Maude: Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr Lebowski?

The Dude: Is that what this is a picture of?

Maude: In a sense, yes. My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal, which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.

The Dude: Oh yeah?

Maude: Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say. Whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson.

The Dude: Johnson?

– The Big Lebowski, 1998

Julianne Moore as Maude Lebowski, with her crisp trans-Atlantic accent, is one of the most memorable of the Coen brothers’ characters, and this is how we meet her: detailing her work, which she describes as vaginal. To be pedantic, I think it’s more likely to be vulvar than vaginal, but the effect is the same. It’s funny, pretentious, and unarguably modern.

Maude is a male fantasy in some sense. She’s sexy, blazing, powerful, and in the most obvious sign of her fantasy status, she’s the subject of The Dude’s extended dream sequences. But she has also come to represent a different fantasy: of feminist sexual agency and control. Why else would Beyoncé choose to include the French dubbing of one of Maude’s scenes in Partition? It is quite easy to take her at her word, and to see her as a satirical embodiment of the many modern female artists who reclaim the vulva.

But the subject isn’t new. As long as there has been art, there has been yonic art. The paleolithic Venus of Hohle Fels may well be the oldest surviving artistic representation of a human, and she has a much-exaggerated vulva. It has been interpreted as a representation of fertility and sexuality, but other vulvae in art seem to be purely sexual fantasy. For example, Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine Du Monde (1866) shows a faceless woman, her legs spread apart to display her genitals, lying wrapped in bed-sheets that are lifted to show her breasts. Courbet has removed all the parts of the woman that aren’t obviously erotic.

Though worrying, female objectification is rarely the main theme of a piece of art, and should not be taken as such. Consider Henri Gervex’s Rolla. It is inspired by a poem by Alfed du Mussett, in which the young aristocrat Rolla spends one last night with a prostitute, Marie, before taking his own life. Marie lies on the bed with her legs apart, in much the same way as the faceless woman of L’Origine du Monde. Rolla’s top hat sits on the pile of clothes beside the bed, implying that Marie in her eagerness was entirely naked before Rolla had even removed his hat. The element of sexual fantasy is obvious, but so too is the anguish in the face of a man on the brink of suicide. Gervex ultimately portrayed a moment of tension, both sexual and personal.

Men painting women’s bodies and genitals was never the problem. The problem was that only men painted women’s bodies and genitals and that they excluded women’s identities as they did so.

This is something that feminist artists have challenged, using the vulva as subject – Hannah Wilke’s Needed-Erase-Her (1974), Megumi Igarishi’s genitalia-shaped kayak (2016), and Candice Lin’s The Moon (2010). Often the first example given of vulvar art is Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings, usually Black Iris (1962). That these flowers are really vulvae is so well-established that she has become something of a by-word for the genre.

The trouble with this is that O’Keefe herself always denied it. There was a Freudian fantasy in the idea that O’Keefe must have been painting genitals. The association did not come from O’Keefe, but instead from her husband Alfred Stieglitz, and this is no small thing. There is a marked difference between a female artist’s declaration that “I am a woman, I am an artist, I have a vulva and I will paint it” and an observation that “You are a woman, you are an artist, you have a vulva, so that must be what you are painting”.

The most famous example of vulva-in-art that was meant to be vulva-in-art is probably Judy Chicago’s installation The Dinner Party (1979). It’s an immense triangular dinner table, representing the womb, with place settings for 39 women from history and myth. Each woman has a plate painted with an abstract yonic design. This is a fantasy too, of course. How else can you describe a dinner party with Ishtar, Sappho, and Mary Wollstonecraft, if not as fantasy? But it’s one where woman play all sorts of roles, roles beyond being a body – a fantasy grounded in the subjectification, not objectification, of women.

Sojourner Truth’s plate, however, has faces rather than vaginal imagery. Alice Walker, among others, criticised this, suggesting, “perhaps white women feminists, no less white women generally, cannot imagine black women have vaginas.” It’s also a bit disquieting that Chicago centred real women around their genitals, without their knowledge or consent. Chicago’s own fantasy of female empowerment was not the fantasy of all other women.

Our record of human art begins with a vulva. Art is concerned with sex and bodies and occasionally with female genitals – this has never changed. But the way it is portrayed has changed. Vulva art is still evolving, particularly with feminist artists who acknowledge the experiences of transgender women and consider a more nuanced approach to the female body. A modern, engaging, inclusive feminist approach does not need to reject all references to the vulva. It needs to centre the discussion around women’s individual relationships to their genitals, in full awareness of the immense variety of this experience, rather than clinging to an outdated fantasy of a universal female body.