‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’
So reads the provocative heading blazoned across the canary yellow poster created by the Guerrilla Girls in 1989. 27 years later, it’s still a pertinent question. The poster’s image – a reclining naked woman with the head of a gorilla – is based on the famous painting Odalisque and Slave by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and is accompanied by a disquieting fact: ‘Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’.
The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of female artists, formed with the intention of exposing sexual discrimination in the art world. A quick glance over role of the female nude in art history and it’s clear they have a point. Hundreds of portraits of the female form line the walls of art galleries, spanning from Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (ca. 1510) to Lucian Freud’s portrait of Kate Moss (2002). Despite differences in medium, style and subject, the vast majority of these portraits have something important in common: the artists are men. Only with the advent of contemporary art are we finally seeing the emergence of female nudes created by women, as they begin to turn the artist’s gaze on themselves. As well as it being practical and cheap to use their own bodies as models for their pieces, these self-portraits are often deliberately subversive, challenging the spectator to see women’s bodies as more than just aesthetic objects.
When, in 1973, Laura Mulvey coined the phrase ‘the male gaze’ in her seminal essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, she asserted that all nudes are inherently voyeuristic. While she was referring to the movie industry in particular, her statement resonates across the visual arts. Since the publication of Mulvey’s essay, a host of female artists have presented nude portraits that interrogate the effect of the male gaze on the female object. Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S. Starification Object Series (1974) is both erotic and political, mocking male desire and gender stereotypes. The images are deliberately critical of Western standards of beauty; in a series of self-portrait photos, the artist strikes poses usually performed by fashion models and celebrities on magazine covers, while her skin is dotted with genitals sculpted from pieces of chewing gum. Similarly, in her 1995-6 self-portrait Closed Contact #9, the Scottish artist Jenny Saville also uses photography to provoke and challenge the female nude tradition. In the image, Saville lies on a sheet of Perspex and is photographed from below, her pubic hair clearly visible and her body distorted and grotesque. It’s a far cry from the smooth, marble-like lines of the model in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, one of the world’s most famous depictions of the female form.
It’s not only in self-portraiture that female artists have attempted to deconstruct the traditional female nude, rebuilding it as more than just an ‘instrument of oppression.’ Modern American artist Victoria Selbach painted a series of nude portraits of women of all shapes and sizes. They appear unposed and pensive and Selbach plays with light and shadow to illuminate their unconventional beauty. Painter Aleah Chaplin, has become renowned for the Aunties Project, a series of nude portraits that includes paintings such as Jumanji and Gwen (2014). It depicts two women of different generations, standing with their arms around each other. Their bodies have been marked by a lifetime of experiences; their wrinkles, stretch marks and tattoos are proudly displayed. The women gaze directly out of the painting, defying objectification and instead inviting the spectator to wonder about their personal stories – who they are and what brought them together. It’s the focus on the stories behind the bodies that makes this modern incarnation of the female nude so radical. While art can, and should, be provocative, stimulating an emotional or intellectual reaction in the spectator, this new wave of female artists are out to prove that provocation and beauty do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Of course, male artists have not abandoned the nude entirely to their female counterparts. While 20th century artists such as Egon Schiele produced work that blurred the line between art and pornography, many contemporary male artists are painting more complex, less sexualised portraits of women, designed to provoke rather than titillate. Lucian Freud is renowned for such nudes; his painting Naked Portrait (1972-3) depicts a naked woman lying awkwardly on a bed with a pained expression. The harsh lighting and the visibility of the artist’s tools within the painting reinforce the artificiality of the setting. By refusing to idealise the model, Freud highlights her vulnerability in this artistic space. Perhaps artists have just moved beyond the Renaissance movement… as one would have expected them to!
Contrastingly, in recent years criticism of the sexualisation of the female body has shifted away from the art world, towards the fashion industry. Photographer Terry Richardson is renowned for his controversial images of scantily clothed models, images that are often condemned as pornographic, misogynistic and lacking in artistic merit. In 2005, actress Rachel McAdams walked off the set of a Vanity Fair cover photo shoot when she discovered that the male designer Tom Ford expected her to pose nude alongside two other young actresses, while he remained fully clothed. More recently, Kim Kardashian West’s refusal to cover up her body in her Instagram posts has ignited heated debate, with public opinion torn over whether her pride in her body is empowering or demeaning. The continued multitude of these stories illustrate that the female body is still a heavily debated space, whether it’s depicted in an artistic portrait or a celebrity selfie.
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