Tag Archives: Nude

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.

Pinboard Entry #3: In the Flesh

In his 1995 painting, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, Lucian Freud (1922-2011) captures “Big Sue Tilley” in voluptuous repose on a couch in his studio. Light and shadow play on her ample mounds of white flesh, creating a liquid pool of pink, white and orange tones that flow across her body. Her eyes are closed as she cups her breast with her right hand and clutches the couch’s back with her left arm. Freud painted Tilley from a perspective that puts the viewer slightly above her, so that we are peering down onto Tilley while she is napping, unawares.

Lucian Freud
Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (Big Sue Tilley)
1995

“Big Sue Tilley,” an employee of England’s Department for Work and Pensions who met Freud through a mutual friend, recalls that she often dozed off while posing during the nine months that she modeled for the artist in the mid-1990s. Freud, an artist who is associated with a postwar group of British painters that also included Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach, often called the School of London, found inspiration for his psychological, hyper-detailed portraiture in earlier 20th-century movements like the New Objectivity. In addition to contemporary influences, the 19th-century French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres fascinated Freud, who often described his painting and their fleshy exuberance “Ingresesque.” This painting sold for $33.6 million in May 2008, establishing a world record for the highest price paid for a work by a living artist.

Freud took realism to the nth degree, focusing on every wrinkle, follicle and roll of fat that his sitters brought into his studio. He once said, “I want my painting to be as flesh. For me, the painting is the person and I want its effect on me to be the same as the effect of flesh.” The pictorial effect of Freud’s eagle eye, painterly realism is that everything becomes sensuous, from Big Sue’s girth to the fine wood grain of the floor to what is left on the disused upholstery on his studio couch. Freud’s sitter (sleeper) and her inanimate surroundings become a harmonious aggregate of surface and implied texture: a visual cornucopia of skins.

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:

An Indeterminate Gaze

 

Emilie Charmy, La Loge, 1902, oil on board

Everything about Emilie Charmy’s La Loge  is indeterminate.

Charmy’s loose brushwork suggests rather than depicts. The composition is representational, but abstract. Objects and figures are not easily distinguished in the haze. In the foreground, a powdery blue carpet with a pastel pattern draws the viewer’s eye into the frame. The walls are salmon pink, and are lined with barely recognizable domestic objects, including a cabinet, a vase, paintings, and a blue folding screen. On the right, a nude female is seated in a chair, arms outstretched over a table laid with a green cloth, her attention directed towards a vase of flowers. To the left of this figure, a cluster of women circle an obscure black shape. One sits on the floor, another stands, and a third pitches forward over her crossed legs. Light reflects off of the standing figure’s back, drawing the viewer’s eye and anchoring the composition. She is further distinguished from the others by the green ribbon tied around her stocking. In the background, another group of undressed women are gathered around a table.

If we look closely, we realize that the women’s bodies are composed of a riot of natural and unnatural colors: peach, umber, lavender, white, aqua and acid green. The figures wear black stockings and little else; some are fully nude. The painting suggests a familiarity with the techniques of Post-Impressionism, including abstractions of real-life subjects, thick application of paint, visible brushstrokes, and unnatural coloration. We can also discern similarities between Charmy and the Fauves, but her coloration is not as brutal; her hues seem muted by comparison. Charmy’s loose brushwork renders the image hazy and difficult to parse, merely suggesting the shapes of people and objects. Nothing is explicit. Everything is open to interpretation. La Loge is suggestive. Flesh is suggested by the texture of the paint. Intimacy is suggested by the tight groupings of figures. Secrecy is suggested by room’s lack of visible doors and windows. These suggestions inspire more questions than they answer, leaving us to wonder: in what kind of environment do women sit around wearing nothing but black stockings? And what kind of lady painter frequents such an environment?

Emilie Charmy was born in 1878. She is known as a female Fauve painter, and was friends with Matisse and other Fauves, but the exact nature of her relationships with these painters remains unclear. She enjoyed an unusually high level of commercial success for a woman painter in her period, and saw her popularity peak in the 1920s. La Loge was painted before Charmy’s period of commercial success, when she was approximately 24 years old. Gill Perry suggests that the title is best translated as “artist’s dressing room”. [1] However, comparisons with contemporary paintings suggest that Charmy has painted a brothel scene: her figures wear the trademark black stockings that feature prominently in the works of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Perry asserts that a “respectable middle class” woman like Charmy would not have visited a brothel, suggesting that La Loge was not drawn from life. Perry claims that the representation of a space to which a woman would not have had access necessarily implies a male spectator, and that Charmy’s appropriates and reinterprets the male gaze. [2]

Alternatively, La Loge may not be an appropriation of the male gaze. Instead, we might read it as a thoroughly feminine expression of desire. Elsewhere, Perry has suggested that Charmy was bisexual. Many of Charmy’s portraits of women and female nudes are sensually charged. There is a furtive quality to the image, which implies an illicit experience, a project accomplished in secret or haste. Loge also means “theater box.” During the nineteenth century, a loge was a charged space where theatre spectators went to see and be seen. The performances taking place offstage were as important as the drama on the night’s bill. Theatre boxes were acceptable public space for women to be display themselves and be observed by others. The loge promoted a voyeuristic experience for both the inhabitant of the box and the audience below, wherein those in the box viewed and were viewed simultaneously. The architecture of the box promoted this interaction, framing the box’s inhabitants for display. Similarly, Charmy’s treatment of the brothel room suggests a performance by the women, for an unseen audience, in a space that frames them for viewing. Charmy’s title, which links the painting to a space where women and men could gaze freely, suggests that the gaze in play may belong to woman or a man.

[1] Gill Perry, ed., Gender and Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 207.
[2] Perry, 209.

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.

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.