Rants, Feelings & Opinions

A Brief History of Period Art

August 24, 2015
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Kristen Cochrane looks back at the history of period art (aka Menstrala), and the badass female artists who made it, from the 1970s until today.

I distinctly remember—at the curious, liminal age of eighteen—slinking into a room at an impressive museum in London. A sign outside read that the room I was about to enter contained sensitive, adult material. Obviously, I was intrigued, expecting sensual photographs of women, whose lithe bodies would grace the dimensions of the frames. Instead, I saw old rags with with large brown stains. The descriptions said the medium was menstrual blood. I remember finding it simultaneously weird, funny, cool, and rebellious. Several years later, I find this kind of art less strange, and more of an appropriate way to subvert widespread societal discomfort with a recurring physiological experience. It almost makes me feel like I’ve just been a walking art project during times where I have unknowingly had visible blood on my clothing.  

Besides my own now-desensitized perception, reactions to art made with period blood elicit various reactions, from praise to disgust. But mostly disgust. I mean, you can’t even talk about your period without grossing someone out (usually men, but sometimes women too). Its gross-out factor is especially suspicious when the history of shame associated with the vagina is considered—I mean, people can’t even say the word vagina without feeling awkward. People’s lives are also affected by it, and not just by the cramps, the fever, or the bad moods, but because some girls can’t even go to school while they’re on their period.

Period art, a.k.a. Menstrala, although perhaps daunting at first, is a way of releasing the shame and re-introducing the normality of a regular bodily function. It also seems to be an on-trend method for artists as of late, which could be attributed to the liberation of women in this post-third-wave-feminism moment. Or, this menstrual artistic tendency could be credited to the proliferation of our Web 2.0-influenced universe. In other words, the ubiquitousness of user-generated content, infinite blogging, and encyclopedic glut has allowed us to even know about the art from the likes of Judy Chicago or Petra Collins. The link between the 1970s emergence of period blood art and the Women’s Liberation Movement is also evident, which is interesting, because it illustrates the prominent relationship between politics. But you already knew that.  

Since there has been an explosion of this medium, it would be idealistic and presumptuous to attempt an entirely comprehensive list of all art that figuratively and literally deals with menstruation. I thought it would be a good idea to email a former art history prof I had at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Dr. Brian Foss, whose course in 2011 taught me that art wasn’t just religious paintings that I didn’t understand. Dr. Foss suggested I get in touch with Dr. Jayne Wark at NSCAD University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This article could not have included as much detail without the help of Dr. Wark, who looked back into her book Radical Gestures: Feminism and Performance Art in North America. In our correspondence, Dr. Wark detailed the artworks that she had researched and written about in this book.

Without further ado, here are some historical examples of period art (aka Menstrala):

1) 1971 – “Red Flag,” Judy Chicago

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Judy Chicago’s “Red Flag,” a photolithograph of a woman’s hand taking a bloodied tampon out of her vagina. For Chicago, she sought to “validate overt female sexuality in the art community” and “to introduce a new level of permission for female artists.” Clearly, it worked, because this groundbreaking project led to more renderings of a bodily phenomenon that has the ability to traumatize, humiliate, and punish those who experience it.

2) 1971 – “Menstruation Wait,” Leslie Labowitz-Starus

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The daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, Leslie Labowitz-Starus first performed “Menstruation Wait” at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. She was nearly expelled for this performance piece, but later performed it in Düsseldorf where she was on a Fulbright Scholarship. In the piece, Labowitz-Starus sat on the floor and waited for her menstruation to begin. While waiting, she talked about how she felt with the audience. It is argued that because this piece was done in a public, she was able to “[familiarize] the public with woman’s physiological condition while waiting for her period.”

3) 1972 – “Menstruation Bathroom,” Judy Chicago

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Chicago claims that “Menstruation Bathroom” was “one of the first images of menstruation in in Western art.” As far as we know, though, it’s the second, since she had also created “Red Flag” the year before. She also credits the social and political climate of California as being distinct, at the time, from the Eastern United States “where the white, male, Eurocentric tradition has a longer legacy and thus casts a stronger shadow.”

4) 1972 – “Blood Work Diary,” Carolee Schneemann

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Philadelphia-born Carolee Schneemann’s Blood Work Diary, made during one of her periods in 1972, was created by drying blood on tissue paper with the help of egg yolk to keep the blood set in place. Schneemann’s inspiration for this work was partly homage and partly lament to the hypermasculinity of one of her former lovers, a “football-captain type.” Allegedly, he once felt sick while they were having sex because he witnessed a drop of period blood. On Blood Work Diary, Schneeman had the following commentary: “The whole masculine trope is to blow up bodies and eviscerate them and pound them into the earth. The whole language of Vietnam was about pulverising bodies and then the contradiction of this modest amount of menstrual blood carrying this immense taboo.”

5) 1973 – “What a Woman Made,” Mako Idemitsu

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Idemitsu was a Japanese artist living in the US during this time. What a Woman Made is a video which, as Dr. Wark writes “begins with a fuzzy image gradually coming into focus, revealing a tampon gracefully leaching a trail of menstrual blood into a pristine toilet bowl.” The video screened in conjunction with the narration of an “authoritative male voice” who read from the Japanese bestseller How to Raise Girl Children. For Dr. Wark, “this misogynistic text barely conceals a revulsion that conflates physiology and personality in an utterly degrading assessment of the intimate nature of Japanese women. They are described as pieces of property to be safeguarded until marriage, as lacking talent, and as indecisive and unable to solve problems by themselves. They are expected to be passive, obedient, and, above all, pleasant at all times. By thus layering this aesthetic image with a text that codifies the litany of defects and negative characteristics imputed to female ‘nature,’ Idemitsu reveals the impossibility of simply detaching and reclaiming a ‘positive’ female biological imperative from the cultural prescriptions that determine and constrain its meanings.”

6) 1980 – “Trop(e)ism”, Marshlore

In a work that that echoes the unique, multitudinous character of Montreal, an artist from Québec’s biggest city performed a piece that would still shock audiences today. Dr. Wark described Marshlore’s work as beginning with “a sequence of silence screams, [then] inserts her fingers into her vagina, smears her face with menstrual blood, and then takes a long drag on a cigarette, exhaling slowly.”

7) 1986 – “Untitled,” Kiki Smith

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The prolific, German-born artist Kiki Smith commissioned an exhibit in which twelve large glass jars which contain different fluids, like blood, tears, diarrhea, and pus. Upon closer inspection, the viewer would see that each glass jar was empty, and the viewer is left with the reflection of oneself. But how? According to scholar Roxanne Runyon, this exhibit brings our attention to the French-Bulgarian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, who famously talked about her notion of the “abject.” While the “abject” is a widely packed term, at least for Kristeva, one of her interpretations of the abject is its gesturing towards our understanding of certain things that separate us from animals and demarcate the boundary between the now controversial binary of “civilized” and “uncivilized.” It would seem, then, that how grossed out we are by period blood is not a gendered phenomenon, if we subscribe to Kristeva’s argument. Thus, it would be more convincing to attribute this to the rampant, covert classism that pervades most societies in this cultural moment.

8) 1996 – “Menstrual Hut,” Charon Luebbers

Charon Luebbers, an artist from Florida, created a pyramid-shaped isolation booth. Its 6-by-6-by-5 foot dimensions were created to represent the alienation and loneliness women can feel while on their period. On the inside, twenty-eight canvases of her face adorn the inside, having been stamped in her own period blood.

9) 1998 – “My Bed,” Tracey Emin

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Tracey Emin exhibits the controversial “My Bed”, a literally unmade bed with all kinds of stains, including what could be menstrual blood. The work is intended to represent her own bed following a depressive episode, with bottles of vodka, cigarette packages, and condoms littering the floor. It is therefore how she’s been called the soul-baring queen of TMI.

10) 2000 – “Menstrala,” Vanessa Tiegs

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“Menstrala” is simultaneously the name of Vanessa Tiegs’ paintings, but it is also the unofficial term for period art popularized by Tiegs. For Tiegs, she wishes for “the word Menstrala to become universal, just like our cycles.” “Silverfish Spirits” was Tiegs’ first Menstrala painting in the year 2000, and was “inspired by visits to Ocean Beach, San Francisco, CA.” In this same terrestrial spirit, Tiegs habitually explores the link between menstrual cycles and spatial cycles, like lunation, otherwise known as the average time from one moon to the next.

11) 2004 – “Aqua Permanens,” Carlota Bérard

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Mexican artist Carlota Bérard performed “Aqua Permanens” in the UK, dancing while letting her blood fall onto a white cloth. The dance was accompanied by her own music, and she cut the 2×2 metres into unique pieces of cloth. For Bérard, bodily matter is intertwined with the soul. Her menstrual dance was thus a way of reconciling bodily rhythms and energy with more tangible matter.

12) 2009 – “Red Is the Colour,” Ingrid Berthon

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Ingrid Berthon Moine’s “Red Is the Colour.” Berthon photographed twelve women with period blood on their lips as if it is lipstick. In her artist’s statement, she claims that societies of the “West” think of menstrual blood as a taboo, while “ancient tribes like the Dieri and other Australian tribes venerated it, [applying] it on or around the mouth to signify the arrival of menstruation.” To further the irony of modern femininity, Berthon labelled each woman’s period blood by a lipstick name that you would see at a beauty store. The photographs’ compositions are upfront, like a passport ID, confronting our notions of shock and its intersections with modern beauty standards.

13) 2009-Present – Various, Sandy Kim

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In her various series of intimate, often home-based photography, New York-based artist Sandy Kim has not been shy to reveal private moments that sometimes include menstrual blood. Some photos will feature a woman with explicit menstrual stains, while other photos have included photos of a man with blood on his penis (her boyfriend Colby), highlighting the controversial nature of “period sex” in this contemporary moment. Kim collaborates with a number of artists and Web 2.0 internet age outlaws, who are similarly unafraid of period blood, like Petra Collins and Slutever founder Karley Sciortino.

14) 2010 – “The Period Piece”, Lani Beloso

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Florida artist Lani Beloso claimed that her series “The Period Piece” (which she also calls “The Period Pieces”) is an attempt to “make something beautiful and utilitarian out of something that which in the past has only been a painful, useless burden.” Not only is her menstrual cycle a burden, but Beloso suffers from dysmenorrhea, the more severe form of menstrual pain. It literally translates to “difficult monthly flow,” and in Beloso’s case, she felt that she was bleeding to death. In her year-long project, she used all the blood she could collect from her cycle. In the first work of The Period Piece, she sat over the canvas for 12 hours.

15) 2011 – “Ummeli,” Zanele Muholi

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Zanele Muholi’s “Ummeli” exhibits menstruation blood on cotton rags photographed digitally. Muholi, who is from South Africa, created this work as a reflection of the horrific phenomenon of corrective rape in South Africa. The Independent wrote that the term “corrective rape” was conceptualized in the early 2000s when gay women were being routinely attacked and gang-raped to “cure” them of their deviant sexuality. This same year, Muholi also made “Isilumo Siyaluma,” a series of geometric figures, or mandalas, with menstrual blood. “Isilumo Siyaluma” is a Zulu expression for “period pains.” Muholi said that “at one level, my project deals with my own menstrual blood, with that secretive, feminine time of the month that has been reduced within Western patriarchal society as dirty. On a deeper level then, my menstrual blood is used as a vehicle and medium to begin to express and bridge the pain and loss I feel as I hear and become witness to the pain of ‘curative rapes’ that many of the girls and women in my black lesbian community bleed from their vagina and their minds.”

16) 2013 – “Cloths,” Carina Úbeda

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Carina Úbeda’s “Cloths” features her menstrual blood on cloths that hang from the ceiling. Along with the cloths are hanging apples that are meant to symbolize her ovulation. In order to actualize this project, Úbeda, who is from Chile, had to save five years worth of her menstrual blood. For Úbeda, pads cause an allergic reaction. Instead, she uses cloths. So in her exhibition, she hung ninety of them from the ceiling. On each rag, words like “destroyed,” “discard,” and “production” were embroidered.

17) 2013 – “Period Power Washed Tee,” Petra Collins and the online art platform/collective “The Ardorous,” illustrated by Alice Lancaster

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Canadian artist Petra Collins and The Ardorous designed a t-shirt for American Apparel, sold as the “Period Power Washed Tee.” Following the subsequent controversy over the t-shirt, VICE interviewed Collins, and she said that “grown women are taught to repress their postpubescent body or hide it. For Collins, the need to hide our bodies after puberty is fundamentally gesturing to widespread pedophilia in our cultural consciousness: “this feminine ideology we have, of the woman being the prepubescent girl, is how we’re taught to change our bodies.”

18) 2015 – “period.” photo series, Rupi Kaur (Uploaded to Instagram by Rupi. Photo taken by her sister Prabh)

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Canadian university student Rupi Kaur sought to address menstrual taboo for a university photo project. Then, one of the photos, of her laying on her side on her bed with a large period stain on her underwear, was removed by Instagram for violating the “Community Guidelines.” According to Dazed, Instagram never explained why they removed the photo. It was only when Rupi lamented Instagram’s decision to censor her photo through another Instagram post, after it accumulated a whopping 53,000 likes and shared at least 12,000 times, that Instagram apologized and let her re-post the image.

19) 2015 – “Beauty in Blood,” Jen Lewis

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American artist Jen Lewis was a figure in the popular press this year with her project “Beauty in Blood” where she put her menstrual blood in a fish tank, which was then photographed by her husband, Rob Lewis. According to Jen, her work was created in the spirit of Jackson Pollock, the macho, abstract expressionist American whose work most people would recognize. 

Kristen Cochrane is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body. Read her previous essay for Slutever, “Sounding Stupid: Vocal Fry and Girl Talk” HERE :)

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