It's All About the Breasts

by Christina Donoghue on 9 April 2024

Breasts, the seminal Venice Biennale exhibition, honours the changing attitude towards breasts across cultures and traditions by reflecting on a range of themes from motherhood, empowerment, sexuality, body image and illness. The mission at large? To promote awareness of breast cancer through art.

Breasts, the seminal Venice Biennale exhibition, honours the changing attitude towards breasts across cultures and traditions by reflecting on a range of themes from motherhood, empowerment, sexuality, body image and illness. The mission at large? To promote awareness of breast cancer through art.

One minute women's body shapes are in fashion, the next, they're out. The Cult of Beauty, a recent show at London gallery The Wellcome Collection, couldn’t have done a better job conveying such impossible beauty standards. But what about when it comes to breasts? Haven’t they been fetishised too? Of course, it's not as simple as boiling down such standards to those two balls of fat plonked on a chest (specifically when you consider how entwined they are with gender politics and identity) but when the British Association of Aesthetic Surgeons reports an increase in 'breast augmentation' by an eye watering 66%, you know there's trouble in paradise.

Whether it's us trying to make our breasts bigger or smaller, perkier or bouncier, such wants and desires are a reflection of what society deems 'hot' or not. Not just objects to be desired, breasts are integral in the story of survival for young babies, however, there's a darker side to the givers of milk that's less appealing, explored by Florence Williams in her book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. Noting they're the most tumour-prone organ in the body, Williams bluntly reveals they 'soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges', marking them as 'bellwethers for the changing health of people'; a stark revelation supported by the reported statistics that one woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every ten minutes. Alas, one new La Biennale di Venezia exhibition Breasts is here to change all that - or at least help promote awareness of the issue - via a presentation of artworks from everyone who is someone: Robert Mapplethorpe to Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois to Anna Weyant and Marcel Duchamp to even erotic furniture designer Allen Jones. Star prize goes to who can guess the subject of each artwork on show.

Artwork by Anna Weyant

'I’ve chosen mainly post-war and contemporary artists who had a very strong message in relation to the theme of the exhibition' curator Carolina Pasti tells me. The exhibition, presented at Palazzo Franchetti during La Biennale di Venezia, not only illustrates how breasts have been understood and represented across various cultures and traditions since the 1500s but also anchors its knowledge in themes including motherhood, empowerment, sexuality, body image and illness. Speaking of her decision to use multiple mediums (including film) to communicate these themes, Pasti noted that when she first started her research, she 'wanted to analyse different media connected to the theme of breasts', deciding to 'include Laure Provoust’s powerful video which adds value to the exhibition by exploring the topic of motherhood and by depicting the stages of human transformation, encouraging viewers to reflect on birth and evolution through immersion in water.'

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #205, from the History Portraits series, 1989, Skarstedt Collection

Breasts comprises five rooms in total, of which selective artists have been grouped to reflect each tackled subject. 'The initial space focuses on historical representations of breasts within a religious framework' notes Pasti, 'exploring how artists reference and reinterpret these earlier works. It delves into the iconography of the Madonna del Latte, which influenced Cindy Sherman's 'History Portraits', she concludes. This space also additionally counts on the work of artists Richard Dupont, Teniqua Clementine Crawford and Sherrie Levine. Secondly, there's 'Breasts as an inspiration for sculptural practices', which looks to the mixed-media artwork of Marcel Duchamp, Claude Lalanne, Prune Nourry and of course, none other than design provocateur Allen Jones. 'How breasts have been employed as a commercial device in marketing and advertising' takes centre stage in the next room through the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and Irving Penn, both masters of unconventional and symbolic representations of the body that have moved well beyond traditional and literal depictions. Themes fragmentation, abstraction and deconstruction are explored in the fourth room which houses the work of Chloe Wise, Sarah Lucas, Louise Bourgeois and Aurora Pellizzi, all of whom are contributors to a wider conversation regarding identity, consumer culture, and the evolving representation of breasts in art. And then you have the final room, which is where you'll find Provoust's aforementioned Four For See Beauties. Shot in 2022, this fifteen-minute film harks back to the pre-linguistic beginnings of human life, documenting a time of metamorphosis, through the lens of three women, the artist’s newborn child and an array of sea creatures.

Artwork by Louise Bourgeois

Guided by the knowledge of this year's Venice Biennale rooted in the theme of 'Foreigners Everywhere', I was curious to see how Breasts fitted in with stories of migration, race and identity so prevalent at many other pavilions and in exhibitions. 'The show examines many topical themes such as motherhood, breastfeeding and breast cancer awareness, from a female and male perspective', Pasti states. 'It's connected to the Biennale with an idea of inclusion and diversity within the artists I present'. And the pieces she's most excited about? 'Teniqua Crawford and Issa Salliander' she asserts. 'They have created two entirely new pieces for this exhibit which I'm excited to present against the backdrop of works by comparative 20th-century masters'.

Artwork by Salvador Dali
Nobuyoshi Araki, 67 Shooting Back (GDN125), 2007, Vintage Cibachrome Print © Nobuyoshi Araki, Courtesy of Hamiltons Gallery
Artwork by Robert Mapplethorpe
'Soccer' by Chloe Wise, 2024
© Jacques Sonck I Courtesy Gallery FIFTY ONE - Untitled, Ghent, 1987



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