress of our era, but it also marks a point in time where women are no longer only depicted for their physical beauty or sexual prowess, but for their international power and leverage.

Alex Katz, Color Linocut, "Diana," USA, 2014

In last year's "Diana," Alex Katz replaced black with navy blue to paint the portrait of a non-conventional contemporary woman who's as bright and beautiful as the color palette in which she's rendered. The subject's sober and provocative pose, paired with an artful combination of hues and design, creates a visual experience similar to Warhol's pop art screen prints. By cropping the portrait to show only Diana's head, Katz suggests sound judgment and a developed intellect -- qualities typically ascribed to men. Her long, dark hair, simple features and pursed lip further heighten her status while maintaining her womanly appeal and attractiveness.

In fact, "Diana" is an interesting subject precisely because she rejects the conventional norms of beauty ascribed to women and ventures into the space of masculine power. Her gaze, sobriety and discretion captivate and enamor viewers. Furthermore, the fact that this subject is not a celebrity, like most past sitters, testifies to a contemporary culture whereby anyone has access to social and technological platforms of which they are the epicenter. Katz's "Diana" hereby represents today's ambitious women who blur the lines between traditional masculinity and femininity, and continue to push the conversation forward of what it means to be a woman in art and society today.