Painters Who Challenged the Conventional Female Nude
Western art has always been inherently and inevitably phallocentric, as inscribed within a social, political and linguistic structure that favours the male as subject, and relegates the female to object. Until the 19th century, men –in various forms of art, but especially in painting– depicted women in idealised forms, rendering their beauty as an object of the excited male gaze. Within this context, paintings of naked women were accepted as far as the female subjects on the canvas were either represented with a godlike appearance or located within a mythological framework, since explicit eroticism was culturally censored. Masterpieces such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1536-38) display subjects that are divine in their grace and pose, creating a gap between the represented woman and the real one. Other significant examples of this artistic tendency can be found in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1508-10), Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486) and Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1540-50).
In the 20th century –after the artistic revolution of Impressionism and with the advent of paintings that explicitly display the artists’ subjective perceptions of reality– the (mis)representation of naked women shifted to a depiction of their appearance as threatening and disturbing. Paintings of female nudes, in this context, express feelings of fear and loathing. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) is a clear example of this, as the naked prostitutes painted on the canvas seem menacing, their bodies structured under the influence of Primitivism. Feminist interpretations of the painting, such as in Carol Duncan’s “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard Painting” (1973), argue that the way in which Picasso depicts the female subject is exemplary of gender relations before the First World War, as the women embody both the dangerous femme fatale and the primitive woman, thus becoming both threatening and powerless.
Within this context, some painters approached the subject of the female nude in a different way, contributing to its emancipation. Manet is certainly one of them. In the period that experienced the birth and development of Impressionism, the artist challenged conventions of representation when he first exhibited his masterpiece: Olympia (1863). The young woman in the painting shares the same pose of the Venuses mentioned above, but, at the same time, she draws attention to her non god-like appearance, since her necklace, black cat and shoes explicitly suggest that she is a prostitute. Manet here is not yet emancipating the woman from her status of passive object to look at, but he is unmasking the nature of artistic female nudes. Olympia is a statement, attempting to make us aware of the voyeuristic nature of art. She is a scandal to the tradition, explicitly displaying her sexuality, staring back at the viewers that are supposed to look at her, unseen.
Following Manet, from the late 19th to the 21st century, various painters have depicted the female nude in a way that disempowers the tradition of idealization and objectification of women. Artists such as Schiele, Bacon and Freud, portray nude subjects that, far from being idealized sexual objects for men, disrupt the conventional display of female bodies and offer the viewers new ways to look at them.
Gauguin and the Tahitian Women
Paul Gauguin is one of the most famous Post-Impressionist painters. He is considered to be the precursor of the Fauvist movement, with its peculiar and unconventional use of color: in his paintings, the use of colour is highly subjective, linked to the emotion that the subject inspires rather than the subject itself. Gauguin’s most striking paintings are the ones from Tahiti, which the artist visited first, and then permanently made his home, longing for a paradise in which he could create a pure and primitive art. In this period, he focused on the depiction of Tahitian landscapes and native women.
In The Delightful Land (1892), for instance, the artist painted a naked Tahitian Eve in the Garden of Eden. The image of Eve, a standard in the western tradition, is in this case portrayed in a way that disrupts the 19th century western ideals of beauty, as she has dark skin, body hair, thick thighs and big feet with seven toes on the left foot. Her shoulders are broad and her face is graceful in a way that the western viewers of the time would have defined as primitive. However, Gauguin presented this new and diverse depiction of the female nude as equally beautiful compared to the traditional. Another interesting example of Gauguin’s representation of naked Tahitian women is Hannah the Javanese (1893), in which the painter foregrounds the proud pose of the subject, her awareness of the male gaze and, even more importantly, the real nature of her beauty. There is nothing divine about her pose and gaze, just like in Manet’s Olympia. Interestingly Manet’s work was one of the main inspirations for Gauguin, especially for his Manao Tupapau (Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892), in which a Tahitian woman lies down on her stomach, naked and aware of the spirit that spies on her from behind.
Schiele and the Erotic Nudes
At the beginning of the 20th century, while Egon Schiele’s fellow painters were depicting women as threatening, he foregrounded their beauty and sexuality. Schiele completely rejected traditional depictions of women in stereotyped positions, and instead experimented with female portraits in various postures and with different body shapes.
Sigmund Freud’s influence on Schiele is significant: while the painter was studying in Vienna, the psychoanalyst was publishing his groundbreaking work, Three Essays on Sexuality (1905). Twentieth-century Vienna, where Schiele lived, was experiencing obsessive discussions about sex, which paradoxically spread in an atmosphere of respectability where sexuality was related to castration, rejection, refusal and hiddenness.
In his depictions of the female nudes, Schiele brings to the fore this unhealthy and suppressed sexuality, portraying bodies that are consumed by uneasiness and by marks of sinful transgressions. The distortion of the human features shows the effects of social condemnations on them, as well as it mirrors the individuals’ troubled inner experiences, caused by an exhausting external and internal surveillance.
Woman touching her breast (1910) is a powerful example of this struggling sexuality. The woman here explicitly displays her sexuality, seemingly without shame. However, the shadows of black and pink on her body seem to suggest her inner conflict as well as society’s condemnation of such a free erotic behaviour. Other female nudes by Schiele that explicitly display the aspects mentioned above include Woman with Black Stockings (1913), Female Nude on her Stomach (1917), and Girl with Black Hair (1910).
Modigliani and the Reworking of Convention
The Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani is known for his portraits and nudes whose style is distinguished by elongation of figures as well as blank eyes –the artist famously claimed: ‘When I know your soul, I will paint your eyes’. His works, which include a broad number of nudes, such as Reclining Nude (1917), Nu Couchè (1918) and Nude on a Blue Cushion (1917), were not received well during his lifetime.
His Female Nude (1916) is a radical reworking of the conventions of figurative painting and sculpture in western European art. The graceful pose and expression of the sleeping model, her eyes closed, her head resting on her shoulder are typical of the tradition of classicist nudes. However, the woman’s face and its simplified features also recall non-western art, bringing to the fore Modigliani’s interest in and knowledge of Egyptian, African and Oceanic sculpture. The painter mixes conventional elements of the Western art with unconventional elements of other artistic cultures and, as a consequence, this painting was condemned as a challenge to the tradition of European art. The element that was specifically considered shocking by the art galleries of the time was Modigliani’s explicit depiction of pubic hair in his nudes, which was a well-known a taboo in Salon paintings. For this reason, the painter’s exhibition at Berthe Weill’s gallery in 1917 was closed on grounds of indecency.
Bacon and the Aggressive Sexuality
Francis Bacon is famous for his representation of body and face distortions that emanate a feeling of uneasiness and conflict. His portraits exasperate the disruption of facial features, as if they were suggesting the difficulty of a unified Self in an era of conflicts and contrasts.
The artist’s approach to the nude is even more interesting. Bacon especially focused on male nudes in order to challenge the phallocentric tradition that dominated art. However, in his work Reclining Woman (1961), he selects a female subject. Bacon depicts the woman as lying down in a confident and almost aggressive position. In this case, the female nude is clearly not an object to look at for the male gaze, as it is blurred and unclear. It is not reassuring but, on the contrary, it challenges the viewers, displaying a confident and aggressive subjective sexuality, which makes her, rather than an object of sexual desire, an embodiment of it.
Freud and the Plus Size Models
Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Resting is part of a series the painter started in 1993. The extreme realism, the unconventional beauty and the erotic quality are all significantly brought to the fore by Freud’s technique. Freud not only goes against the tradition of the artistic representation of the female nude, but he also defies the contemporary obsession with stereotyped beauty and skinny models that characterize contemporary fashion, adverts and magazines.
The woman he portrays in Benefits Supervisor Resting references a more ‘ancient’ beauty, typical of the primitive societies whose artifacts always depicted beauty in association to abundance and fertility. The Venus of Willendorf is an example of these artifacts. The statuette of the female figure, found in Austria, and probably made around 26,000 BC, was a symbol of fertility and childbearing, if not even a goddess. It is interesting to point out how a current tendency in fashion is the ‘plus-size models’, such as Ashley Graham, who contribute to the progressive emancipation of the stereotyped feminine image.
Thomas and the Female Emancipation
Mickalene Thomas is the only woman among the painters mentioned in this article. The contemporary African American painter from Brooklyn embodies a big step forward towards the liberation from conventions about the female representation, creating paintings that empower instead of weakening the female nude. Thomas’s paintings, photographs, and collages display varied ideas of beauty, race and femininity —real women with different body types, ages and hairstyles who exude a strong sense of confidence and elegance.
Thomas especially explores and asserts the complex identity of black women within Western tradition that, for centuries, had privileged the ‘idealized’ white female nude as protagonists. To do so, in A Little Taste Outside of Love (2007), she explicitly draws attention to the pose of her subject, which is a reference to the iconic paintings by masters such as Ingres –in this case, the subject painted by Thomas recalls Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque (1814)–, criticizing the lack of black women within visual western culture, while also asserting their empowered presence in the same spaces from which they were previously excluded.
1. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, “Manet, Olympia.” Khanacademy.org, (n.d.).
2. Carol Duncan, “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth Century Vanguard Painting”, in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 304–305.
3. Jonathan Jones, “Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude Review – a feminist artist ahead of his time.” The Guardian, (Oct. 2014).
4. Alastair Sooke, “Lucian Freud and the Art of the Full Figure Nude.” Culture, (May 2015).
5. “Bio.” Mickalenethomas.com, (n.d.).
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