Demoiselles d’Instagram: Exploration of the Feminine in Society and Art / by Sam Abelow

“#bodak 💛 #bloody 👠” Delia Brown, 2017. Oil on canvas, 60 x 74 inches. Tibor de Nagy Gallery

“#bodak 💛 #bloody 👠” Delia Brown, 2017. Oil on canvas, 60 x 74 inches. Tibor de Nagy Gallery

In the new "D'Madsoille de Instagram" paintings by Delia Brown, expressionistic explorations of Instagram health and fitness culture both glorify the prettiness of social media models, as well as confront audiences with an awareness of their shallowness.

The recent show, presented by Tibor de Nagy, offers an opportunity to delve into these matters and contemplate what it means to consume and therefore support the production of objectifying, sexualized images today.

Public Dialogue

Many in the social dialogue about gender relations are aware that critiquing, understanding, or even rejecting representations of the feminine in historical and contemporary art is an important project. Currently, social movements trend towards a redefinition of limiting morays, and carving out empowered voices in a one-sided culture.

Amongst these shifting tides, painters and critics are revisiting artistic pieces from the past, as well as evaluating contemporary productions. Delia Brown borrows from a monument of art history — Pablo Picasso’s famous painting of prostitutes ("Les Demoiselles d'Avignon") — in the depiction of ex-stripper and world-famous rapper, Cardi B. (see above), as well as Instagram models (see below).

"#roséallday" Delia Brown, 2018. Oil on canvas, 74 x 60 inches. Tibor De Nagy Gallery.

"#roséallday" Delia Brown, 2018. Oil on canvas, 74 x 60 inches. Tibor De Nagy Gallery.

Martha Schwendener, writing for the New York Times, places a value judgment on Brown’s work: “Society and the beauty industry’s demands may shape these representations, but rather than ‘victims’ of sexist body culture, the ‘Demoiselles d’Instagram’ appear to be flagrant perpetrators.”  The critic claims the women do not “fare better” than they did in “Picasso’s misogynist universe.” [1]

Opposingly, many women who are passionate about historical and current disrespect and oppression are simultaneously mesmerized by Cardi B and the Kardashians.[2] It is a popular argument that self-objectifying mega-stars, and others who commodify their sexuality, are subverting power dynamics by building successful, independent careers.

Whichever perspective is ultimately right is unclear. And like many of us, Delia Brown and her paintings stand somewhere in the middle, admittedly unsure. At an artist talk hosted by the gallery, Brown revealed that she is intrigued by the images of plastic hourglass women and upper class “health culture” on Instagram, but aware of the objectification (which she feels “guilt” about) and notices the stark superficiality without wishing to condemn the models.

When asked what her stance was, Brown suggested that her concepts came from her “unconscious.” This unconsciousness — that is, her hesitance to clearly define her relationship to the subject matter — is emblematic of the widespread undecidedness and mixed-up attitudes towards the prevalence of social media fitness models, Cardi B, and the Kardashians.

A Psychological Understanding

The purpose of this essay is not to decide what perspective is right or wrong, but to indicate a possible route towards further clarification.

By understanding the psychological situation that allows men to exploit and objectify women, there is an opportunity for deep, lasting transformation. Similarly, when women examine their own relationship to Instagram booty models, and Kardashian photoshoots, they begin to understand and differentiate the complex confluence of social conditioning, lust, interest in identity and much more.

As much as Delia Brown’s unconsciousness mirrors society, it refuses to offer an implicit, or explicit reconciliation to the manifold conflict of opposites embedded within such content.

Development of the Archetypal Feminine

In the psychological model of Carl Jung, we can theoretically speak of the “anima” and “eros” interchangeably. These terms refer to the functions of the human psyche. Attitudes, values, collections of associations act within an individual’s mind and can be referred to as “images.”

The anima-eros, often appearing with feminine attributes, is responsible for the plethora of internal emotions, feelings of relatedness, as well as the visionary, artistic or aesthetic pleasures. Additionally, the quality of eros, so potent in the archetypal feminine imagery, is that of earthliness, the body and sensuousness.

Jungian psychologists have noted that there are four broad stages to anima, or eros, development. Development of each of these stages is important, so that an individual (or society) doesn’t get stuck on any one stage, but is able to move through the many dimensions consciously.

The first stage is the “erotic phase,” which corresponds to the Bible’s Eve, courtesans of the classical era, and in modernity, strippers and fitness models. The potent sensuality of these people is rooted within the archetypal landscape of the mind. An attraction to imagery, as well as interpersonal encounters, is indicative of an adolescent relationship to the feminine, where libido is limited to the erotic component, ruled by reproductive instincts.

Secondly, there is the “romantic phase,” where increased nuance of emotion is present, but the relationship with the inner image, as well as an actual woman, is still primarily sexual. This corresponds to Shakespeare’s Juliet and fantasies about the romantic lives of celebrity actresses

Thirdly, there is the stage of “love,” which elevates the erotic energy, transforming it into spiritual devotion. This is evident in the adoration of the Virgin Mary as well as the Hindu saint Amma.

Finally, the fourth stage is “wisdom.” This is lesser known, but a potential pinnacle of feminine forces, in which reverence for the unconscious psyche and connectedness with all of humankind and the earth is realized. Embodiments of this stage includes certain Buddhist practitioners, who speak of the “heart” and the connectedness of all life. In the West, the ancient Christian goddess Sophia represented this stage of loving unity.

Generally speaking, when a man's eros is left undeveloped, their outlook on the world is materialistic, dry, hyper-rational and goal-driven. This is the underlying psychological situation responsible for the historical obsession with conquering nature, women’s bodies and, in modernity, is the driving force behind frat, or “bro” culture,  as well as hip-hop and rap culture.

Depending on what stage of the anima-eros an individual or society has been developed, gender roles and expressions of a culture will be effected. (I delve into this deeper in another article) Through examining art, we may each reflect and develop eros, and therefore the archetypal feminine.

Analysis and Possibilities

The worship of Kim Kardashian, the idolization of Cardi B., and the fascination with Instagram models exists in a psychologically adolescent relationship to feminine. Here, beauty and style are paramount. Intellectual audiences, the general public, as well as the performers and models themselves, may oscillate between these different stages depending on who they are engaging with — or rather, which part of themselves they are engaging with projectively.

In contrast to the past, where the erotic feminine body was demonized and shunned, American society today accepts the sexualized models and mega-stars more than ever. [3] The “first stage” may be the predominant trend, with so many powerful women taking the cultural spotlight.

Women who claim their own individuality open avenues and serve as a starting point for variations, and authentic expressions of other stages of anima and eros.

However, there is no cultural monolith in terms of expressions of the feminine, and many of the stages coincide. For example, there is a growing trend which emphasizes individuality and personality in regard to political and social activism.

Additionally, it is vitally important that we as individuals and in the public discussion, examine why men get stuck in the first stage and tend to objectify women. Otherwise, there will only be a stronger repression, resentment and tendency towards backlashes, rather than development and transformation

In the next article in this series on representations of the feminine, the reader will come through the process of how to develop their anima-eros through contemplation of art.


[1] Martha Schwendener, What to See in New York Art Galleries This Week, June 6 2018

[2] Cardi B. interview by Paper Magazine: “Somebody asked me before, when do I feel the most beautiful, and I told them, ‘I feel beautiful when men think that I look beautiful,’ and everybody was upset because they told me that I shouldn't let men make me feel like I'm beautiful. But do you guys want me to lie to you? When a man tells me that I look good and appealing, that's when I feel great. I don't miss dancing but I do miss the fact that when I was performing, I had the richest of the richest men, drug dealers, scammers, doctors, lawyers, oozing for me. They wanted to give me money because I looked good. That's how I know I'm freaking beautiful, because people are paying me because I'm beautiful.”

[3] For more, read "The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine" by Nancy Qualls-Corbett