The Importance of the Nude in Art
Art begins to represent ordinary life, rather than gods and goddesses, pharaohs and queens, when an Egyptian scuplture made of sandstone places one foot in front of the other. Motion signifies life. Humans move, therefore there is history. In a similar sense, the frescoes on the walls of Minoan palaces in 1700 BC depict figures, full breasts popping out of cinched, tight-waisted, flouncy dresses, bending to smell flowers or somersaulting over raging bulls or elegantly leading religious processions, who are unmistakably human. The sight of fellow humans moves the soul. From the earlier scratches on prehistoric walls to the earlier clay models of steatopygic pregnant women (the earliest madonnas with child), art was conceived to understand and represent the female nude who is the source of the procreative miracle of regeneration.
By the 4th century BCE, Greek art, both sculptural and painted on vases, embodies human sexual nature as the source of creative inspiration. In the previous century, male statues were unclothed in a celebration of athletic or soldierly vigor, uniting bodily beauty with the community — the Olympic athletes, after all, wrestled, ran, spear-chucked in the nude. Women, more often than not goddesses, were fully clothed, with perhaps a single breast tentatively visible behind a bit of thin dressage slipping from a shoulder. One hundred years later, the traditional art history narrative tells us, the female nude is born at the crux of the union of sex and geometry. Now for the first time, borrowing from the posture of warriors and athletes and koroi, the female nude leans on one hip, extending the curve of the hip upward to meet the curve of a breast while an opposite curve indicates the ribcage between them. The nude invents the S. The body is undulating stillness, desirability frozen in space, enhanced by a gentle tease when suddenly and shockingly the statues of Aphrodite are holding their draperies away from their bodies for the viewer to admire them. The male gaze comes into its own. So do exhibitionism, voyeurism, narcissism.
In Kenneth Clark’s standard analytic narrative of art, once mathematical precision measured the relative distance of body parts into harmonies derived from Pythagoras and Vetruvius, the female nude could link “our most elementary notions of order and design.” As Clark put it, the female nude predominates in art, and will become the dominate form of art for all time when “the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a sensuous perception of totalities.” The classical nude, which establishes the Western understanding of beauty, balances body parts according to mathematical proportions and, in so doing, establishes the human erotic identity. The conformity of proportions makes the female nude “presentable,” at once sensuous and admirable as a geometric figure removed from quotidian life. Parts from various models became a whole in the artist’s hands as perfect fingers met perfect hands that met perfect forearms and so on. The resulting curvaceous, artificially construed female nude would represent womanhood yet remain unavailable. It isn’t dissimilar from advertising models today — hand models, ankle models, eyes, cheeks, etc — though the ancient Greeks had a higher goal. As Allen White and Peter Stallybrass say, “…the classical statue is the radiant centre of a transcendent individualism, put on a pedestal, raised above the viewer and the commonality and anticipating passive admiration from below. We gaze up at the figure and wonder… The classical statue has no openings or orifices.” The idealized representation of the nude retains the mude’s interior mystery. Perfectly proportioned, anatomically inaccessible, she embodies the unattainable. After her creation, the ancient Greeks began to say that the Trojan War must have been fought over a statue of Helen, because only a statue, a composite of parts, could have been perfect enough to send armies across the oceans and keep them there for a decade, to say nothing of the Trojans not tossing her into the sea to put an end to their siege.
Of course, the “universal” beauty understood by the female nude is being redefined along with changing historical circumstances. For example, the proportions of the bourgeois nude expand to suggest the fleshiness of wealth, so that the nudes whose proportions most remind us of classical beauty in time become the commodified women — prostitutes, courtesans, dancers, paid models who litter Europe’s shadow economy for several centuries. In effect, because they are nude rather than clothed, the nudes whom art depicts can only be read by their surroundings and their physical conditions — where they are, the furnishings, the company they keep. A review of art from culture to culture and age to age reiterates the position of Kenneth Clark: the history of art is the history of the female nude.
The nude persists because, when we are not idealizing it, we are sublimating it, and in both instances we are marginalizing it because even to celebrate it we are objectifying it. The substitution of an imaginary divinity like Aphrodite or Venus in place of the flesh and blood model who remains unnamed harkens back to the demonization of the too powerful too desirable fertilizable female nude in nature. After all, the job of culture is to mitigate, if not reverse, the power of nature over man and devalue that which in nature is most valuable by demeaning it in proportionality.
The confident nudity of classical Greece that idealizes and perfects through the simplicity of proportions not only does so by lifting the cool figure above our gaze but by fixing for eternal contemplation the absence of physical decay and death, in a sense preserving the concept of beauty that youth alone understands in its limited life experience. That is why as soon as the nude becomes exaggerated or “deformed” in the history of art, we refer to the grotesque or even to Michelangelo’s Mannerism, his super muscular female nudes that are about as classical in their idealization as his statue of the uncircumsized David is Jewish. It may be that our eyes prefer circles to straight lines, that fecundity is by nature curvaceous, that both are biologically determined but culturally defined. If the classical female nude is by definition an unattainable female to the one who gazes at it, it is partly because of its material permanence, embodying in thought and sensuality the tension between desire and the end of desire, which is death. The gaze that wants to freeze and frame a moment of erotic recognition is already acknowledging the inherent loss of the object, so that even the female viewer recognizes what the female nude represents without necessarily sharing the male gaze that has honed this particular depiction of a mass delusion that decay and death can be defeated — in art.
So is Courbet’s infamous “Origin of the World” painting is a celebration of realized womanhood in a world of salon nudes to be stared at by young men who wouldn’t dream of depicting or examining genitalia? Is it a headless torso gratuitously mutilated to remind women of their place, especially moneyed women? Is the painting a gynecological tool the way Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson” was justified as by those who admired the painter but loathed the painting? Or is this Courbet’s elegantly crafted revolution in realism (though it was considered pornography by the French Government, for 150 years) a commentary on the history of the female nude’s missing genitalia? Is it an apotropaion? Is it an homage to its title, the origin of life, hence we all come through to this life? Why is the gateway to existence, the threshold to the project of species survival, so terrifying?No one hid Michelangelo’s “David” in spite of a relatively oversized penis, and Italy is no less Catholic than France. Is Courbet’s nude terrifying only to those who do not give birth and cannot conceive its natural simplicity or its computational superpower to turn one person into two? The Origin of the World is not on a pedestal but laid nearly flat at a close-up vantage reserved for doctors and for lovers. As Linda Williams writes in her book on pornography, “The history of hard-core pornography is the history of visual strategies to overcome the anatomical invisibility of the female orgasm.” So Courbet’s painting addresses the unattainable interior that nudity represents, as if to say even completely accessible to our visual perception, the female body is to men a mystery.
Having summarized thousands of years of human artistic endeavor in four paragraphs of well-intended but also self-serving thought, I’m going to press on to one of the main issues the history of the nude has engaged, in part because it has engaged my work, and influenced my aesthetics. The history of the nude that I have truncated here is the most elaborate and overwhelming master narrative in art because it is exclusively the province of what we have come to call the male gaze. It is an overwhelming history because of the longevity of the form, which we owe to both the male artists who drew, sculpted and painted female nudes, and to the men who wrote the history of their attempts to capture the nude for two thousand years.
The (male) gaze is also a psychoanalytic construct most famously posited by Jacques Lacan. As a formulation regarding child development into its Oedipal stage, the Lacanian gaze symbolizes the child’s narcissistic need for others in order to unify itself as a being in the world. By seeing itself in a mirror, the child sees itself as something other than a subject, and in fact delights in seeing itself as an object for others to admire. The gaze thus unconsciously organizes framing devices, delimiting mechanisms and interpretive techniques to create a narrative of development for the child. The understanding of oneself as an image in the world, derived from Jean Paul Sartre’s famous moment of feeling looked at because we are looking at someone else, enables us to fulfill narcissistic needs as we overcome them, integrating them into our wider understanding of the need for others to know us, others who make us feel good about ourselves and who one day summarize our lives after we are dead. There is no such thing as a female gaze. We all see through the eyes of culture, and all culture is patriarchal.
Based on that concept of the gaze, in 1975 Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the male gaze in her article “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” She argued that a film audience can only read a film by identifying with a heterosexual male protagonist as he comes to desire a leading female figure, by that generalization simply reiterating that an overwhelming number of films are made by men with men’s money for the pleasure of men, who earn the income to form the audience. A director directs our vision to the protagonist’s, as he scrutinizes, evaluates and judges a woman in the film to be an object of his desire. If he falls in love with her, so do we — or we have misread the movie, or the director is incompetent, or the director is out of the mainstream. Mulvey’s point was that the audience must identify with the male gaze to work its way through the film. In reply to the numerous articles taking exception to her theory, in 1981 Mulvey revised her piece to suggest that the only way a female audience member could read the male gaze was either by “a masochistic identification of the female object” or by an act of aesthetic transsexualism, in effect becoming a faux purveyor and adopter of the male gaze herself, watching through the eyes of the patriarchy.
Relating this argument to visual art in general, and leaving behind the complexity of film visuals unfolding in time, Griselda Pollock has written that “the sign of masculine sexuality is the bodies of women.” A male gaze is always present when a nude female in a work of art is objectified. The narcissism of the male gaze narrates the psychosexual longings of the male artist and his male viewers. The artist is always telling the story of the female’s mystery, even as he places her in surroundings that frame her — brothels, dance halls, boudoirs, bathtubs, woodlands, artist’s studios, and often in front of mirrors — so she can display the vanity that makes her mysterious to the artists who want to paint her vanity. Most female nudes have no surroundings, and often defy gravity, or as in the case of Philip Pearlstein, are exhibited in notoriously uncomfortable positions. Manet’s “Olympia,” depicting a self-satisfied courtesan, treats the female nude as a commodity but within the sexist social conundrum that she is in charge of her nudity because she successfully sells it. At a different register, the milieu depicted in Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’ herbe” enables the same model, Berthe Morisot, to stare back at the (male) gaze of the viewer because she is “comfortably” nude in the company of the dressed men beside her, including Manet himself, her brother-in-law. Each of these nudes addresses the male gaze directly, but differently, and yet, as Griselda Pollock notes in an essay on women painters of early modernism, we do not find art by women artists like Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt that depicts male nudes gazing back at the male gaze. As a result of the history of the nude in art, the theme of that history is first and foremost the viewer’s response to nudity, itself a changing subject from culture to culture and era to era, so that the art is never the same: it is subject to cultural perceptions of nudity, to the dominant male gaze, and to the master narrative’s traditional gaze.
Recently, feminist art has replied to the male gaze the female nude evokes by demythifying the female body, often showing it in aging, damaged, mutilated states. Obese, pimply, warty, sometimes reduced to innards turned outer, female bodies have become anything but objects of desire for the male gaze. Alice Neel painted herself as she aged — as did Rembrandt, as has Avigdor Arikha, the male Israeli artist — but by revealing her changing naked body, Neel can address the tradition that male nude self-portraits cannot engage; which may be the best evidence that the male gaze is a palpable category of visualization. When Lucian Freud first painted his immense impastoed obese nudes, they were considered acts of misogyny. What if they had been immense impastoed supermodel nudes? Would they too have been creative acts of misogyny? Wouldn’t they have had a wider audience? Twenty years later, when Jenny Saville painted immense impastoed obese nudes, she was praised for liberating the female body from the male gaze. Similarly, Marlene Dumas paints immense watercolors of erotically charged semi-abstracted female nudes, and openly confesses that they are her sexual fantasies writ large, so her (female) gaze at the female nude legitimates the gaze of ‘pure’ sexual longing, even though nobody is free of the collective cultural gaze and beauty is mostly culturally construed. In short, no matter what position or ideology one adopts, the viewer cannot help but confront female nudity as the elaborate example of Hegel’s remark: everything after the Greeks is romanticism.
In this late cultural hour, I am interested in the topic of the female gaze with respect to the female nude because of my aesthetic quest to find an artwork that resolves female nudity beyond looking at female otherness, or at marginalized females, or women as manmade hieroglyphs or the objects of ideological autopsies or seductive amulets. I see that the discourse has been constrained by the binary vocabulary of subject/object relations, including self and other, inside and outside, mind and body, ways of seeing that are male and female rather than predualistic. I refuse to limit my thinking of art to binary terms. Sexual difference in the reading of art does not mean to me an either/or proposition, nor do we get very far in creation or understanding by perceiving one set of examples or one glossary as fitting all history or all discussion. I hope to create a space between desire and danger regarding myself and all others, regarding the concept of the Other. If the viewer is by turns uncomfortable in and attracted to the active presence of my life-size nudes, it is my way of tweaking cultural assumptions, trying to destabilize the conversation about identity and its visual representation by valuing, in a visual sense, the high and the low equally, and on a grand scale. My take on the nude is firmly antidualistic. I eschew the GrecoRoman/JudaeoChristian, Hindo/Chinese link of nude archetypes to tables of opposites such as male-female, eros-logos, yin-yang, dark-light, odd-even, internal-external, east-west, right-left, straight-gay, good-bad and so on because I see the oneness of the female form which happens to be the form I live in and know well. I also know how this oneness breaks into more lives periodically and then is one plus one.
So what do women see when they see female nudes in art? People look at the page, look at the camera, look at the painting, look at the screen, but look in the mirror. Because mirrors objectify us to ourselves, we see ourselves as others see us, but in doing so we bring our personal history to bear on the reflection. My nude reflection is part of this narrative, by which I mean that I see myself seeing myself, I see myself self-consciously. I am self-consciously nude when I see myself reflected in a mirror, which is to say I scrutinize and judge my nudity, as if I were a male buyer of female nudes. My own gaze is that of a collector. I see every nude, whether myself or another, as if she were nude in front of an audience. She is never alone in a world of unjudging living beings, as in nature. A nude can no longer be in her natural state. She carries too much cultural meaning. As confident as Manet’s courtesan looks, or a nude Aphrodite seems — their ample bodies justified as illustrations of tales from mythology or the Bible — she knows she has an audience. The nude in art conveys the self-consciousness of nudity as a violation — a violation of privacy, autonomy, and personhood.
The male gaze that my provocatively posed females address becomes voyeurism instead of viewerism. It is my effort to destabilize the conversation about identity and its visual representations, and at thirty feet long this piece reinforces its epic origins and the immensity of its theme. Even if the male gaze won’t blink, it will, on occasion, avert itself.
In my work I invoke classical tradition because I self-consciously work from it, not only in posed figures that may remind us of ancient stillness, in the calm of ancient art, but in bound tortured figures whom I depict in repose. I was raised in a culture steeped and stuck and trapped in that past glory so I can hardly escape and deny it. I revisit female archetypes that connect my work to the unbroken arc of culture. In the history of art, female archetypes have been the first and, for a long time, most important subject. They were carved into cave walls and megaliths, they were the first (Neolithic) sculptures and paintings. Their images, representations of matriarchal deities, had the metonymic power of amulets. They embodied the divine force of nature, which is primarily the power of fertility. Fertility, of course, is creativity, which is what artists throughout the ages depend on, which is why female archetypal imagery has thrived to our day. Typically, female archetypes are representations of mothers, whores, warriors, priestesses — big-hipped big-breasted goddesses of justice, love and destruction, Christian or pagan holy females (ranging from the Cycladic ‘steatopygic’ women and the Minoan Snake Goddess, to Mary Magdalene and Brigitte Bardot.)
What my epic tapestries attempt, specifically in relation to the nude as I’ve conceived it in this occasion, is to lower the viewer’s gaze so that the figures in the canvas, deliberately provocative in one way or another, can get a better look at who is looking at them. The history of writing about the nude, which may in fact be the fundamental theme in art history, is always a story of how we situate ourselves in relation to the nude figure. Our individual subjectivities use the nude in art and culture to search for an adequate representation of a collective sense of self. Who are we when we represent ourselves to each other? This is why we argue about it as vehemently as we do.
This is the women-honoring way by which I engage classical tradition: by hand-stitching on vintage textiles, hand-weaving silk and cotton ribbons salvaged from traditional priestly vestments. By hand-stitching hand-dyed thread on canvas, I invoke the labor and craft that the unfaithful Helen and the faithful Penelope engaged in while Odysseus was building the Trojan horse on the beach of Troy. Larger than life, my foreground icons gaze unabashedly at the viewer, confronting the dominant gaze born out of millennia of male supremacy, lifting the veils that the more traditional figures in the background cannot. They evoke the adorants and houris that were frescoed on the wet walls of sacred sites thousands of years ago. Whether draped or undressed, coy or brazen, pacific or violent, these nudes express the nomadic consciousness of women over the same millennia in which women have embroidered and woven for domestic use and private aesthetic pleasure. The background figures are their ghosts haunting the provocative present, echoing repressed women living in much of the world. The background addresses my ancestors from Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece — -murdered, exploited, exiled brides. This canvas forms a timeless tent where the pop star, the pin up, the lover, the killer, the rebel, the suicide bomber, the stripper and the hopeless mother meet, in a collision between ecstasy, stasis, powerlessness, and the unbounded. As a practicing artist, I am committed to lift the veil or the lid of repression and silence. Lifting the lid is the literal meaning of the Apocalypse.
I have remained deeply interested in the conflation of art and religion, so potent in earlier times, and so important to artists in all ages. Art is a visual spiritual pilgrimage. It is ironic in the rich history of the nude in art that no less than Francis Bacon wrote: “There is no beauty that has not some strangeness in its proportions.” This was the 16th century Bacon, the modern painter’s famous ancestor. Francis Bacon heeded the philosopher’s comment on our fall out of classical tradition, and more than any late 20th century painter struggled to find a nexus with the human nude without dismembering it, as had Picasso, or drawing it in paint, as had Matisse, or making it into a cartoon, in the manner of pop and neo-pop art.
Kenneth Clark loathed Bacon’s paintings. But Bacon’s model was Michelangelo, as he looked for a way through contortion, distortion, and anguish for an active beauty that nonetheless evoked stillness. That is my model as well, underscoring my commitment to the theme of Apocalypse, Revelation, the lifting of the veil, which, veil after veil, longing after longing, page after page, layer past layer, never ends. Thinking, as I often do, of Bacon, in my commitment to the female body as the subject of the whole history of art, I wonder if a male artist can hand-stitch nude women in bondage with the impunity of a female artist. And can a female artist do it with impunity? Can a stitch in time replace a stroke of the painter’s brush and sustain the high esteem and deference of the average art viewer?
I’m here to find out.