The practice of portraiture, often used to propagate sociopolitical, philosophical, and cultural ideals by those in power, dates back to ancient Egypt. Yet throughout its history of promoting the ruling class, artists have used portraiture as an effective tool to question and explore societal values and give a platform to traditionally marginalized groups. Contemporary Danish artist Gugger Petter, for example, culls inspiration from the Renaissance and her time spent abroad to create her fictional, woven newspaper works that explore women’s roles in society, especially their relationships to and with men.
The profile portraits, predominantly of men, of the 1400s symbolized the sitter’s social status, success, and prestige. Female portraits, created as commemorative works of betrothal, marriage, or death, idealized not only wealth but also beauty. In these works, artists portrayed female sitters in a traditional profile view until Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of Ginevra De’Benci (1474-1478), which positioned her in a three-quarter view. This turning point signaled the recognition and expression of the female sitter’s emotion, personality, and individual identity. His later female portraits feature the subjects directly looking at the viewer, another revolutionary change as previously only courtesans or prostitutes were allowed to directly engage with the viewer.
As the Guerilla Girls documented in their 2012 piece Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, 76% of the nudes in the museum’s modern art sections are women. Despite efforts by da Vinci and later artists to recognize women’s individual agency, depictions of women continue to position them as objects meant for the viewing pleasure of straight men. Petter pulls inspiration from Renaissance portraits with a contemporary bent. Her figures gaze directly back at the viewer, becoming less of an object to be looked at and more of a subject. Petter positions subject and viewer in an interactive dialogue replete with tension between historic and contemporary, male and female, subject and object.
Her fully embodied subjects resist a viewer’s own psychological projections and desires. Petter’s subjects convey a range of complex and nuanced emotions and mental states: indifferent, playful, bored, beseeching, mysterious, sad, curious, pained, gentle, wry. They tangibly capture and masterfully express both the essence and presence of a person. A slightly raised eyebrow and enlarged left eye of the figure in Portrait of a Young Woman #24 challenge the viewer with an air of contempt. “Well,” she seems to ask, “what are you looking at?” Her direct gaze functions as an interrogation of the viewer. In Female Head/Ritratto #8, Petter again challenges the viewer’s position but in a more nuanced, less overt way. The figure appears to look into the distance looking not only past but through the viewer as well, rendering him transparent if not invisible. In works like these, Petter subverts traditional power dynamics of looking from the viewer to the subject.
Petter also create urban street scenes through a below-the-knees perspective that hints at a larger, more complex narrative than the composition shows. Petter provides clues through the figures’ placement to one another and their body language. Petter’s street scenes highlight bodies in conflict. She says, “Foot position is important but often gets ignored.” Petter spent several of her formative years as a young artist in Italy and Mexico and describes often feeling “like bait” in these two male-dominated societies. Works such as Two Men and One Woman expertly depict this experience. The male figures, behind and flanking the woman, literally fence her in. The woman takes up as little physical space as possible with her feet so close as to be nearly one on top of each other while the men’s remain comfortably wide. What at first appears to be an innocuous gathering turns out to be a moment fraught with power dynamics and charged with the potential for sexual aggression.
Additionally, Petter’s artistic process challenges this categorization in terms of both its method and material. The canon traditionally relegates female-centered modes of making -- sewing and weaving, for example -- to the realm of craft a low rather than fine or high art. She transforms rolled tubes of newspaper, a material seen as both ubiquitous and inexpensive, into the weft of her woven artworks. She invented her own weaving technique in order to achieve her expressive inimitable works. From afar, Petter’s art appears painterly as if created with impasto. Yet as the distance between the viewer and the work collapses, the piece takes on a mosaic and increasingly abstracted quality as it reveals its material reality. What at first appear to thick brushstrokes turn out to be knots, twists, and braids of paper. Petter’s elevation of traditional craft techniques and common materials to fine art further drives the content of her work.
Petter’s artwork subtly yet effectively reminds us of women’s inherent individuality, complexity, creativity, and value. She joins a six-hundred year campaign in art, adding her particular slant, to remind us: women are human beings, too.