Incompatible femininity: sirens, sphinxes and femme-maisons / Rachel Ashenden

Historically, feminists have disassembled patriarchal artistic traditions through collage, as a method of conveying marginality. Collage re-examines the masculine orientated politics of aesthetics which traditionally devalues and marginalises women’s art. This is not to suggest that there is an essentialist basis between a specific art form and female artists, but collage is an effective way to subvert a culturally “inferior” position. In the 1970s, in the wake of feminist art criticism, Miriam Schapiro coined the term ‘femmage’ to encompass the women who, with limited access to the materials of the fine arts, had transformed activities like needlework into their own ectriture feminine, or as a metaphor for feminine communication, similar to an entry in a journal or diary. An ancient example of ‘femmage’ is Penelope’s weaving and unravelling of Laretes’ shroud, as it reshapes the materials of phallogocentric culture to speak in a covert language through imagery.  

The late French artist Louise Bourgeois had greater access to the fine arts than poor Penelope. When the concept of collage was combined with Second-Wave Marxist-feminism, artists like Bourgeois translated mythical collage into a subject closer to home. Between 1945 and 1947, Bourgeois produced a series of four oil paintings titled ‘Femmes Maisons’ which depict nude females, whose heads and torsos are replaced by houses. We could be asking the question: ‘What happened under her roof?’ - but the investigative appeal to apply her personal experiences to the paintings is somewhat limited in scope. Indeed, we know that Bourgeois suffered from isolation as a new mother, giving birth to three sons in quick succession. But, Freudians have been quick to analyse these works in terms of Bourgeois’s troubled childhood, but then, Freud was a misogynist who regarded the phallus as the ultimate symbol. We should look to the wider political implications of the Femme Maisons: and, as they say, the personal is the political.


Bourgeois is mimicking the ethereal and dark feminine expectations imposed on woman in myths such as Melusine or Undine by showing that the female gender identity is disturbingly obtained through a denial of individuality during this post-WWII period – hence why she’s always faceless in these ‘portraits’. Femme Maisons are a mythical creature born out of a culture in which woman is forced to find her own identity in terms of a man. Under a capitalist regime, waged productive labour cannot exist in the absence of unpaid domestic labour, and Bourgeois felt its consequences most painfully. These anthropomorphised beings she created are more stable than that of the Siren; with their two legs to stand on, they provide a security foundational for all nuclear families. They are recognisably human but only as they own arms and legs, and female because their sexual organs are exposed. Their heads, and hence their minds, are held hostage to the buildings, which seems to suggest why the various styles of their houses distinguish between the Femme Maisons. But Bourgeois has been resilient to tell us that she’s not part of the furniture: it is our task to retrospectively attribute a whole generation of confined women’s feelings of rage into her Femme Maisons. We should look at all amalgamated mythical female creatures this way: through the feminist lens, always dissect their incompatible parts through to understand her story.

Words by Rachel Ashenden / Full piece available in Issue Three