Tag Archives: Henri Matisse

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:

Not Your Typical Harem Scene

In Jacqueline Marval’s Les Odalisques, five female figures occupy a stage-like space before a partially open blue green curtain. A servant offers tea to four members of a harem, who sit and lie in varying degrees of nakedness. The three figures at left look to the figure at far right, who faces them but turns her gaze toward the viewer. Another figure lies on her side, facing us as her body extends beyond the picture plane.  Although Marval used chiaroscuro to cast shadows throughout the picture, she chose to stylize the figures rather than model them fully into naturalistic representations of female nudes. The textiles are not nearly as elaborate and sumptuous as those that appear in classic Orientalist harem paintings, like Delacroix’s Women of Algiers from 1834. In Marval’s Odalisques, bright scarves and clothing are pared down planes of color, whose complementary hot and cool shades bring a chromatic balance to the painting.

Jacqueline Marval Les Odalisques 1903

Gill Perry suggests that with Odalisques, Marval hybridized the typical harem scene, insofar as “the models appear to be Western women participating in an oriental ritual.” [1] I agree that Marval is Westernizing the women by making them white-skinned, but that is pretty typical in Orientalist painting (see Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque of 1814). I also detect some room for racial indeterminacy, especially with regard to the figure lying on her side, whose pose and hair immediately make me think of the mixed-race youth in George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri of 1845. The part of Perry’s claim that really does not convince me, however, is that these are modern women. Their erect backs and smooth white bodies, which Perry acknowledges but only associates with lifelessness and coldness, make me think that Marval is combining classical archetypes of ideal female bodies with the voluptuous femininities typically associated with Orientalist harem scenes. Here are some examples of Aphrodite statues that contain the impenetrable gazes and rigid facial structures that I detect in Marval’s Odalisques.

Even though Marval used chiaroscuro to concentrate darkness on the faces of the two figures at right,  Perry emphasizes her link to the Fauvists, with whom she  exhibited at the much historicized 1905 Salon d’Automne (albeit not in the prime real estate of the cage centrale). Marval also appears to me to be participating in Primivitism, a current that was pulsing through avant-garde circles—including but not limited to the Fauvists—by the first decades of the 20th century. Artists engaging in Primitivism sought self re-invention through art that was either non-Western, ancient or both [2]. For these artists, art and ways of art-making that opposed traditional Western criteria of beauty represented the promise of fresh forms of artistic expression—the holy grail of modernism. Picasso famously approached African masks in this manner, while Henri Matisse had revelations in Morocco, August Macke praised the Easter Island statues, and so on. Marval may have been looking to the Ottoman Empire in a traditional Orientalist way, but she also engaged modernist Primitivism by filtering her subjects through an archaic lens in order to reinvent the harem scene. After all, the primitive was defined across two axes: time and space, and Marval was negotiating both of them by painting Turkish concubines with a touch of Greek goddess.

The statuesque women in this picture both arouse and challenge the male gaze. Two of the figures are making direct eye contact with the viewer, but their heavy, parabolic lids restrict access to their pupils, and the viewer cannot discern their emotions. Likewise, while a male viewer can see their naked bodies, he does not have full access because Marval’s figures are either turned away, partially clothed or extending their arms and legs in directions that obscure their breasts and genitals. While the Ingres harem scene that Perry uses as a comparison is a chaotic cornucopia of available flesh, Marval offers a much more disciplined  figure grouping in which the women actively govern access to their bodies and psychological state. The half drawn curtain, meanwhile, threatens that the women could disappear “backstage” at any moment. In a sense, Marval tricks the male gaze by inviting it into a somewhat inhospitable environment: For while her scene would have appealed to male spectators at the turn of the century who would have recognized it as heir to the titillating Orientalist paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, Marval’s women also elude the male gaze by countering it with inscrutable expressions and managing its view of their bodies.

1. See Page 207 in, Perry, Gill, ed. Gender and Art. New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1999.
2. For a comprehensive definition of Primitivism, see Leighten, Patricia, and Mark Antliff. “Primitivism.” In Critical Terms for Art History, edited by Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, 170–84. Chicago, I.L.: University of Chicago Press, 1996.