Elaine d'Esterre

Feminist Visual Artist – Paintings, Mixed Media and Etchings


Women’s History, Influential ” inVisible Women “

Some images from prehistory have influenced many artists throughout the course of the 20th century, many of which can be found in the new book titled Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet.

Some of my earlier work from the 1970s to the 90s was influenced by Tassili rock art.

Tassili wall painting

Female Entity 2, 1980, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastel 40x28 cm. Permission of the collector.

Female Entity 2, 1980, gouache, ink, charcoal, pastel. Permission of the collector 40×28 cm

Goddess Head, 1992, 24x34 cm print, 34x68 cm paper, relief and intaglio.

Goddess Head, 1992, relief and intaglio 24×34 cm print, 34×68 cm paper

Later aspects of the Minoan Bronze Age and Ancient Greek myth influenced me because these legends were on the fringe of history and prehistory. The imagery on the excavated art, sculpture, artifacts and architecture were witness to cultural and social upheaval. However in Minoan figurines were displayed positive depictions of women often depicted in rituals and social interaction. They were not confined to domestic spheres.

Illustrations by Judy Foster, from Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six million years of war, sourced from Baring and Cashford (1991)

Neolithic Minoan Crete: Knossos. Archaeological finds at the complex at Knossos 6km from Heraklion.
Illustrations by Judy Foster, sourced from Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six million years of war.

These sensitively depicted drawings by Judy Foster are interesting because they show that in Crete styles of sculpture appeared to change over time. Figures 1 and 2 are dated approx. 4500 BC. The Neolithic style of imagery, theriomorphic and stylised meant that it referred to all women. Where as figures 3 and 4, dated approx. 1600 BC depict a particular person. Generally art of the Neolithic has an abstract character compared with that of Minoan Crete where naturalism came to the fore, The type of activity, style of dress details, attributes and emblems were rendered carefully. In comparison figures 1 and 2 are static, that is the body and head morph and distort into aspects of a snake, bird and column. However the later representations that also refer to animals show depictions of real figures and real animals. Instead of a columnar shaped head and neck in figure 1 the image, that is figure 3, of what is thought to be a priestess has a column shaped headdress.
What these four figures have in common is complex symbolism, aspects of which are explored in this book.

The symbolism and meaning became a poetic source incorporated into my imagery as I aimed to combine Minoan symbolism with European oil painting. I visited Crete to aid to my research in 1993.

The Eye Ritual, diptych, 1995 - 1996,  oil on canvas 92x120 cm

The Eye Ritual, diptych, 1995 – 1996, oil on canvas 92×120 cm

My imagery during the last ten years developed and changed, the symbolism remained but functioned as a form of disguised symbolism. This enabled me to use the paint in a freer mode where its organic texture combined with abstract shapes. The image below is from a series titled Eye and Site 3.

Reaching the Image, 2011, gouache.

Reaching the Image, 2011, gouache 50×70 cm

The painting titled Recall, 2008, is from a series titled Eye and Site 2.

Recall, 2008, oil on canvas 82x120 cm

Recall, 2008, oil on canvas 82×120 cm


Women’s History, Invisible Women

Recently I read a book titled Invisible Women Of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet . Both the text and drawn illustration were made clear by accompanying charts, classifications and time lines. The author/artist Judy Foster drew clear, concise and instructive drawings.

Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of War by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet. Spinifex Press.

Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet. Spinifex Press. (front).

Invisible Women of Prehistory, three million years of peace, six thousand years of war by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet. Spinifex Press, (back).

Invisible Women of Prehistory: three million years of peace, six thousand years of war by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet. Spinifex Press, (back).

The authors give the reader an encyclopaedic overview of the many archaeological finds in the form of sculptures and imagery found on artifacts, figurines, ceramics, tools and on walls of  prehistoric sites where female imagery is predominant. Throughout this world-wide survey the authors argue that society and civilisation were more gender balanced and that women invented agriculture, pottery, writing, and textiles in prehistory, were not war-like and that this was a universal phenomenon. However this benign situation changed when Indo-European invaders ushered in a different type of ‘civilisation’.

Europe during this time span was not the only site of excavation where this imagery was found. So it can now not be seen as an anomaly. Scenes of physical and psychological violence were generally absent and women’s status appeared to be higher than that at present. They challenge the academic resistance to the work of archaeologist  Marija Gimbutas.  Also challenged are ideas that the system we now live in  has progressed from a past seen to be violent and brutal  to the peaceful present.

Many contemporary artists, from the 1960s onward, (influenced by aspects of these theories,  accompanying images of archaeological sites and imagery found in and around the sites and excavations), sought different ways to subvert and go beyond some art historical sexist depiction as well as some contemporary imagery.

On another level I thought significance also lay in challenging the perception of woman as minority which can lead to attitudes where Women’s rights are sometimes not understood as Human rights.  In this way perceptions of the past can have ramifications for the present. As an artist I try to understand and explore origins and meanings encoded in imagery whether they relate to figure or landscape and this book will be a very handy reference.