By Caitlin Green
The grace of their bodies confronts these political obscenities.
-Nancy Spero 
Nancy Spero’s The Acrobats (Fig. 1) of 1990 is a drawing installation comprised of seven vertical panels of paper. The first five panels consist of repetitive circular imagery that alternates between a female gymnast performing a backflip taken from the pose of an Egyptian acrobat on the temple at Carnak and a pre-Columbian carving of a crouching skeleton with crossed arms. The imagery on the panel second from right includes one of Spero’s most used images, an adaptation of a fifth century BC Greek dildo dancer on a red circular background, identified by the two phallic objects she holds, above a running figure turned away from the viewer. On the final panel is an isolated image of a naked, bound woman. Scholars have interpreted this use of iconography, explaining that “the dildo dancer mocks the phallus, the acrobat denies the mortality of the body, but the body in pain attests to the persistence of the real.”
The literary theoretical discourse of the “carnivalesque” provides an important perspective for examining this iconography as it develops by means of Spero’s particular choices of materials and techniques. The “carnivalesque,” is used by the Russian linguist, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) to describe writing that temporarily de-stabilizes or reverses power structures in the same way that a carnival performance operates. Bakhtin emphasizes that writing should embody the spirit of the carnival using humor, satire, and the grotesque, especially as it has to do with the body and bodily functions. His analysis of the carnivalesque fails to analyze gender difference, however, so feminist theorists such as Mary Russo and Natalie Davis attempt to incorporate issues of gender into Bakhtin’s discourse on the carnival. The current literature on Spero’s oeuvre has not taken account of the theoretical insights of the carnivalesque. Her all-female acrobats flip and soar across the horizontal scrolls in a playful freedom typical of Bakhtin’s carnival, but with a feminist edge, as Spero proposes a liberation speficially for the female body. The juxtaposition of the soaring acrobats alongside imagery that spans cultures and time periods also provides more than just Spero’s personal feminist account. It aims to unite in time and space disparate imagery that not only examines women’s historical experience, but also the way it is shaped by intersectional identities.
Nancy Spero was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1926, then moved to Chicago, Illinois with her family in 1927. In 1949, she earned her BFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, then later that year attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and Atelier Andre Lhôte in Paris. Spero is most known for her Codex Artaud, a series of thirty-seven collages on horizontal strips of paper, produced between 1971-72. Their format, similar to that of a scroll, combined for the first time in her work language with figurative imagery reflecting on her readings by the surrealist poet, Antonin Artaud (1896-1948). During this phase of Spero’s artistic career, Artaud’s writings helped her examine the social role of the artist in bourgeois society. By 1973 however, Spero decided to disengage herself from the writings of Artaud and explore the issue that truly angered her the most—women’s lack of empowerment. At this point, Spero’s work takes a turn to focus entirely on the female body. She states, “what I suppose might be most subversive about the work is what I am trying to say in depicting the female body: that woman is not the ‘other,’ that the female image is universal. And when I show difference, I want to show differences in women, women’s rites of passage, rather than men’s rites of passage.” Most importantly to the progression of her work, she constructs her imagery with the “woman as protagonist: the woman on stage.” While the Codex Artaud provides a conversation between a male avant-garde text and Spero’s imagery, her later works disengage with these texts. In this new body of work, the artist creates her own interrogation of history, using only hieroglyphic imagery and diverse textual references, from a feminist point of view.
Women take a central role in her work from 1973, but usually in addition to an intensive engagement with found texts, as characterized her work since the Codex Artaud. By 1979, Spero permanently left behind her engagement with texts to instead focus on the female figure as a type of hieroglyph where the figure itself becomes a linguistic sign. She states, “I think that if you don’t use the body there is an absence […] the body is a symbol or hieroglyph, in a sense, an extension of language.” This is evident in her work The Acrobats where an all-female cast of bodies becomes the focus of the composition. Her work combines figural imagery throughout the course of time, including Egyptian and Greek imagery in The Acrobats (she also at times incorporates Etruscan and medieval), but with diverse political references, including as the bound woman in the bottom right corner, based on a historic photograph of a Jewish woman. She explains this juxtaposition as “an amalgam pushing the morbid, exasperating, and shocking toward the beautiful.” The Acrobats features a diverse range of feminine experience: some aspirational, like the acrobats, others historical, like the skeleton and Greek figures, while the bound woman refers to more contemporary events and sexual violence. Multiplicity is key in Spero’s work. Her cast of figural imagery attempts to relate to a range of experience.
In The Acrobats, Spero aims to challenge blatant misogynist voices by inserting images of women whose strength, energy, and sexuality interrupt these messages. For example, Spero incorporates the athleticism of the back-flipping acrobats that come from Egyptian imagery who soar across the paper, and the Greek statue who takes off running away from the viewer, into the blank background, toward an unknown destination. In addition, the Greek “dildo dancer” inscribed within a red circle asserts her own sexuality by holding onto two phallic objects aimed at her mouth and genitals. All of these female figures release movement and energy onto the panels, expressing their own agency and independence through their bodies. The inclusion of these women optimistically celebrates female vitality and potential.
Spero alternates the imagery of the acrobats with a pre-Columbian carving of a crouching skeleton. Though a harrowing image, the morbidity of the skeleton is tempered by its placement between the energetic acrobats. Despite the skeleton reminder of mortality, the acrobats’ joy prevails. They offer a celebratory image of woman, even among the darker realities of life. It is unclear where Spero encountered this skeleton image, however the skeleton is likely female since the artist only uses images of women. Though her inclusion of this image might be critiqued as cultural appropriation, she explains that she uses this range of diverse cultures to distance her work from a subjective portrayal of individuality, and instead encapsulate a more universal expression of female experience without borders, co-existing in the same time.
The lone figure of the woman bound by ropes on the far right panel casts an additional unsettling tone, in juxtaposition with the energy, movement, and female agency of the acrobats just to the left of her image. This image was used by Spero beginning in the early 1990s when she created three installations that explored female experience and suffering during World War II. The image is based on an archival photograph of a naked woman, bound by rope, gagged, with a noose hung around her neck. Just below her image, a French caption reads, “Document trouvé sur un membre de la Gestapo,” (“Document found on a member of the Gestapo”). In a 1990 installation at Smith College Museum of Art, Spero paired the image with a poem written by Bertolt Brecht in 1934 titled “The Ballad of Marie Sanders, the Jew’s Whore,” hand-printed along the staircase wall (Fig. 2 and 3). The poem describes a Christian woman who was shamed and tortured for having sexual relations with a Jewish man. The image of the bound woman is then reprinted in The Acrobats as a reminder of the exploitation and oppression of women over time, in this case specifically Jewish women’s experience with violence. The French inscription is included as the only text incorporated in The Acrobats, making clear that this degraded, anonymous woman is a document of a real situation, a woman’s life considered nothing more than a souvenir to the man who carried her image.
Spero’s technical process crosses printing and drawing. In her early work, Spero would hand-paint and collage figures on paper along with bulletin-type letters, but beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, her arthritis became restrictive, so she began to use zinc or magnesium letter-press plates to handprint figures directly onto the paper. By 1981, Spero worked with David Reynolds, a recent graduate of Rutgers University, to make these plates for her works on paper. Reynolds would begin by making a photograph of an image source and Spero would determine if the image should remain half-tone, with standard photographic shades of gray, or be further processed into a strictly linear image. Sometimes, Spero would retouch the image herself with gouche and ink before Reynolds shot the image. This image would then go to a platemaking company in New Jersey where a copy camera would duplicate it either in high contrast or using a smooth range of midtones, as instructed by Spero. The resulting film was then transferred to the zinc or magnesium plate using a photoengraving process, then etched with acid to produce an incised image for printing.
In 1987, Spero described how this new printing process effected the production and outcome of the final image. By using the zinc letter press plates that start from her drawings and appropriations, she states, “I am able to get many variations of imprint. Depending on the pressure of the hand, the angling of the plate, the amount of ink rolled onto the raised image etc., I can repeat and differentiate an image, emphasizing the staccato of the mechanical, varying hand printing directly on the paper itself with collaged hand printed images [….] Gravity and ground plane are referenced or inferred and continuously contravened.” This new application by the pressure of her hand, rather than a printing press, brings these panels closer to the realm of drawing. Like drawing with a pencil using weight applied to the paper, Spero can also use her own physical force to vary the application of the imagery.
This printing method defines in the imagery on the seven panels of The Acrobats. As imagery reproduced from journalistic or documentary sources, it provides the historical “evidence” of violence against women. Spero’s inclusion of these photographic images reinforces their relationship to the “real” and to history as an objective account, rather than the artist’s own subjective narrative. These images reject the purely personalized story often provided in feminist artwork and instead reference a larger historical truth. In some instances, such as the pre-Columbian cartouches and the bound woman, Spero leaves the image in its half-tone state with shades of gray like a photograph. In this way, Spero makes apparent the derivation of these images from a print source, similarly to Warhol’s process of screen-printing photographic images. In other images, such as the acrobats and Greek figures, Spero further processed the images into their essential contours. This process further differentiates these figures from the “real”—from the death associated with the pre-Columbian cartouche and pain associated with the bound woman. Liberated from these ideas, the acrobats and Greek female figures move, bend, and perform sexually explicit gestures.
Also similar to drawing are Spero’s compositional arrangements. Each of the seven scrolls are about 110 by 20 inches, taller than the average viewer’s height. The scroll itself references the long duration of history, as well as the question of who writes history. In this case, the artist rewrites history. The figural imagery in the scrolls takes up a fraction of the paper surface, leaving extensive empty space between figures. Drawing often foregrounds the important relationship between line and unmarked background. In Spero’s installation of scrolls, the relationship of the imagery to the large empty spaces is vital to its interpretation. Negative space allows viewers a space to move between images, contemplating their relationships and connections.
Much of the literature on Nancy Spero examines the iconography of her imagery and its relationship to the text that often accompanies her work. My analysis will delve further into the flipping acrobats as a means to express feminine vitality at a time when the artist was delving further into feminist activism. Spero states,
I’ve described my work as far-out—over the edge, but that can easily reinforce the social exclusion of women, the hysterical woman, the man-woman—a dangerous categorization. I think that my work allows for the ecstatic ritual, the utopian moment, but I have to be very careful that it doesn’t get to the point of unreality. There is, of course, an imagining, a putting-together of disparate cultures in time, but there has to be a certain amount of control amidst the ecstasy of the carnival.
In other words, Spero’s work strikes a balance between the real pain experienced by women and the ideal scenario in which women are liberated from the gender hierarchy in a believable way. Spero’s reference to “the ecstasy of the carnival” is key to positioning her acrobat figures in relation to the theoretical discourse of the “carnivalesque.” Her depiction of female acrobat figures explores the possibilities of a utopian world of gender equality.
Though Medieval in origin, carnivalesque imagery was explored in the late nineteenth century amid the rise of the circus and other forms of public display, for a growing middle class with the time and expendable income to attend such entertainment. Artists such as Honoré Daumier (1808–1879), Georges Seurat (1859–1891), and Edgar Degas (1834–1917) represented this increasingly prominent social event, focusing on the theater, circus, and other forms of public entertainment. The interest in the carnival continued into the first half of the twentieth century, with works by artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and photographer Dmitri Baltermants (1912-1990). Their explorations of the carnival pre-date Spero, yet similarly address Mikhail Bakhtin’s themes of the carnivalesque as a means to investigate social and political issues.
Pablo Picasso used carnival imagery in his “Saltimbanques” series to give a voice to an oppressed social group, while also using the imagery as a type of autobiography. Two prints from the “Saltimbanques” series at the Smith College Museum of Art help to convey his dual interest in the carnivalesque. First, in his Au Cirque (At the Circus) (Fig. 4), Picasso showcases the talents of two female acrobats as they balance on a horse in mid-stride. The figures’ bodies are synchronized, twisting and reaching like dancers in motion. These performers come from an oppressed social class, yet here, if even temporarily, their performance elevates their status as performers of athletic grace among the crowd. Picasso also shows the other side of this scenario, in Les Saltimbanques (Fig. 5), which shows the performers in their daily routine, doing chores and playfully practicing their performance skills. Picasso details a country setting in the open air to suggest their nomadic way of life. In this second example, the artist seems to identify with the melancholy and overlooked humanity of this marginal class of circus performers. The group of figures with their heads looking toward the ground and the sparse landscape with just two bare trees convey their melancholic state. Picasso implicitly equates them to his experience as a neglected underclass artist. In relation to Spero, Picasso’s carnival imagery demonstrates the way the body can be used to show both the ecstatic experience and the melancholic oppression of a marginalized group.
Dmitri Baltermants is more recent artist who captures a moment of carnivalesque imagery in his 1945 photograph Fun Breaks at the Front of the March Toward Berlin (Fig 6). Baltermants was a photojournalist who covered major battles during World War II. His images often display the devastations of war, such as crashing planes, destroyed interiors, dead bodies, and sometimes mourners. Here, the Russian photographer captures a unique moment that displays how the carnivalesque can temporarily suspend even the violence of war. A large war tank rests at the front center of the composition as a male acrobat lifts and suspends a female acrobat on it in mid-air. She gracefully arches her back and hangs over the man’s right arm, while balancing rings on her fingers and toes. A swarm of soldier onlookers are caught in a momentary pause, captivated by the performance. All join together in this collective experience. The acrobats use the war tank as their stage, juxtaposed with the violence of war, as the crowd of men are momentarily diverted from the daily political upheaval. Similarly to the acrobats of Picasso and Spero, the female body captured in Baltermant’s photograph is a contorted spectacle of bodily freedom as well as feminine beauty and sensuality.
Picasso and Baltermants make visible the carnivalesque ideas investigated by the Russian linguist, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) in Rabelais and His World of 1965. In this book, Bakhtin revisits the French Renaissance novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel, written by François Rabelais (c. 1483-94–1553) in the 16th century. Gargantua and Pantagruel tells the story of two giants, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel. This text is written in a satirical tone, often exposing human follies with obscene humor. Bakhtin relates this 16th-century book to his theory of the collective carnivalesque and the grotesque body. Bakhtin’s study of the carnivalesque examines Medieval and Renaissance texts in which “a boundless world of humorous forms and manifestations opposed the official and serious tone of medieval ecclesiastical and feudal culture.” These humorous forms could include clowns, fools, giants, dwarfs, and jugglers, all of which belong to folk carnival culture.
For Bakhtin, the carnival relates to collectivity, in that all are considered equal at the carnival. This collective attitude resurfaces in Spero’s work, where the female body is liberated from restrictive roles and now bursts with energy and movement. Bakhtin states that at the carnival, “they built a second world and a second life outside official-dom, a world in which all medieval people participated more or less.” The carnival is a period of time or a visual space that challenges the existing socioeconomic or political organization. Bakhtin states, “as opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast becoming change, and renewal.” Spero’s acrobats demonstrate the suspended reality Bakhtin describes. These female acrobats contort their bodies into fantastical poses that require extensive strength and agility in defiance of the established gendered norms of femininity. Their poses caught in perpetual motion suggest a challenge to female inferiority, in an imagined liberation from their lack equality in society.
Bakhtin’s notion of the carnival is also connected to the grotesque body. He describes that in grotesque realism, “the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in private, egotistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all people.” Spero’s acrobats describe a similar grotesque realism. By placing her acrobat figures in a circular organization that alternates with the pre-Columbian skeleton, she emphasizes the mortality of the female body, as a universal experience. Bakhtin continues, “the material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people, a people who are continually growing and renewed. This is why all that is bodily becomes grandiose, exaggerated, immeasurable.” Spero’s acrobats are frozen in a moment of strength and grace, and the viewer’s eye follows their circular movement continually, in a cycle of growth and renewal.
The interest in “carnivalesque” imagery in modern art often takes a male perspective, especially in the earlier work of Picasso and other male artists. Nancy Spero’s carnivalesque imagery applies the ideas these artists proposed, such as collectivity and the grotesque body, explicitly to women’s experience. Spero introduces the carnivalesque specifically as a means to undermine gender hierarchy. She provides a feminist angle that explores the carnival as a means not only to experience renewal, but also to confront and undermine the gender hierarchy.
Mary Russo examines the “carnivalesque” through a feminist lens and voices similar concerns as Spero when she describes the dangers of representing woman in the carnivalesque: “there has to be a certain amount of control amidst the ecstasy of the carnival.” Russo explains that “there are especial dangers for women […] within the carnival, though even the double jeopardy that I will describe may suggest an ambivalent redeployment of taboos around the female body as grotesque (the pregnant body, the aging body, the irregular body), and as unruly when set loose in the public sphere.” Spero’s acrobats might be at risk of this “double jeopardy,” where their contorted grotesque bodies might actually be seen as reinforcing their own exceptional status in the public eye, rather than standing for liberation from gender hierarchy. Though contorted, however, Spero’s acrobats are made up of few lines, and their hair has been removed or tucked away. Spero only provides the essential details to inform the viewer that these are women bending into backflips. These figures are not truly grotesque in the sense that Russo describes, relating to taboos surrounding the female body, but rather full of grace and balance, presumably young women enjoying a form of play.
Russo also critiques Bakhtin’s discussion as ignorant of gender politics. She revisits Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque embodied in Crimean terracotta figurines from Kerch of old, pregnant hags. Bakhtin considers their bodies as “deformed flesh with the flesh of new life.” His examination only considers the grotesque body as a site for renewal, or as an unfinished state. As Russo states, however,
For the feminist reader, this image of the pregnant hag is more than ambivalent. It is loaded with all of the connotations of fear and loathing around the biological processes of reproduction and of aging. Bakhtin, like many other social theorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, fails to acknowledge or incorporate the social relations of gender in his semiotic model of the body politic, and thus his notion of the Female Grotesque remains in all directions repressed and underdeveloped.
In The Acrobats, Spero shows female grotesque imagery and references the carnivalesque with a feminist angle missing in Bakhtin’s discussion. While the acrobats serve to underscore Bakhtin’s idea of renewal, shown through their circular arrangement alternating between skeleton cartouches, they also call attention to gendered social relations through their proximity to the lone bound Jewish woman on the bottom right panel. Her pain and strife attest to the historical reality and ongoing violence of women’s experience. The juxtaposition of the liberated acrobats with the bound woman foregrounds, rather than represses, the meaning of gender. Russo also cites Natalie Davis’ “Woman on Top,” which argues that in early modern Europe, the carnival allowed women to “undermine as well as reinforce” the renewal of existing social structures. Davis states:
The image of the disorderly woman did not always function to keep women in their place. On the contrary, it was a multivalent image that could operate, first, to widen behavioral options for women with and even outside marriage, and, second, to sanction riot and political disobedience for both men and women in a society that allowed the lower orders few formal means of protest. Play with the unruly woman is partly a change for temporary release from the traditional and stable hierarchy; but it is also part of the conflict over efforts to change the basic distribution of power within society.
Spero references Davis’ second option for feminine behavior in her all-female cast of carnival imagery. These acrobats work together with the historical image of the bound woman as a form of protest to the gender hierarchy.
As feminist writers such as Russo and Davis re-examine the theory of the carnivalesque through a feminist lens, Spero, applies Bakhtin’s theory of collectivity and the feminist interpretation of the female grotesque in her own carnivalesque imagery in The Acrobats. The joy and liberation found in Spero’s acrobat imagery tempers the female taboos that Bakhtin’s analysis does not fully examine. Key to Spero’s work is the juxtaposition of female liberation with historical reference to the pain and strife associated with intersectional feminine identities. Spero delivers an unsettling reminder of the still-existing gender hierarchy by temporarily inverting it through the freedom of the acrobats soaring across the paper scrolls. Her installation embodies Bakhtin’s spirit of the carnival, with a feminist twist, to reimagine women’s power and the hope for change.
 Carol De Pasquale, “Dialogues with Nancy Spero,” Womanart (Winter 1977): 8-11.
 Jon Bird, Jo Anna Isaak, and Sylvère Lotringer, Nancy Spero (London: Phaidon, 2001), 68.
 M. M. Bakhtin and Pam Morris, The Bakhtin Reader Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, and Voloshinov (Brantford, Ont: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 195.
 Helaine Posner, “Nancy Spero: Radical History Painter,” in After the Revolution, 53.
 Maryann de Julio, “Nancy Spero’s Codex Artaud,” Dalhousie French Studies, vol. 39, 137.
 Jeanne Siegel, “Nancy Spero: Woman as Protagonist, Interview, Arts (September 1987); quoted in Bird, Isaak, and Lotringer, Nancy Spero, 131.
 Christopher Lyon, Nancy Spero: The Work (Munich: Prestel, 2010), 237-38.
 Danielle Dutton, Lisa Pearson, Diana Nemiroff, Luisa Valenzuela, and Nancy Spero, Nancy Spero: Torture of Women (Siglio, 2010), 106.
 Dutton, 107.
 Posner, 66.
 Bird, Isaak, and Lotringer, Nancy Spero, 130.
 Bird, Isaak, and Lotringer, Nancy Spero, 130.
 Posner, 71.
 Lyon, 241.
 Lyon, 241.
 Clara Plasencia. Nancy Spero: Dissidances (Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2008), 158.
 See Rosetta Brooks, “If Walls Could Talk,” and Jon Bird, “Present Imperfect: Word and Image in Nancy Spero’s ‘Scrolls’ of the 1970s,” in OtherWorlds: The Art of Nancy Spero and Kiki Smith; Helaine Posner, “Nancy Spero: Radical History Painter,” in After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art; Deborah Frizzell, “Nancy Spero’s Museum Incursions: Isis on the Threshold,” Woman’s Art Journal 27, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2006), 24–32; and Maryann De Julio, “Nancy Spero’s Codex Artaud,” Dalhousie French Studies, vol. 39/40 (Summer/Fall 1997), 137-150.
 Bird, Isaak, and Lotringer, Nancy Spero, 135.
 Phillip Earenfight, Christine Giviskos, and Fernando Martín Martín. Picasso and the Circus Fin-De-Siècle Paris and the Suite De Saltimbamques (Carlisle, PA; Seattle: Trout Gallery; University of Washington Press, 2011), 8.
 M. M. Bakhtin and Pam Morris. The Bakhtin Reader Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, and Voloshinov (Brantford, Ont: W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2009), 196.
 Bakhtin, 197.
 Bakhtin, 199.
 Bakhtin, 205.
 Bakhtin, 205.
 Bird, Isaak, and Lotringer, Nancy Spero, 135.
 Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2012), 56.
 Russo, 63.
 Natalie Davis, “Woman on Top,” in Society and Culture in early Modern France: Eight Essays, ed. Natalie Zemon Davis (Stanford University Press, 1975), 131.