In the late 1970s and early 1980s when she made them, feminist art was the most exciting movement of the day, the artistic face of the international female awakening in every single area of life. It was a time when women changed art and the art world in as explosive a manner as Impressionism or Cubism or any of art history’s other ‘isms’, and these drawings are a record of that era. For the first time, women artists felt justified in putting their own concerns into their art which meant the thankless receptiveness of housework or motherhood in all its nappies and boredom instead of the romanticised Madonna aspect presented by men.
In their various ways, the artists were activists as well as artists and as activists, they wanted to explore their attitudes to everything, including relationships between the sexes. One of the issues of the time was women’s realisation that they had no language for talking about their sexual desires and experiences.
Many said they had no idea where to start. Women kept quiet if they had any thoughts at all, but mostly they didn’t have thoughts or none that they knew how to voice. Women’s attitude to sexuality and its right to be in their books, in their art and in their conversation came to a very public head in 1972 when a new American magazine called Playgirl offered its readers a nude male centrefold.
Women artists who wanted to make work about sexuality from a woman’s point of view, understood that men had taken over. The many images of seductive women and many pages of gossip about artists’ models assumed that artists were male. Erotic art was owned by and aimed at men: heterosexual men presented their fantasies of women and gay men their fantasies of men. Women artists had to invent a way to create sexual images that made sense to other women.
In autumn 1980, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London had a season of three exhibitions of women’s art. The first, Women’s Images of Men, was based on the simple idea of asking women to make art about men and caused male critics to sneer in shock and women to attend in their thousands. ‘Whereas, for instance, a male artist is free to show pictures of the female nude and to share intimacies with his audience, a reversal of these roles is not welcomed. When a woman picks up the brush, chisel or camera and focuses her attention on the male, she invites an avalanche of patriarchal opprobrium. Men prefer to cling on to their own versions of reality than to accept the unpalatable fact that a woman’s view may undermine carefully protected masculine myths,’ wrote the organisers. Because its subject matter was based on women’s concerns and experiences, feminist art spoke clearly to its audience, a huge audience, half the population, that did not need to be knowledgeable about art to appreciate the concerns enacted before its eyes. The existence for the first time of an art that was by women for women made even women who were customarily closed to art receptive to its methods and messages.
Women’s Images of Men was a historic exhibition and two of Eileen Cooper’s paintings and one of her drawings, similar to the ones shown here, were chosen for inclusion in it. She describes them as being about sexuality, movement, looking at self and managing relationships, and through them the artist earned her place in art history. In November of this year, a show will open at Tate Britain called Women in Revolt: Art and Activism in the UK 1970-1990 to mark this period of artistic activism and Cooper’s 1979 drawing, Figures on Ladder will be included. As this exhibition of her early drawings shows, it is clear that her highly individual way of seeing and presenting life was there from the start of her career
–Frances Borzello, June 2023