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In the fifth chapter of Cynthia Freeland’s work, But is it art?, the world of feminist art is briefly explored, with special attention paid to the ‘Guerilla Girls’, a group of female artists who banded together in 1985 to protest sexism in the art world. In a 1989 advertisement called ‘How Women Get Maximum Exposure’, the Guerilla Girls depict a naked woman wearing a gorilla mask, writing next to her that “Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.”
How have men historically chosen to depict female nudes, and why? What social significance do these artworks carry? When is a female model being portrayed respectfully, and when is she being objectified? How have contemporary female artists responded to the historic depictions of the female nude? Are these artists merely trying to reinvent the wheel, or are they establishing an important milestone in the canon of the female nude? Throughout this paper, I will briefly recount historical male depictions of the female nude and analyze those works’ social implications; then, I will examine the feminist reclamation of the female nude as presented by contemporary female artists.
First, one must observe the Western artistic tradition of the male-painted female nude. This trend can be traced back as far as 350 BCE, when the Greek sculptor Praxiteles of Athens created the original Aphrodite of Knidos, which became the first completely nude cult statue of a goddess. Unfortunately, the original did not survive, but numerous copies were created throughout the Greek and Roman eras, such as The Capitoline Venus, from the 2nd or 3rd c. BCE, and The Venus de’Medici, from the 1st c. BCE. All of these statues depict the Greek goddess of love named Aphrodite in Greek and Venus in Latin. In them, Venus simultaneously exudes vulnerability, sexuality, and modesty. She covers her breasts and her pubis with little success, the rest of her nude body brazenly displayed. This paradoxical representation reflects a number of sexist Greek and Roman ideals, as the male sculptors have created a woman who can be fetishized, but is not the owner of her exposure; who exemplifies the beauty standard of her time, but still hides herself modestly; who gazes blankly into space; who bears no distinguishing marks of who she is, besides a beautiful woman. This pose became so common in Ancient Greece and Rome that it earned its own name: the venus pudica pose, in which an idealized woman is shown covering her pubis, and sometimes her breasts, with one or two hands. This model of the vulnerable woman, as depicted by exclusively male artists, will evolve and develop some personality over time, but its ancient sentiments of misogyny and objectification remain.
The Renaissance era offers perhaps the most mainstream use of the venus pudica pose in the form of Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Though this work offers some slight variations on the prefeminist female nude, as Venus stares at the viewer daringly, the key elements of the historic female nude persist: hand covering pubis, hand covering breasts, vulnerability, modesty, hint of sexuality. Other artists in the 16th c. CE offer similar variations of the venus pudica, as in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus and Titian’s Venus of Urbino. These works and others ushered in the trend of the ‘Reclining Venus’, which maintains almost all of the features of the venus pudica while portraying the woman lying down.
The ‘Reclining Venus’ persists throughout the Renaissance and into the art of the 19th century, in which works such as Manet’s Olympia and Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus added to the canon of the female nude. Here, the woman is slightly more subjectivized and slightly less modest, as in Olympia’s dainty accessories and The Birth of Venus’ completely uncovered form. Yet, the woman are still objective, idealized, and clearly displaying themselves for the viewer, with little thought given by the artist to the female figure’s personality or sense of self. Jumping forward to the 20th century, works such as Matisse’s Blue Nude and Klimt’s Reclining Nude Lying on Her Stomach and Facing Right show some variation, but still adhere to the requirements of the objectified female nude. However, one cannot forget that these are still works of art created by male artists, during a time in which female artists and women at large faced tremendous misogyny in society. Furthermore, are the social ideas portrayed by these works radically different from those presented by Botticelli or Giorgione’s Venus? The answer is no, as the works prioritize the objective, idealized female form rather than a subjective, humanized woman.
In proceeding, I will briefly step away from my historical art summary to touch on the philosopher Shaun Gallagher’s Theory of the Body. As I talk of objectification and subjective bodies, an idea of what it means to be a person owning a body is essential; Diana Meyers presents Gallagher’s ideas in her introduction to her ‘Feminist Reflections on the State of the Art.’ Gallagher proposes that the body consists of both the body image, which is one’s visual appearance and their unique perception of it, and the body schema, which is “a system of sensory-motor capacities that function without awareness or the necessity of perpetual monitoring.” The body schema is an umbrella term for all of the cognition, virtue, versatility, and memory that a person holds and acts with. The Theory of the Body applies to the nude in art as male artists are prone to stripping female models of their body image and body schema. The Venus looks at nothing because she has no schema demanding purposeful sight, appears beautiful but shows no indication of being aware of her body image, poses nude but covers herself because she is vulnerable with her lack of self ownership. Additionally, the Venus bears no scars, no blemishes, or any other distinguishing marks on her body that make her a subjective person or show evidence that she has lived. Simply put, the female figure in art is objectified when it is clear she does not own herself, but is owned by the male gaze of the artist and her viewers.
How have contemporary female artists responded to this? Feminist artists in the 1990s and the 2000s have added multitudes of female nudes to the art world, but these works differ greatly from their predecessors. Diana Tietjens Meyers presents Jenny Saville’s nudes as the antithesis of the historic female nude, with good reason; Saville’s nudes of obese, deformed, and otherwise exaggerated women stand in stark opposition to the restraint of the venus pudica models. For instance, Saville’s Hem depicts an overweight nude woman from a low perspective looking up at her. The figure has patchy pubic hair, rolls of fat on her stomach, and an unpleasant expression; yet still, the dynamic figure commands attention and seems completely in control, showing her body off without any ideas of covering it. The figure is strikingly subjective, with numerous imperfections and asymmetry throughout her body. This doesn’t mean that the figure is not beautiful, but that the figure is not subject to an idealized beauty standard. In a quote transcribed by Meyers, Saville says, “Beauty is always associated with the male fantasy of what the female body is… It’s just that what women think is beautiful can be different. And there can be a beauty in individualism. If there is a wart or a scar, this can be beautiful, in a sense, when you paint it. It’s part of your identity.” Saville’s art reflects the harmony of the body image and the body schema as proposed by Gallagher, coming together to form a human model who is a fully realized creation, not just a sexy body.
Another notable artist is Billie Zangewa, a stitcher who creates intricate silk panels portraying scenes of femininity and motherhood. Zangewa’s The Rebirth of the Black Venus is a parallel to the Venuses in which a giant black woman walks on top of a cityscape, with the word “complexity” covering her pubis. In this, Venus is strong and dominant, literally “larger than life” in her grandness. The sharp highlights almost look like bones on her skin, perhaps grounding her as a human person despite her great size. She looks nothing like the softly reclining portraits by which female models have been restricted in the past. Another of Zangewa’s works titled Morning Glory shows a woman in her underwear with a towel wrapped around her head, presumably in her bedroom. Again, the woman is contextualized and given some sense of personality, as one can glean from her surroundings and her casual posing, among other things. The way she presents herself is not especially modest, though she is facing away from the viewer; similarly, she exposes a great deal of skin but is not flaunting it for the viewer. This woman looks and feels like a real woman, which seems to be much of the genius of contemporary female artists.
Female photographers have also taken to bolstering the feminist nude canon. Cindy Sherman’s photograph Untitled #205 is one great example, depicting a woman wearing a fake breast plate and stomach and donning a fully made up face. The woman is in fact Cindy Sherman herself; however, she is made up beyond recognition. The photograph builds on this sense of false femininity, demonstrating how women have been objectified in their pursuits for the beauty standards of their times, as is emphasized by the large fake breasts and the painted face. Angela Strassheim’s Untitled (Alicia in the Pool) is another piece worthy of recognition, with its bathing suit-clad model striking a pose and clearly referencing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Despite this, Strassheim’s model is clearly contextualized in her own backyard and looks uncomfortably at the viewer, evoking themes of the awkwardness of adolescent femininity and of girls in their natural state, stripped of any decoration.
Where do all these new models leave us? Though artists like Saville, Zangewa, Sherman, and Strassheim have put a great deal of work into diversifying the female nude in today’s art world, progress is never finished. Just as feminism continues to evolve and grow, dealing with new issues with each wave, feminist artists continue to innovate the nude and to reclaim the female model. Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum? Hopefully not; but, if they’re going to be nude, at least let them be done by female artists.
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