Blindspots in the Male Gaze (Pinboard #1)

Morris Hirshfield The Artist & His Model 1945 (source: artstor)

A nude female model stands atop a trapezoidal bed, which is spread with a coverlet patterned in jewel tones. As she clings to a richly ornamented bedpost, she unveils a body whose blankness contrasts starkly with her densely drawn, fiery red mane of hair. The mustachioed artist looks on, nattily dressed in a deep blue robe. Although he holds his palette in one hand and three brushes in the other, the only canvas in sight is one that has already been painted. It hangs above his head, bearing a scene in which a kidney-shaped cat pursues a butterfly.

The Polish-American artist Morris Hirshfield (1872-1946) completed this work two years after his 1943 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Peyton Boswell, the founder of Art Digest, famously slammed the show, titling his review “The Master of the Two Left Feet,” a dig at Hirshfield, who had run a slipper manufacturing company where left-footed prototypes were used; Boswell points to this fact as the reason that Hirshfield could only paint left feet.  After the Hirshfield debacle, MoMA director Alfred Barr, Jr.  stopped organizing shows for artists like Hirshfield who had never received formal training.

The surreal nakedness of the female model is the most striking element of this painting. Throughout Hirshfield’s work, female bodies appear as gleaming white-pink canvases on which Hirshfield warily paints, going so far as to limn breasts and buttocks but steering clear of vaginas. Hirshfield’s painting thus illustrates an example of the self-limiting male gaze. Hirshfield, either because of a lack of skill or a sense of propriety (or both),  casts a sheepish gaze that seeks nakedness but can’t fully abide its radicalism. Hirshfield both takes advantage of the precedents set by art history, which has permitted male artists access to female bodies for centuries, and balks at this license.

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