Category Archives: Academy

Image Blog Entry #2: Photography as Double Agent

Thomas Eakins African-American Girl Nude Reclining on a Couch ca. 1880

In this gelatin silver print taken in 1880 by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), a young African American girl poses nude on a divan. She props her head up on her elbow, a pose that both enables her to gaze directly at the viewer and exposes her tiny, prepubescent body, which occupies so little space on the couch. Her pose also creates a curve that complements the shape of the couch—where it dips, her buttocks pops. Her stare is direct but also glazed, as if indicating that holding this pose, which puts her folded right arm at a very odd angle and foreshortens her neck, is producing strain and discomfort. The contrast of her unblemished skin and the busy pattern of the couch upholstery heightens the intensity of her nakedness.

Even to my modern eyes, which are less sensitive to nudity than a 19th-century spectators would have been, this photograph is disturbing. It is, for instance, not the kind of image I want to have open on my computer when other people can see my screen. Even in the privacy of my own office, I feel discomfited when looking at the image, as though I am doing something illicit—specifically, looking at child pornography. Upon reflection, I think I feel this way for many reasons: because the girl is so young; because she looks so vulnerable; because she is black; because I am white; because I know that Thomas Eakins, the artist who staged and took the photograph, was much older, male and white.

We know Eakins to have been an iconoclast with positions on sexuality that got him into hot water. Eakins had an illustrious academic pedigree, training in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme and serving of the director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when he returned to the States, but he was fired in 1886 after he allowed coed attendance to nude modeling classes. Regardless of Eakins’s own sexual orientation, which has been put under the magnifying glass by biographers like William S. McFeeley, his many paintings and photographs of naked young men in the studio or loitering on rocks and leaping into swimming holes have been read in the context of homosexuality in recent shows like the controversial Hide/Seek. Despite, or perhaps because of his unorthodox deviations from the norms of American academic painting, Eakins was really the first 19th century American painter to get hagiographic treatment in the 20th-century, with Whitney curator Lloyd Goodrich publishing a two-volume work on Eakins in 1933 (a project that was initially bankrolled by Goodrich’s friend and Eakins enthusiast Reginald Marsh).

Eakins was also one of the first American artists to integrate photography into his repertoire. By the 1880s, Eakins had begun working with a wooden view camera using  the platinum print process to create photographs like African-American Girl Nude Reclining on a Couch. Using his students at the Pennsylvania Academy as models, Eakins composed a compendium of figure studies, taken of subjects both in costume and in the nude.  Just as Louis Agassiz commissioned his slave daguerreotypes in the service of science, Eakins photographed nude youths in his academy studio in the name of art.

Nude African-American Girl on a Couch was thus part of a larger project to capture and study the human body, but as we have discussed in relation to Aleta Ringlero’s study of  photographs of Native American women, scientifically motivated  19th-century photographs had crossover potential as pornographic pleasure objects. Ringlero argues that in the photographs of Will Soule and others, naked Native American subjects exhibit a vocabulary of poses that are inspired by the tradition of the nude in Western art, which were presumably designed and imposed by the photographer. The manner in which the nude African American girl in Eakin’s photograph is splayed before the viewer is likewise reminiscent of the classic Odalisque, only unlike Titian’s Venus  or Manet’s Olympia Eakins’s girl is exposed to the maximum degree. The official objective of Eakin’s nude figure studies may have been to see the human body in action in a wide vocabulary of poses, but his choices of which bodies and which poses is significant. Could he have been unaware of the sexualizing operation he was performing on his young African American subject by having her act out the pose associated with the goddess of love? The effect (intended or not) of choosing this pose is a photograph whose illicit erotic potential is thinly veiled by its academic objectives, making it another exhibit in 19th century photography’s character as a double agent serving both science and lust.

Visual Shorthand: The Female Nude

“Luxe, Calme et Volupté” 1904-1905 is a fauvist work by Henri Matisse. During the period in which it was painted, Matisse belonged to a group of young artists whose bold and unconventional works alarmed critics to the extent that they referred to them as“wild beasts” (les fauves).  Matisse’s work, in particular, embodied this new spirit utilizing color and brush strokes to convey feelings and sensations in a fashion that broke dramatically with the canon.

To See This Image Please Visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Matisse-Luxe.jpg
Henri Matisse “Luxe, Calme et Volupté”, 1904

The work is a leisure scene that shows six nude women each from a different vantage point as they bathe and picnic on a beach in St. Tropez.  Moving from left to right the viewer sees one woman from the back and another reclining with her nudity on full display.  Behind her a smaller figure is seen wrapped in a blanket. At the foot of the reclining nude another woman is crouched combing through her hair.  The penultimate figure is in a semi-reclined pose with her back to the viewer while the last is slightly turned such that her body is fully visible but her face is shown in profile.  Matisse has placed these women in an idyllic even pastoral setting showing them on the shores of a lake.  The only clues that this is a modern scene are the boat in the background and the picnic utensils placed in the left corner of the work.

In many ways this work is highly traditional.  The subject matter of nude female bodies as created by a male artist and in particular bathers in a pastoral landscape “can be traced back to the work of Poussin” an artist that epitomized the values of Academic painters.[1] Further, the title of the work comes from the chorus of a poem entitled L’invitation au voyage “which describes an escape to an Arcadian land of sensuality and calm.”[2] Such references to poetry are in keeping with nineteenth-century Academic traditions.

The poem referenced, however is by symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire and indicative of Matisse’s modernist tendencies. Similarly, Matisse’s technique can only be described as modern.  Matisse’s use of lozenge-like shapes reveals the artist’s every brushstroke.  The bodies are portrayed crudely, some are little more than the outline of a shape.  In addition, the use of the word “luxe” in this context conveys more than just “luxury” rather it suggests “voluptuousness, self-indulgence and sensuality” a well as a connection to the contemporary cult of “joie de vivre.”[3]

Gill Perry suggests that it is precisely the tensions in the work between technique and subject matter that serves to disrupt the notion that these women are merely objects of the “male gaze.” Rather the Matisse has portrayed the women in an unreal manner manipulating and distorting their figures such that their physical oddness “undermines any easy perception of these women merely as objects of male sexual desire.”[4] The question Perry poses in connection to this work is whether artistic processes can mediate social and sexual politics.  For me, however, this work raises another interesting question: how is gender being used as visual shorthand?

I fully agree with Perry that Matisse is able to use technique to disrupt reading this work as purely one of sexual objectification or male eroticism. However, this reading cannot be disrupted without existing as an initial assumption provided by the presence of female nudes.  The female nude provides a ready-made discourse that tends to imply the same categories of interrogation.  Thus this “female shorthand” freezes the notion of the female body in a specific set of meanings and discourse continuing to convey the same readings and associations in a manner that inhibits new interpretations.

For example, in discussing this work Perry speaks first of the male gaze and then of the sexual nature of the poses.[5]  Although Perry is by no means characterizing the work solely in terms of these elements or even suggesting that they are the primary themes of the works, the need to address such elements time and again seemingly conflicts with her notion that abstraction disrupts such discourse.

To me, the abstraction in this context suggests the assertion of the male artist as he can now control the body of the female.  Thus, the use of the female body as a form of visual short hand permits the artist to present the same ideologies and associations and emphasize the modernity of the technique rather than the subject matter.  In other words, the use of the female nude acts as Matisse’s acknowledgement of his familiarity with the traditional art historical canon while his technique demonstrates his innovations as an artist.  In this manner, this work becomes more about the emancipation of the male artist than it does of the female figures suggesting that abstraction does not truly disrupt traditional discourse.

 


[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 202.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Primitivism and the Modern” by Gill Perry from: Primitivism, Cubism and Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century. The Open University, 1993, p 54.

[4] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 205.

[5] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 205.

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luxe,_Calme_et_Volupt%C3%A9: