Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Francesca Canadé Sautman

Committee Members

Anselmo Di Iorio

Maxime Blanchard

Subject Categories

Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | French and Francophone Language and Literature | Performance Studies | Theatre and Performance Studies


In the 1960s, when Gina Pane and Orlan were trying to gain a foothold in the art world, it was very much a man’s world. This created obstacles for them, yet, at the same time, being relegated to the margins, they were free to experiment and were less visible as objects of the gaze.

The point of departure of my study is the realization that a woman’s body is what most defines her identity (Alcoff, Bordo, Butler, Gonzenbach, Mulvey, Spelman, Suleiman). The female body is the material site from which I discuss how, and to what ends, women avant-garde performance artists have transgressed the body/object prescribed to them. Some of the questions I explore are: What does self-objectification achieve in terms of challenging the idea that a woman is first and foremost an object/body? Why does it disturb and shock the viewer when a woman objectifies/violates her own body? Finally, how does one navigate the charge that body artists who present/expose their bodies are “exhibitionists?”

I explore these questions through analysis of the transgressive body politics of three French women avant-garde artists: Orlan (b. 1947), Deborah De Robertis (b. 1984) and Gina Pane (1939-1990), the latter being the major focus. Each worked in France and contributed to the formation of “l’art corporel” since the 1960s in time-based arts such as dance, theatre, and performance art. I suggest that for these artists, the body functions as an instrument of self- actualization, and as a vehicle for what I call “purposeful provocation,” in which flesh is the idiom of expression. These artists engage purposeful provocation in an attempt to rewrite the past, present, and future, to experience the world out of context, and to create new vistas of experiencing ourselves and the world. Their work thus challenges many of the institutions that are the bedrock of Western society, such as the Church, the State, and the art world. Their persistent chiseling away of dominant narratives elicits reactions at opposite poles of the spectrum, as well as in all the grey areas in between.

Body language, like language itself, is learned through observation and imitation, by watching what bodies express, and, through performance, by recognizing the outcomes that result from the body’s multi-faceted language. We are hardwired to understand and respond to innate body language. In addressing why and how these women artists use their bodies as tools to tell transgressive stories, I draw on my own experiences and insights as a dancer, choreographer, and performance artist. My professional experience of using my body to tell stories and create a space for myself as subject has proven instrumental in analyzing why other women artists choose to use their bodies to express their ideas. I hope thereby to contribute to the conversation on why Pane, Orlan, and De Robertis, among others, use their bodies as tools to produce critical thought, what it meant for them to do so, and, ultimately, how it empowers women.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Tuesday, September 30, 2025

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