Women in the canon of art.

“What we think of women working the field of sex is related to our idea of what a “good woman” is – and that in turn affects us all.”

– Researcher Niina Vuolajärvi, Rutgers University, New York City, The U.S.

“Réalisme” is an ongoing project (2019-) that combines elements from photography, participatory art and cultural criticism. I have created contemporary versions of Manet’s “Olympia” (1863) and “Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe” (1863) , Henri Gervex’s “Rolla” (1878) and Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s “Demasque” (1888). There are few things that these oil paintings have in common: First they are painted by male artists and second the women modeling for the artists have been prostitutes or have been categorized as one because of the nudity.

In this project I wanted to raise questions about objectification and power dynamics in the model-artist relationship, quality of estrangement of historical art pieces and stereotypical roles of women in the art historical canon as well as the misconceptions about the sex work in general. Last but the not the least I have been compelled about the idea of art as prostitution that was initially introduced by art critic Charles Baudelaire.

This project upends the idea of the male artist immortalizing the beloved muse by having a feminist, female artist photographing men, women, and transgenders. I wanted to represent sex work as something that speaks from the mouths of the individuals who choose to practice prostitution for a reason or another. I have at the moment four photographs in the series and I am planning to produce at least two more.

In the art historical canon women have primarily been portrayed as objects rather than subjects. The canon has been criticized for its lack of female artists and the widespread use of stereotypical images of women that perpetuate Western society’s conventional understanding of femininity. Even though the canon is criticized, it still exists. The imagery of the history is exhibited in every art museum in Europe. The women in these paintings and sculptures are depicted as muses and targets of desire. In fact, they become beautiful objects to behold. I’ve come to realize that the representation of prostitution in these masterpieces does not align with the reality of the women who practiced prostitution in the 19th century nor it is a realistic representation of contemporary prostitution or sex work. These masterpieces contradict what we know about prostitution and the dire circumstances that enveloped it.

Copyright Katriina Haikala, 2019