A Housewife’s Ballet: Kirsten Justesen on Domesticity and Art

Danish artist Kirsten Justesen’s oeuvre highlights her experience navigating her role as a woman and artist. Justesen (b. 1943) explores the links between female identity and gender roles, examining the limits women faced as they fulfilled Western society’s expectations to become housewives and mothers during the 1970s. Themes of freedom and struggle are pronounced in Justesen’s oeuvre. Her works examine how childcare and domestic duties impact the scope for expression. Even Justesen’s studio was positioned between the kitchen and the nursery—an “inspiring threshold” and physical illustration of her blended identity as an artist and a mother.

Image of Kirsten Justesen; Courtesy of Kirsten Justesen

Image of Kirsten Justesen; Courtesy of Kirsten Justesen

As a student at the Royal Danish Art Academy, Justesen helped pioneer the birth of the feminist art movement in Denmark. In 1970, Justesen joined a collective of women artists whose experimental art project, Damebilleder (“Women’s Images”), portrayed women’s role in society “from the beauty parlor to dish-washing.”

The group’s efforts challenged gender perceptions by focusing on female perspective and capturing women’s experiences through art.

Justesen explains, “My generation is brought up with the male gaze, a gaze that still seems synonymous with defining the history of art . . . we want our gaze back in history, to secure diversity.”

On view at NMWA, Justesen’s photograph Lunch for a Landscape (1975) portrays a jubilant, nude Justesen sitting in a shopping cart with her arms raised. Justesen said, “I made this when I was raising two small boys, breastfeeding the baby, and also living as a spouse in a foreign country [Canada]. I describe my life then as a daily ‘housewife ballet.’ Here, a housewife is on her way in the vehicle of her life.” Justesen juxtaposes a celebration of freedom with a traditional symbol of wifely duty—a grocery cart.

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape,1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

Kirsten Justesen, Lunch for a Landscape,1975/2009; Chromogenic print, 48 3/4 x 67 3/4 in; NMWA; Gift of Montana A/S, © Kirsten Justesen

In Justesen’s own words, “through our upbringing we were defined as reproduction tools and were supposed to behave in order to find suitable husbands.” The core of the feminist art movement challenged the marginalization of women and the confines of strict gender roles. Justesen’s Lunch for a Landscape seems to imply that the adoption domestic duties does not mean giving up the desire for freedom. Works like the photograph on view at NMWA provided a voice for Justesen and enabled her to establish herself in the art world.

—Sophia Wu was the winter/spring 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.