Representations: The Female Form and Self-portraiture in Art

Key Idea

Download this resource as a PDF »
Australian Curriculum Links →
Victorian Curriculum Links →

The female form has been a popular subject throughout art history. Significantly, however, the majority of these artworks have been created by male artists. In 1989 American activist art group Guerrilla Girls found that Less than 5% of the artists in the modern art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art were women, but 85% of the nudes were female. By 2012 these statistics had shifted, but only slightly, to 4% women artists and 76% female nudes.[1] Art museums in Australia reflect similar situations.

This shows that women, then and now, are primarily present in galleries and museums as subjects for the (usually male) artist, and objects for viewing rather than artists in their own right, with their own ideas. This can be understood as directly analogous to the objectification of women in society – represented as objects without agency. However, all people, female and male, are complex individuals with unique personalities.

A power dynamic refers to the balance of power in a given situation, and the above facts are important because they relate to how power dynamics can operate through art. The way a subject is portrayed by an artist shapes the viewer’s perception of that subject, giving the artist power over the subject. If a woman is characterised in a painting, photograph or sculpture as a passive object of beauty, whose primary role is to look desirable, this becomes the strongest idea associated with her, leading to what is known as ‘unconscious bias’. It’s like a writer guiding the reader by providing certain information, and emphasising specific detail, about a character.

Many feminist artists strategically tackle this imbalance by creating artworks that portray women subjects as strong, creative, rebellious, complex  and unique individuals. Often the subject is the artist themselves, and they exercise their own power to portray themselves in whatever manner they choose. In this way self-portraiture functions as a reclamation of power.


  • If you drew a self-portrait, what would you want it to ‘say’ to the viewer about you, and how could you make it communicate those things? Where would you draw yourself? What activity would you be doing? Would anyone else be in the picture?
  • A portrait is a constructed image that communicates ideas about the subject’s identity. If you had to create a self-portrait that was meant to communicate an idea of your identity exactly opposite to what it really is, how would you do that? Where would you be posed? What might you be saying? What would you be wearing?
  • Australian women, across Australian media and popular culture broadly, are still frequently encouraged to present themselves in ways that conform to conventional ideals of ‘woman’ (beautiful, domestic, maternal, caregiver, etc.). If you had to create an artwork that engaged with the tradition of the female form, how would you create an artwork which challenged these conventional ideals? When in history would your image be set? Which traditional character or archetype could you appropriate and rework to make your point?

Key Definitions

Portrayal: A description of someone or something in a particular way; a representation.[2]

Objectification: The action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.[3]

Historical Touchpoints

Cindy Sherman, Untitled (Film Still #57) 1980. © Cindy Sherman
Tracey Emin, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–95 1995. Courtesy Jay Joplin/White Cube, London. Photograph: Stephen White


[1] ’Do women still need to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’, Guerrilla Girls.



Education resources supported by