I like naked ladies. There, I said it. I should qualify that, in the context of this post at least, I’m talking about naked ladies of the painted variety. Oil on canvas makes everything more socially acceptable, no? Take the lovely on the left – Amedeo Modigliani’s Female Nude (1916) – who currently resides on my bedroom wall in print form (and in the Courtauld in her original state). It’s a beautiful painting; one of my favourites, in fact. I love the peaceful look on the woman’s face, and her relaxed posture. The fact that she’s nude is secondary to that air of relaxation, and yet at the same time it’s integral to the painting’s intimacy and naturalness.
It occurred to me recently, while dragging someone round a gallery, that most of the paintings that I pointed out as ‘favourites’ focused upon the female nude as their primary subject. That’s quite a disconcerting conclusion for a female (and feminist) art historian to reach, given the connotations of patriarchal dominance and sexual objectification inherent in the idea of the naked woman painted by the male artist.
Essentially, I’m forced to ask myself: am I condoning the trappings of the ‘male gaze’ by uncritically admiring the female nude or nearly-nude in traditional Western art? Just to give you a flavour (ooooh) of the kind of images I’m talking about, consider a few more of my favourite paintings…
Well, you get the picture (yes, a pun, well spotted). A variety of poses, a variety of expressions – but always the expanse of creamy white flesh, painted by men, for men. And I use the term ‘white’ deliberately, as the intersection of race and the nude in art is a whole ‘nother can of worms, relating to issues of otherness, dominance and cultural subjugation. So for now, I’m dealing with the stereotypical Naked White Lady, parodied effectively by dodgy 1980s sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo as Ze Fallen Madonna With Ze Big Boobies.
Of course, it’s an entirely legitimate approach to analyse the female nude in terms of gender roles and patriarchal traditions in the Western art ‘establishment’. I mentioned the idea of the male gaze: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, it was coined by film historian Laura Mulvey, and refers to the asymmetric power relationship between male viewer and female object, resulting in the female’s loss of autonomy as she becomes defined and understood solely through the male viewer. Without going into a detailed analysis of specific paintings, there is a clear gender inequality between art production and art subject, which has been addressed by contemporary collectives such as the New York-based Guerrilla Girls. The poster below sums up the divide pretty succinctly:
I’m not arguing, therefore, that the trope of the female nude should be regarded uncritically – far from it, in fact. What seems acceptable in art, with its respectable air of history and skill conferred by oil paint, gilt frames and hushed galleries, runs parallel in many ways to contemporary modes of female representation; for example in fashion photography, advertising and music videos. The work of photographers such as David Lachapelle, Terry Richardson or Helmut Newton are regarded today with a similar degree of artistic reverence as Titian or Ingres were by their contemporaries. We’re not talking about the centrefold of Maxim here, but about photography that (according to some) employs the same kind of allusive wit and compositional skill that marked out the great painters of the Western canon. And yet, these photographers (yes, all male) are essentially reproducing the naked female form for the purposes of visual consumption, in a manner that isn’t without its critics. Richardson in particular has been singled out as a perpetrator of offensive objectification and gratuitous sexualisation of his models, and yet is still in demand for magazine editorials and advertising campaigns.
The point that I’m trying to make is that visual objectification of the female form (and its attendant implications of titillation, denied autonomy, commercial exploitation and reinforcement of traditional gender binaries) is a very pertinent issue. It’s one that I’m normally quick to criticise when it’s manifested in popular culture. But for some reason, when it comes to the female nude in art, my instinctive reaction is to admire uncritically. Schiele’s female nudes (one of which is shown above) are a good example of this dichotomy. In the abstract, I know that Schiele was by all accounts a right bastard. The subject of his nudes (when he wasn’t drawing his own penis) was primarily his mistress, Valerie Neuzil. His depictions of her are (I think) detached and emotionless, especially when one considers the nature of their relationship. Time and time again, Neuzil and Schiele’s other models are shown exposed, unashamedly eroticised, and completely subject to his penetrating (yes, penetrating) scrutiny. They become objects, exposed for his and our titillation. Nonetheless, I can’t help admiring them. All my contempt for Schiele the man is suppressed as I appreciate the colouring, the line and the feminine beauty accomplished by Schiele the artist.
With the many faces and bodies of Venus, with Manet’s Olympia, with Goya’s Maja, I admire before I critique. I wonder if I’m responding to some fundamental sense of myself as a woman, recognising my own femininity in other representations. I’m not about to get all pass-the-healing-crystals about this, or start wittering on about ‘inner goddesses’, but I do think that women have a visceral compunction to look at other women, as a kind of self-referential reassurance of their own femininity. That said, I’m not the one who has to hang naked on the wall of a gallery for all and sundry to stare at. Perhaps it’s time to Get Critical.