Feminine rage is all the rage. It’s everywhere. Following Anya Taylor-Joy’s declaration that she has ‘a thing for feminine rage’, there has been growing popular realisation that the expression of it is both beautiful and necessary. Its increasing visibility suggests that society is more receptive to the celebration of female anger. Throughout history, representations of feminine rage have tended to take a more passive route in its portrayal. Women are constantly expected to be so many conflicting things — innocent yet sexual, angry yet dignified. Feminine rage allows us to ask: what happens when women focus these two polarised states of feeling into one of pure, unbridled rage?
One of the earliest and most iconic artists to answer this question is Artemisia Gentileschi. It’s a continuing theme in her work, but Judith and Holofernes is indisputably the most famous. It depicts feminine rage in a way that was highly unusual for the time. Previous depictions of the murder of Holofernes presented Judith as oxymoronically sexual and innocent; Gentileschi was far more willing to explore the idea of Judith as the aggressor rather than a passive figure. Judith’s furrowed brow and tight grip banish notions of reluctance in the eyes of the viewer. The strong diagonal emphasis of the painting, as well as the use of light, pull the viewer’s eyes towards the figures of Judith and Holofernes’ neck. This works quite well — pushing women into the foreground with such intense focus really forces you to take in the brutality of the act. It’s perversely spectacular, and done so well that centuries later, you also feel Judith’ righteous rage. Her reconstitutive approach to a classical religious narrative, challenging contemporary reproductions, makes space for a visceral interpretation of feminine rage.
A different take on feminine rage is offered by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the nineteenth century. His 1862 pen and wash drawing of his sister, famous poet Christina Rossetti, depicts feminine rage as normal and human. The drawing was created to alleviate and poke fun at her worries about reading reviews of her poetry collection. It depicts her in a state of delightfully destructive rage, breaking windows and toppling tables. Her impact on the scene is quite commendable, creating a strangely romantic notion of women as whirlwinds of anger. Christina is depicted in motion, clearly experiencing overwhelming feeling. The chaotic composition and hurried pen marks are indicative of immediate rage and destructive tendencies. Whilst this should create a sense of urgency, the viewer is met with comedic contrast — the scale of the drawing reminds you that this outburst is not as consuming as the central figure believes. To put yourself in Christina Rossetti’s shoes (although few would dare!) is to feel humoured and reassured looking at this drawing. Gabriel has alluded to the creation of this feeling with an inscription on the left reading ‘Miss Rossetti can point to work which could not easily be mended’, from a Times review of her work. Christina often poked fun at her temper, and this sketch by her brother echoes that and offers a portrayal of feminine rage as natural and human, even if unwarranted.
In search of an ostensibly more modern work, Piplotti Rist’s Ever is Over All (1997) is the natural answer. It combines the visceral nature of Gentileschi’s work with the human element of Rossetti’s — it is unsurprising it holds up so strongly. Through the compelling medium of the large-scale video installation, Rist’s work is made to have an immersive and engulfing feel. On one screen is a field of flowers. On the other, a young woman walks down the street in red heels and is quickly given over to violent impulses and begins smashing car windows whilst accompanied by serene music. Shot in a single take with a camera of rather questionable quality, it emphasises the spontaneity and suddenness with with rage can overcome us, as well as suggesting that rage within women is always close to the surface. The music in the background, combined with the blue tint of the video, has a hypnotic effect designed to portray feminine rage in a surreal and ever-present way. As we continue to navigate the complexities of gender and power today, Rist’s timeless approach is a good one. The constancy of feminine rage has been fascinating artists for centuries. In a world that seeks to suppress it, it is truly commendable that feminine rage continues to be such a powerful artistic force.
‘Women, Scorned’: Exploring Feminine Rage in Art
Kelsey Moriarty opines on depictions of feminine rage throughout history.
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