The esteemed and provocative art critic John Berger passed away yesterday, much to my utter devastation. His book Ways of Seeing along with the four part BBC documentary of which it was inspired are considered to be of the most important works in understanding how to look at a work of art. Ways of Seeing does an excellent job in condensing, simplifying, and building upon Walter Benjamin‘s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and the role photography and advertising has played in the evolution of traditional art mediums. One aspect which really resonated with me, was his dissection of the historical depiction of women. Through movements such as #FreeTheNipple and others like it, the frustration of the over-sexualization of women’s bodies is no secret. I want to pay a provocative homage to my homie Berger and explore this topic from an art history perspective, supplemented with a little bit of philosophy for those truly interested.
NAKED VS. NUDE
In art, and perhaps even in provocative selfies, there is an enormous difference between being nude and being naked which typically depends upon the eye contact, energy level and positioning of the subject. The Pudica (modesty) pose, seen here in a sculpture entitled Aphrodite of Knidos created in the 4th century C.E., is used in Greek sculptures to depict nude female figures either standing or reclining. It’s used many times to show this moment, when Aphrodite is about to enter a bath. The viewer is meant to feel as though they accidentally happened upon her, so she covers her genital area and raises her other hand to cover her breast, but hasn’t quite yet. This pose suggests that she is startled but most importantly, she is looking away in embarrassment. The pleasure of seeing her naked body is known so she looks away languidly to allow the viewer to continue to see her, trapped between the moment of fully clothing herself and being completely naked: therefore she is nude. The lack of media during this time would mean that baths were the only possible opportunity for a single man to see a naked woman, but even still it was extremely rare to actually experience this in real life. This pose disassociates the viewer from any feelings of guilt from intruding upon the woman’s privacy and replaces it with a feeling of power over the situation.
Greek sculptures were highly idealized, meaning that this was actually their idea of a perfect woman. Idealization also took place in the creation of sculptures of men and it may also be of interest to note that homosexual relationships between a younger man (an object of admiration seeking education) and an older man (a wise man seeking pleasure and passion) were seen as a more ideal love than that between a man and a woman at this time. In many ways this illustrates the power dynamic that is meant to be established between the viewer and nude female subjects. This dynamic is written about in Plato’s Symposium in reference to the relationship between Alcibiades and Socrates and Socrate’s Nicomachean Ethics in the 8th book in reference to a friendship based upon goodness- cue the Socrates reference in Sweatpants by Childish Gambino.
This pose is referenced countless times throughout art history, but evolves slightly depending upon the fantasies of the artist or patron, to which the female is then styled accordingly. Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus (Painted in the mid 1480’s – Venus aka. Rome’s Aphrodite) shows this evolution quite well. A quick survey of the female figures in his artworks show that he certainly had an affinity towards redheads. Venus’ flowing red hair placed in the hand near her genitals was meant to suggest pubic hair without outright showing it, because it was a taboo sign of female sexual passion. Similar to Aphrodite grabbing her clothes next to her, about to get dressed again after being seen by the viewer to preserve her innocence, the figure to the right is rushing to cover the freshly born Venus for the same purpose.
As posing started to become more dynamic, painting techniques developed to become more realistic and biblical subjects replaced mythological ones, the modesty pose again adapted into suit the artist’s perspective. Above are two paintings of the story of Susanna and The Elders in which two elders attempt to rape Susanna as she is bathing in her garden, they then blackmail her when she resists by threatening to accuse her of meeting a secret lover in a time when adultery was punishable by being stoned to death. What you might immediately be able to notice is the difference in Susanna’s discomfort level. The painting on the left takes on the traditional elements of the modesty pose in which Susanna is actively more concerned with “being caught” so she tries to covers herself and protect her innocence above all else. Neither her gaze nor her expression convey the reality of her situation and both of her breasts are exposed directly towards the viewer. On the right, Susanna’s expression is quite uncomfortable and scared, she uses both hands to push the elders away. Despite having less cloth covering her body, the artist represents her with a more active and powerful position within the painting. She is more actively concerned with the fact that she is about to be raped and is taking more logical measures to ensure her safety. The painting on the left was painted from 1620-1625 by male artist Guido Reni and the painting on the right was painted by female artist Artemisia Gentileschi in 1610.
Jumping forward many years, Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) by Gustav Klimt displays the difference between nudity and nakedness in a more pronounced manner. Holofernes, an Assyrian general set to destroy Judith’s village, is seduced by Judith who enters his tent late at night. Soon after, he passes out after drinking too much, and she takes the opportunity to behead him. Klimt deliberately shifts the focus away from the biblical story behind the painting to instead emphasize Judith’s courage and control over her own sexuality. Unlike the unenthusiastic women like Aphrodite and Venus, Judith appears to be in a state of complete ecstasy after the rush of beheading her enemy Holofernes, alluding to the intense psychological threat women pose to men. She stands strongly, with her shoulders back and breasts confidently exposed. Her nose is turned upward and she looks down to directly confront the viewer, whom is expected to be at a lower position than her. Another powerful, intense and violent rendition of this biblical story was also done by Gentileschi.
THE VIEWER’S POSITION
Today, this concept regarding the viewer’s gender is more commonly referred to as the Male Gaze, which is examined in depth in Chapter Two of Ways of Seeing, but at the time of writing the term had not yet been coined. The Male Gaze puts a name to the gendered perspective a viewer takes on when viewing a work of art or film. Obviously both women and men can view these artworks, but all artworks thus far, aside from Gentileschi’s and Klimt’s, were meant specifically for the viewing pleasure of a male audience and guilt is mitigated by means of avoided eye contact.
The cubist work of art by Pablo Picasso entitled “Les Demoiselles D’Avingnon” depicts five prostitutes at a brothel presenting themselves and is unquestioningly revered for it’s aesthetic value but dismissed in most conversations about sexism in art for the same reason. When you take a look as some of the formative sketches made by Picasso for this artwork, certain elements are brought to light. Originally, a doctor (left) and a sailor (right) were meant to be depicted as well. Sailors typically represent horniness, and the doctor’s presence was meant to indicate that the women were dirty and unsanitary. The hands you can actually see in the painting are tinged with a brown color to communicate this without the presence of the doctor. The woman squatting on the right side of the canvas is turned around to have her genitals fully exposed to us, eliminating the need to depict the sailor to communicate blatant horniness. The figures open curtains to further underline the fact that this is meant to be an erotic private show. Elements of the modesty pose can be seen, especially in the second figure from the left, however, they are again modified to suit the fantasy of the artist, this time to fully expose her breasts and genitals. Picasso further blurs the lines between nakedness and nudity, by portraying some figures provocatively making eye contact with the viewer, and others who coyly look away. This artwork is further examined by Carol Duncan in her essay The Modern Art Museum: It’s a Man’s World.
WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
Initially it was infuriating to realize the images of women depicted by men have largely been idealized to create standards which feed their own viewing pleasure and sexual desires, often without the consideration or involvement of actual women. Prostitutes, harems and odalisques (much respect to them) are a very common motif throughout art history and the subjects of a large number paintings by numerous male artists but I’m not aware if the names of any of those women are known. When you actually sit and ponder this for a moment, is it just me or is really sad? This says to me that society believes it’s totally permissible for a man to visit a brothel, but it’s not okay for a woman to be actually be a prostitute so her existence isn’t worth noting, even though she inspired the artist.
Even more upsetting, a woman’s welcoming, caring and kind disposition toward a man (or in the case of a prostitute, toward her clients) often results in obsessive behaviors from the less severe, such as painting multiple masterpieces in dedication, to the extreme, such as Van Gogh cutting off his ear then for whatever reason sending it to his favorite prostitute. Women can pose an intense psychological threat to some men, and slowly I see a trend toward both genders meeting within the minds to recognize and address this. Some may wrongly see this as women being too agressive or men becoming too soft, but this is an expected response of those who aren’t aware of the historical context in which these conditions have arisen.
I have to say I almost felt flattered by the great lengths some men have gone to try manipulate the way women see themselves, especially in advertising today. Then I immediately remembered that not all women have taken the time to dissect and examine the true origins of their own unwarranted feelings of inadequacy. I’m reminded of how truly damaging this imagery has become as even some women impose these man-made expectations on other women. In any case, I really can’t thank you enough for sticking though this long post! Leave me a comment or send me an email to share your opinion!