Contemporary Artists Are Changing Our Perceptions of Breasts

They bounce and sag; they jiggle, they heave. Today, women’s breasts continue to be controversial, often judged to be overtly sexual no matter the context. Despite “#freethenipple” protests, photos of bare nipples judged to be female are banned from Instagram, apparently inherently pornographic in a way that male chests aren’t. Breastfeeding in public, meanwhile, can be a fraught experience for many, when feeding a child is interpreted as a provocative act of exposure.

While nude breasts are all over art history, for the most part, these depictions were created by men. Consequently, most historical portrayals of breasts reflect heteropatriarchal expectations of female beauty during the period in which they were made (as the encyclopedic Instagram account @titsfromthepast documents).

Talking to Breasts , 2018
Andrea Éva Győri

Harlan Levey Projects

As times have changed, so, too, have the ways artists approach this subject. Today, contemporary artists—often women—are using breasts in their work in subversive, humorous, and profound ways. This trend is exemplified by the show “Darker, Lighter, Puffy, Flat,” on view at Kunsthalle Wien through April 14th, which digs into the significance of breasts as markers of motherhood, milk production, and sexuality. Meanwhile, “Boobs in the Arts,” curated by Natanja von Stosch and Juliet Kothe, took place last summer at Berlin’s DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM, and later this year, art critic Sarah Thornton will publish a book on boobs’ cultural significance entitled Tits Up.

The Kunsthalle Wien show was based on one question, explained the show’s curator, Laura Amann: “Why are we still so scandalized by the idea of the breast, especially the female breast? This is the big question, but then we are really using the breast as a vehicle to talk about many relevant contemporary issues,” she said. Many of the works included comment on the historical use of breasts in art, especially in religious iconography, as well as the ways breasts have become symbols for motherhood and feminine embodiment more generally. For example, one of the show’s most profound works, Talking to Breasts, is a 2018 video work made by Andrea Éva Gyori just before she underwent a double mastectomy to treat breast cancer. In it, the late artist caresses her chest, speaking a heartfelt farewell as tears roll down her cleavage.

Breasts are distinctive in shape—it doesn’t take much for an artist to suggest their appearance. As such, they can function as a kind of shorthand for sexuality, in some cases becoming a surrealistic cue. Also in the Kunsthalle Wien show is painter Marianne Vlatschits’s dreamlike, celestial landscape The Deluge (2023), which depicts rolling, flesh-hued hills, two of which are topped with shimmering nipples. “Breasts just turned up,” the artist explained at the exhibition’s opening. These depictions come from her inner psyche, rather than an overt decision, she said: “Somehow it doesn’t matter what I want to paint, the body and sexuality is always creeping in, even if I don’t want it to.”

Nipples take more of a starring role in the work of young Chinese French American painter Yaya Chang, who recently had her debut solo show, “My Breast Friends,” at Bim Bam Gallery in Paris. Breasts became a subject of her paintings, she said, when she realized what potent symbols they were for the women in her life. The series consists of portraits of her friends and family based on photos they sent her at her request. For Chang, these portraits told larger stories about breast cancer, pregnancy, motherhood, aging, and more. Some of the bosoms she depicts are ample, others neat and perky; some are contained in bras or shirts with plunging necklines, others are presented bare, tanlines and all.

Fiancée, 2023
Yaya Chang

Bim Bam Gallery

Ma Grandmère de Nice, 2023
Yaya Chang

Bim Bam Gallery

“I wanted to be painting my friends during pivotal moments in their lives,” the artist said. “My 97-year-old grandmother was very proud to have her portrait on display.” She noted that she was keen to portray the everyday reality of having breasts—how aging, milk production, and even temperature make them less compliant with contemporary beauty standards. “It’s just a way to explore…a subject that is relatable but also kind of taboo to talk about and look at,” she said.

Curators Natanja von Stosch and Juliet Kothe spent years researching artists’ depictions of breasts and last year published an anthology of works, Boobs in the Arts, to accompany the DITTRICH & SCHLECHTRIEM exhibition of the same name. The book includes over 100 artists, including Paula Modersohn-Becker, whose famous 1906 painting of herself while pregnant is likely the first female nude self-portrait.

Autoportrait au Sixième Anniversaire de Mariage , May 25th-1906
Paula Modersohn-Becker

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

In an interview, von Stosch and Kothe explained that the breast is often used by artists to stand in for the female-coded body more generally: “The breast has a more representational idea, like an idealization of the female body,” said Kothe. In their research, they were keen to expand this function, to include representations that go beyond objectification, and to engage with the “construction and deconstruction” of binary notions of gender. Von Stosch noted, for example, the use of prosthetic breasts by nonbinary artist Wai Kin Sin in their performances.

Breasts are also part of the body’s reproductive machinery, and while society is often squeamish about lactation today, it’s portrayed widely over the centuries, particularly in the form of Madonna Lactans. This Christian iconography shows the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus, and is generally seen as a symbol of female humility and supplication. Subverting this traditional model of motherhood, Milky Way (2014) by Lucia Dovicakova depicts three topless, pale-faced women lounging on sofas as they squirt breast milk into the sepia space above them, referencing the ancient Greek myth that the galaxy was formed by a splatter of milk from the goddess Hera’s nipple. The women appear in control, even dominant, as they stare up into the dark celestial world that their effusions have created—the opposite of the meek and patient Madonna Lactans.

The generative power of breasts as sites of milk production and feeding is further explored by sculptor Rafal Zajko, whose installation Bread and Milk (2023) is on view at the Kunsthalle Wien. In it, several Cronenburgian wall-based sculptures combine prosthetic nipples with 3D-printed bread and industrial-looking machinery, linking the industrial revolution to the rise in wheat production, as nurtured by Mother Nature—the original maternal figure. In Wet Nurse (The Chapel) (2023), meanwhile, balls of ice made out of synthetic formula milk melt over the course of the exhibition, dripping from a plinth slowly into two milk bottles on the floor beside it.

The artist explained that the work is a contemporary recasting of the role of wet nurses, or “women who were hired by more affluent women to nurse their babies,” he said. “I’m looking at it from the queer perspective,” he went on, noting the contemporary conversation about “other forms of parenting.” While wet nursing has a long history as a form of sanctioned surrogate labor, queer parents who use alternative means to grow their families today face challenges from social conservatives, who see these methods as novel, unnatural, and untested.

In this context, and throughout “Darker, Lighter, Puffy, Flat,” breasts hold deep significance as symbols of feminine labor, sexuality, and parenthood. And yet there is also, unavoidably, some humor in many contemporary artists’ works on this topic. At Kunsthalle Wien, this is most obvious in Trulee Hall’s The Boob Dance (2018), where two performers dressed in sumo-wrestler-esque boob costumes dance with abandon to an electro soundtrack.

“It’s poking fun at our obsession with breasts, objectifying them,” said Amann. Out of all the works in the show, The Boob Dance perhaps does the best job of sending up the idiocy of banning breasts online and in public spaces. These boobs are fully de-eroticized, revealing their supposedly threatening sexuality to be socially projected. As simple, silly objects, they’re really quite amusing.

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