This story is over 5 years old.


Can't Stand the Heat: Female Artists' Scalding Depictions of Life in the Kitchen

From 19th-century painters to contemporary video artists, women have interpreted their fraught relationship to the quintessential domestic space as everything from empowering to violently oppressive.
Screengrab from "Jeanne Dielman" via YouTube

This post was originally published on Broadly Spain.

The protagonist in the 1968 short Saute ma ville, Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman's first work, hums with careless elegance. From her first moments onscreen, she's clumsy, reckless, and volatile. She begins to boil spaghetti but ultimately does something else: After letting her cat out and sealing her windows and doors, she turns on the gas on her stove and breathes, before her entire kitchen goes up in flames.


Akerman made Saute ma Ville—or Blow Up My Town—when she was 18. That's likely around the time she realized what being a woman meant in the late 60s: knowing how to cook, do the grocery shopping, and be a perfect housewife. The kitchen was a woman's town. Saute ma ville is an openly feminist statement, rebelling against that description, showing the opposite: a woman operating in the kitchen in an unconventional way. In Saute ma ville, Akerman explores the limits of space. She restructures commonplace things and their uses—a constant in her filmography—and turns the kitchen into a space in which to experiment, play, and finally escape. She creates a world apart from the culinary and the domestic.

Read more: How Many Feminist Artists Does It Take to Define Feminist Art?

The kitchen has a fraught relationship with the feminist imagination. In Plath's poem "Lesbos," from her last collection of poems, Ariel, published one year before she sealed her children's bedroom door, turned on her gas stove, and stuck her head in her oven, she refers to a kind of toxic kitchen ("Viciousness in the kitchen!" goes the first line), in which life and death merge in a dangerous and suffocating way:

Meanwhile there's a stink of fat and baby crap
I'm doped and thick from my last sleeping pill
The smog of cooking, the smog of hell
Floats our heads, two venomous opposites
Our bones, our hair.

It is in the kitchen where the protagonist of another Akerman film performs the central action (most of it deliberately anodyne and terribly dull). In the 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the kitchen plays a special role; it is there where the female protagonist, Jeanne Dielman, carries out most of the action. In one scene, she peels potatoes for several consecutive minutes, frustration and boredom visible on her face.


Akerman's posthumous documentary No Home Movie, which was released in 2015, also explores this domestic space. In the film, Akerman and her mother discuss feminism; the conversation, which takes place in the kitchen, occurred just a few months before Akerman's death at age 65. (Like Plath, Akerman also committed suicide.)

Cinema has frequently focused on the domesticity of the kitchen, but not always favorably. American artist Martha Rosler subverted it, in 1975, in her seminal video workSemiotics of the Kitchen. In the performance, she wears an apron as she explains, from A to Z, how to use a series of kitchenware—but assigns each piece awkward, untraditional, often violent uses. Many considered Semiotics of the Kitchen a scathing criticism of the traditional roles played by women in modern society.

Rosler's work is meaningful because it acknowledges the fight for gender equality while also using aspects of domestic life to spread political messages and criticize oppression more broadly. Rosler uses the same cooking-show format in another work, 1977's The East Is Red, The West Is Bending, in which she employs two casseroles to symbolize the cultural transactions between the East and West. Her series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home and particularly the collage Red Stripe Kitchen bring home the connection between the domestic and the political; they were created with images taken from a decoration magazine and photographic archives of the Vietnam War.


But female artists were reclaiming the kitchen as a political symbol long before second-wave feminism began to take root. The German artist Hannah Höch, a pioneer of the Berlin Dada movement, included this domestic space in her 1919 work Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. Using a kitchen knife in a work about the Weimar Republic at the beginning of the 20th century was provocative, especially in a society dominated by men and in which women were supposed to eschew any political awareness.

Even going back to the middle of the 19th century, the kitchen–war pairing appears in 1866's The War Spirit at Home: Celebrating the Victory at Vicksburg by the painter Lilly Martin Spencer. The daughter of two French emigrants, Spencer spent most of her life in Ohio, where she developed her career as a painter mainly inspired by her mother, who sympathized with the ideas of socialist philosopher Charles Fourier (who is widely credited as the person who coin the term feminism in 1837).

Spencer's work is considered feminist for various reasons: First, she highlights the role of the housewife in times of war, representing the home as a comforting space after combat. Second, while Spencer's contemporaries used to include young soldiers in their work, Spencer's work stands out for its total lack of male figures. In The War Spirit at Home, the woman pictured reading the newspaper—a symbol of authority and worldliness—is generally considered to be Spencer herself, and the place is believed to be a representation of her own kitchen.


It makes sense within the framework of such an unorthodox life for that time: Spencer became the main breadwinner of a large family (only seven of her 12 sons survived), and her husband, Benjamin Rush Spencer, who had worked in the sewing business, devoted himself to taking care of their children and their home in order to leverage his wife's artistic career, which was the family's only income. Her works feature realistic and pleasant elements of everyday life, often placed in the kitchen, as in Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses, or Peeling Onions (in which a woman cries as she peels an onion).

"Kiss Me and You'll Kiss the 'Lasses," Lilly Martin Spencer. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Simone de Beauvoir also features kitchen in her feminist manifesto The Second Sex (1949), in the chapter "La femme mariée" ("The Married Woman"). De Beauvoir refers to the concept of the "kitchen–jail": a place that oppresses women and from which women want to escape. She reviews the origin of women's traditional roles from an existentialist perspective; to her, family and private property are to blame for the condition of women, and without a rebellion, women remain absolutely alienated. "Woman is shut up in the kitchen or in a boudoir, and astonishment is expressed when her horizon is limited," she writes. "Her wings are clipped, and it is found deplorable that she cannot fly. Let but the future be opened to her, and she will no longer be compelled to linger in the present."

Read more: The Artist Painting History's Complicated Relationship to the Female Body

In other words, female artists have interpreted women's attachment to—or entrapment in—the kitchen as everything from empowering to violently oppressive. Nowhere is this range of experiences in and relationships to the kitchen demonstrated more vividly than in photographer Carrie Mae Weems's The Kitchen Table Series (1990). Over the course of many photos, all set at the same kitchen table, Weems displays the joys and struggles of womanhood: It is there, in the kitchen, where she meets and flirts with lovers; laughs, cries, and smokes with friends; helps her daughter with homework; puts on makeup; and even bends over backwards in an erotic pose. The series is so powerful because it manages to acknowledge the dual roles the space has played throughout feminist history, a nod to the kitchen a source of life as well as death.