Artists have always been intrigued by women at (and on) the edge. William Hunt, of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , fell in love with Annie Miller, a prostitute, after painting her – despite his religious anxiety. Picasso visited brothels from the time he was thirteen and one of his most famous paintings, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, is of five prostitutes. Picasso was also one of several writers and artists – among the others were Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder, and Pablo Gargallo – who were fascinated with the wild and uninhibited Kiki de Montparnasse. She was the woman-as-cello in one of Man Ray's most famous images. Ernest Hemingway and the artist Tsuguharu Foujita wrote introductions to her autobiography. The beautiful Lee Miller (one of her photographs is above) was Man Ray's lover, assistant, and muse. She was a sought-after fashion model until a photograph advertising a menstrual napkin (scandalous at the time) ended her career. Miller was troubled – traumatized by childhood rape – but bold. She arrived uninvited on Man Ray's doorstep to offer herself as his apprentice and left an accomplished photographer herself.
De Montparnasse and Miller were less inhibited, less conformist, and more at ease with themselves than other women of their time. It made them compelling muses for the men who painted, photographed and wrote about them and why we remember them even today.I am no less interested in wild, uninhibited women who live outside the mainstream. The difference is that I'm a woman too, in a time when women with desires can be in control of both their lives and bodies. The women who've modelled for me have come from various backgrounds, a few of them troubled. But their decisions to be porn stars, escorts, bar girls, strippers, or simply to live unfettered by 'straight' conventions, were freely made rather than the result of coercion. None are victims. If they once were, they wrested power from those who oppressed them (men, always men) and now live as they choose. They are refreshingly frank. They have nothing to hide – at least, not from me. They are women who are genuinely uninhibited and sexy. They're playful, curious and open to new ideas. Their emotions – good and bad – are usually at the surface, not suppressed. One model who sat for me had a PhD and worked as a humanitarian. Another was a stay-at-home mother who stripped naked in front of me, not once looking away, just moments after we'd met. Art using uninhibited women isn't always – or even often – about sex. The qualities that make a woman sexually intriguing make her a perfect subject for a portrait. There is something deeper and more confronting in their posture and gaze.Helmut Newton, whose works were inspired by a mid-century view of powerful, sexy (and kinky) women, was also a great portraitist. His work with women who were willing to go further than others allowed him to be bold and original in his photography. I suspect that their openness and willingness helped to develop his ability to push deeper into his subject's psyche.I have yet to see women painted by a woman with the same level of insight. Instead, portraits of women by women are too often glib. 'fan girl' mimickry, like Elizabeth Peyton's substance-lacking daubs. I prefer the bold, bruised paintings of British artist Jenny Saville, who portrays women as slabs of meat, even if her work is about about her own body rather than another woman's, and it fits too neatly with an oppressive view of women as objects to be devoured. Art about strong, uninhibited, unusual women is discomforting, especially when it's created by a woman. Other women and post-feminist men are often unsettled when there is no element of political correctness. It's easy to understand and dismiss a fantasy female figure. After all, these are a staple of pop' culture. But it's more confronting and complicated if porn stars are given heroic, sympathetic dimensions – as in my Big Pin-Ups. The cages of post-feminist professional women are rattled by a series of empowered-but-glamorous Dangerous Career Babes. Or when a female art collector is stripped naked and objectified.I am not an erotic painter. I am a painter of women. I started with self-portraits, exploring my own identity and the roles thrust on me as a woman. Over the years, more and more of my work is about other women. I'm interested in their complexities and contradictions. I'm a feminist, but I hate the dry, mainstream feminist view of how a woman should behave. I'm a modern woman who is open about her sexuality and her sexual experimentation.My first portraits of other women were of them fucking. My early photographic portraits were equally intimate. I was included in many of them. Now, my portraits of other women don't include me. But through prising myself open, seeing other women at their most intimate, and experiencing the responses of other women, I've become more adept at reading them as an artist. I have a better idea of other women's fears, desires, insecurities, internal conflicts and ambitions – the parts of themselves that are very rarely shown to anyone else, not even their lovers or friends. These hidden parts are what I'm interested in capturing in my portraits, whether they're sex workers, TV actresses, housewives, career women or trust fund junkies. Each of my portraits offers an interior glimpse of an individual, but I suspect that, over time, it will be the body of work that is most revealing.