Nancy Spero Depicted Sexual Violence in an Era When the Subject Was Unspeakable

Cover of Nancy Princenthal's book Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, 2019. Courtesy Thames & Hudson.


In her new book Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, out this week from Thames & Hudson, A.i.A.contributing editor Nancy Princenthal explores the ways in which formal experimentation and activism collided in the work of early feminist and performance artists, among them Ana Mendieta, Yoko Ono, Suzanne Lacy, Adrian Piper, and Nancy Spero. As Princenthal outlines, the body-based practices of the ‘70s emerged in the midst of an “epidemic” of sexual assault that was, nevertheless, rarely acknowledged in public. At a time when rape was still considered an “unspeakable” subject, artists, she argues, were instrumental in finding a language with which women could express not only the brutality of sexual violence, but also their experiences of trauma and violation. In the following excerpt, Princenthal discusses two series by Nancy Spero that point to the pervasiveness of misogynistic violence across human history, linking descriptions of contemporary crimes against women—drawing on reports from human rights agencies like Amnesty International—to representations of the feminine in ancient myths. —Eds.

What does rape look like? How can it be differentiated visually from an act of consensual sex? These questions pertain with special force to graphic imagery. As feminist scholar Sharon Marcus observes, the ambiguity of rape imagery can be seen to parallel the difficulties of adjudicating rape charges, so many of which require us to determine intentions—states of mind— that are invisible. The question is whether rape can be pictured—in paintings, say, or photographs—without being a form of involuntary and unwanted exposure, hence of harm. In the early 1970s, nothing caused greater rancor and divisiveness than graphic imagery of sexual violation, and specifically anything that could be deemed pornography, which is itself notoriously difficult to define.

Among the few feminist artists who represented sexual violence pictorially in the 1970s, Nancy Spero stands alone for the scalding force of her text-and-image-based work on paper. The brutalization that is described in its texts is accompanied by depictions of female subjects that are fragile, fragmented, cipher-like, and nonetheless titanically powerful. Choosing pictures over performance, Spero aimed to rewrite the script for visualizations of rape. And while no one would call her a pornographer, she engaged obscenity, in its range and depth, with unparalleled ferocity.

With her series Torture of Women (1974–76) and Notes in Time (1976–79), Spero took on the representation of violence against women with rare commitment and unequaled passion. And, exceptionally, she shifted attention from the experiences of women in wealthy democracies to those suffering under military dictatorships. These graphic friezes, the first 125 feet wide and the second nearly a hundred feet wider, are addressed to all manner of female subjugation—and, in some passages, triumph. Hand-drawn, stamped, printed (using handmade wooden type and also zinc plates), typed (mostly on a Bulletin typewriter, which has a sternly official-looking sans serif font), and collaged, the text and imagery in these works is almost entirely borrowed, from sources spanning millennia. But Spero’s language is unmistakably her own. Often, written and pictorial material intermingles; even when wordless, the work is read as much as seen. Its visual elements are generally small and dispersed, rebus-like, across unfurled scrolls of papers glued end to end. In some places blocks of text float on empty ground; elsewhere, repeated typewritten characters frame the imagery.

Many figures recur, among them a sun goddess of Spero’s invention that draws from the Egyptian goddess Nut and the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus. Her body is bent into a squared arch supported by long, thin arms and legs, and spanned by a torso from which four small breasts hang; she has an oddly protuberant skull and a small mouth opened wide, as if for shouting, or howling. Other recurring figures include Artemis—shown with her hand on the head of a doe, from a drawing Spero made of a statue in the Louvre—and various chimerical figures, among them female-headed snakes and women who are also insects or birds. Featured often is Sheela na Gig, a squat, pugnacious ancient Celtic figure, big-headed and earless; sitting on her haunches, she uses her hands to spread her giant vulva, with which it seems she means to devour us. Otherwise generally lean, even skeletal, and often a little blurred or slightly misprinted— unevenly inked, deliberately misregistered—these various personages are highly active: lithe, springy, unmoored in space, they dance irrepressibly across the long scrolls and also from one work to the next.

The textual material, on the other hand, is heavy and dark as pitch. Torture in Chile (1974), a prologue of sorts to Torture of Women, is a two-panel work of relatively modest dimensions. In cut-and-pasted hand-painted letters, the explosive, all-caps text reads: TORTURE IN CHILE WOMEN REACHING THE BUEN PASTOR JAIL HAVE BEEN SUBJECTED TO THE MOST BRUTAL TORTURES LIVE MICE AND INSECTS INTRODUCED INTO VAGINAS HAIR PULLED OUT BY THE HANDFULS NIPPLES BLOWN OFF OR BURNT GENITALS DESTROYED BY ELECTRICITY. Taken from a 1974 article in USLA Reporter, a publication of the US Committee for Justice to Latin American Political Prisoners, this blared text is an electrifying warning of the information to follow. Torture of Women, the sequel, relies heavily on an Amnesty International “Report on Torture” of 1975, which contains case histories of victims of physical and psychological brutalization by agents of several dictatorships (including those in Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay); many of the women described in the report were sexually violated. We read that Marta Neira, for instance, “a 29-yr old model, was arrested by DINA, Chile’s brutal secret police—her nose broken, body covered in welts, she’d been subjected to electric shocks and to sexual abuse.” There are also accounts from the New York Times and the Nation of victims in Vietnam and Iran, as well as excerpts from the writings of Antonin Artaud, which Spero had used for an extensive body of previous work. Torture of Women announces itself in big canary-yellow letters as an “Explicit Explanation,” and indeed it is that.

It also calls attention to atrocities woven into foundational religious narratives from around the world, as in a Babylonian creation myth featuring Marduk, a sun god, and Tiamat, mother of all things. In big, formal type, we read, “marduk caught tiamat in his net and drove the winds which he had with him into her body and whilst her belly was thus distended he thrust his spear into her and stabbed her to the heart and cut through her bowel and crushed her skull with his club. on her body he took his stand and with his knife he split it like a flat fish into halves and of one of these he made a covering for the heavens.” By way of terminal punctuation, Spero has drawn a small image in which human testicles become leering eyes atop a dangling penis that opens, at its head, to a maniacal, toothy grin. In a 1983 statement, she explained that this ancient Sumerian myth, which dates from 5000 BCE, “tells what must have already been the timeless fear, hatred of and cruelty directed towards women,” a cruelty seemingly absolved by the idealization of Tiamat as the sky.” That “seemingly” shadows the small figures which, stamped and outlined, drift and soar above the text, sketchy, almost incidental.

When Spero began Notes in Time, which followed Torture of Women (initially, it was meant to be part of it), it was as an effort to expand the subject’s emotional range and reach toward jubilation. “The history of women I envision is neither linear nor sequential,” she told art historian Jo Anna Isaak, citing the rhythmic repetitions in Gertrude Stein’s writing and Stein’s formulation of a “continuous present.” Spero also relished the exclamatory writing of the influential French feminist Hélène Cixous, and in particular her 1976 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa.” (“Write your self. Your body must be heard,” Cixous proclaimed. “Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts!” And, of Medusa, “she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”) Among the celebrants that Spero depicted is the spry Greek baubon dancer, who wields a giant double-headed dildo.  Also in Notes in Time are the voices of such powerful icons of resistance as Sojourner Truth, along with a female martyr of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and a feminized fighter for the Irish Republican Army. “I wanted to show difference amongst women, not similarity,” Spero said.

But for all her efforts to express a range of experience, and despite the many athletic woman leaping across yards of paper, and also across historical epochs, Spero found her research tended to lead in a single direction: “It turned out to be about all the misogynous, really denigrating things philosophers, mostly men, had said about women’s situation through the ages up to the present,” she said. Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida are among the several luminaries dimmed by verbatim evidence of their sexism. Spero couldn’t help focusing on ferocious abuse at the expense of joyful triumph. (And her testimony’s relevance is grimly enduring. A central panel of Notes in Time refers to tortures that include an explicit description of waterboarding.) Among the harrowing bodily assaults, sexual violence is often represented as the most painful. One passage, in Bulletin type, reads, “The physical torture—the interrogation, during which [Inês] Romeu was naked, the blows to the face, to the stomach, the electric shocks over her entire body, even in her vagina—hurt physically, but she did not feel humiliated . . . until she was raped. Then she knew the feeling of being an object in the hands of a disgusting executioner who was taking advantage of a female body, who used Ines in any way he wished” (ellipses in artwork). Said Spero, “I document how men (mostly) regard these crimes of rape and violation, how the victim herself is considered guilty, not the perpetrator. Unhappily in many cases this is considered normal male behavior.”

As several commentators note with respect to Spero’s work, violation is always at issue for victims of torture, even when forcible sex isn’t part of the proceedings. But more often than not, especially with women, it is. Writes art historian Diana Nemiroff, “The methods used to torture women are largely the same as those used on men, but they can have different meanings and consequences. . . .For both men and women, the face and genitals—the site of personal identity and the link with future generations—are special targets, but for women rape is always central.” As human rights lawyer and activist Lisa Kois puts it, “The female body in the torture chamber epitomizes the female body as it exists anywhere outside the room. It is sexualized, objectified, commodified.” Moreover, the women who survive are often stigmatized by the rapes—and, if they become pregnant, further castigated for producing illegitimate offspring. Of course, the meaning of sexual assault shifts from one woman, and community, to the next, and from one act or set of conditions to another. It cannot be said that every woman made to undergo excruciating and extended pain will feel that rape is the worst of it. But it can be argued that rape is the underlying principle: the violation, the seizure of and penetration of a body to achieve the sense of its annihilation.

The difficulties this body of work presents to viewers are manifold: the text is alternately bogglingly dense or jumpy and broken up, and the type varies widely in font and size, while the imagery is sometimes fragmentary or faint. Its skittering, drifting movements deflect attention. Historical references tease; sources are tricky to identify. In a monograph on Spero, Christopher Lyon finds among sources for Torture of Women and Notes in Time the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery, probably of the eleventh century, that is essentially a pictorial history of events culminating in bloody battle—and, at 225 feet long, comparable to Spero’s scrolls in size as well as scope. Nemiroff notes that the phrase “Explicit Explanation,” which introduces Spero’s Torture of Women, refers to the Commentary on the Apocalypse compiled in the eighth century by the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana; it depicts the end of the world and the Last Judgment in images and text (for Beatus, “Explicit” meant “Here finishes”).

But Spero hardly restricted herself to such hoary source material; her indiscriminate rummaging in the archives of world art was a point of pride: no era or culture has lacked images of women in extremis. Referring to a work called The Monsters, she wrote, “I got that image of the woman with her hands near her crotch from a pornographic magazine, and these monstrous headless torsos are from some book on ancient civilizations.” Of course, beyond its visual and textual challenges, and the puzzles of its source material, this body of work is hard to look at because of its unsparing descriptions of savage and prolonged bodily harm, particularly in Torture of Women but also in parts of Notes in Time. Yet, a final paradox, the size of these works makes it hard to look away. There is nowhere to turn; and we are under an onerous moral obligation: to read it all, to see everything.

As old as history, torture is forbidden by international law and convention; while it was once a kind of political theater and conducted openly, it is now inflicted mostly in secret. But if not meant to be seen, it is surely intended to loom in its targets’—and in everyone else’s— imagination. “The tortured have become the disappeared,” Nemiroff writes, adding, “How to make the obscenity of torture visible without becoming obscene is the paradox Spero must address.” Concerning this difficulty, Sylvère Lotringer offers, “Nancy Spero always makes sure that her victims are never presented as objects of pity or fear”; they are “impervious to the facile display of feelings.” Instead of easy emotionalism, we are given facts, an “explicit explanation.” Reviewing Torture of Women, Lucy Lippard called Spero, memorably, a “secretary to the apocalypse.”

Arguably, though, she is more priestess than curate. And while unmasking the hidden and giving voice to those who have been silenced, she forces their conditions—of muteness and shame—inside her viewers’ heads. Taunting us to look away, then offering no choice but to strain to see and read, at length and with close attention, she leads us toward an experience of coercion, even violation—a minute titration of the subjects’ experience. Perhaps we take up the challenge of engaging with Spero’s work to test ourselves. (What physical offenses would we survive? When would we break, whom betray?) Optimally, we may be urged to political action; surely also to feel grateful for being safe. At the very least, Torture of Women, Notes in Time, and related works make us consider the enormous expressive power of hidden crimes, of their pervasiveness in the collective imagination. And if many forms of torture are devised to leave minimal traces (beating on parts of the body that cause no scars, or that aren’t generally seen), rape is the ultimate disappearing act.


Excerpted from Unspeakable Acts: Women, Art, and Sexual Violence in the 1970s, by Nancy Princenthal

© 2019 Thames & Hudson Inc

Reproduced by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc,