Reflect and analyse how the depiction of male and female nude has changed over the centuries.
The OCA recommends John Burger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’, a 1972 BBC series, as a good starting point.
I’ll watch each programme in the series, there are four episodes, and write a reaction.
When I’ve finished the series I’ll write a conclusion and also try to read one or two of the other recommended books.
So… although I’ll post this now I will return to it over the duration of this course.
Oh… that was great!
Firstly, he’s talking about traditional European art from its birth around 1400 to its death in 1900. I’m taking this as significant because, for instance, only European art used a single pint of view… he uses the image of a reverse lighthouse with everything focusing back on the single viewer.
That would not apply to traditional African art.
Also, when he talks about paintings only existing in one place that wouldn’t cover japanese or Chinese woodcut prints for a mass market.
There was nothing about nude in the first programme but it’s a great introduction to viewing European art and well worth commentating on.
I took four pages of notes so this is a much simplified version!
In a nutshell he says art has been divorced from having a single unique meaning. Before photography it was a unique surface, in a unique place [context] with the viewer physically present. With photography it has become multi present in multiple forms, in multiple contexts and with multiple meanings.
And as such it has become like words to be arranged and manipulated.
Before photography you had to go and see the painting as it was intended. It’s context in a church or castle, was part of its meaning. You saw the whole picture which was still and silent. Either the artist or the commissioner (or both) gave it a meaning. You stood before it and absorbed that meaning – you connected with the painting, and the building it was housed in, on its own terms.
Now it’s meaning is malleable and can be manipulated by whoever controls the means of production. Be that in a book or a television programme.
In an art book for example there is false mystification with erudite explanations giving ownership and control to the expert, in an advert the meaning is subverted (by music, video, editing – such as picking out a single part of the canvas – and the words around it) to sell us something. What both have in common is that the meaning is controlled by the user to their benefit. And has nothing to do with the original meaning of the painting or how it naturally connects with and enhances our lives.
He argues that we should be sceptical and aware of art as a language used to manipulate us for the benefit of the producer.
The original painting was viewed as a whole picture in silence, and how a painting does not need unravelling in time unlike a film or music. Music affects our emotional response and close up radically change the meaning. How we stand in silence before a painting and enter the tunnel that connects us through time to the moment of its creation, and even questions the meaning of time itself.
Money has replaced religiosity. People journey to see a religious icon… and that they don’t even need to see it to know that god is behind it – and close their eyes in reverence as the que shuffles past. And how today we will journey to a Leonardo painting behind bullet proof glass in a stream of people because it is worth 10 million.
This all goes back to my definition of art (I’m open to changing but this is where I am at the moment): that true art connects with us as humans – otherwise it’s decoration or manipulation – and touches something inside our shared humanity… whether it’s recognising a political system, entering into beauty, or seeing the world through another persons eyes so we are no longer alone.
Which isn’t to say we can’t do what the advertisers and experts do and use art as a language to support/promote our own points of views to ourselves or others. For instance pinning Goya’s painting of the execution next to a newspaper article of modern-day executions of totalitarian regimes.
But, I would say, using a painting as a language is different to enjoying a painting as art.
So, it will be very interesting to see how he deals with male and female nudity in traditional art – not about its creation but about its usage and meaning today, and whether we should still create it.
At the moment I can’t feel there is any other reason for nudity than to satisfy the male or female gaze. Whether that’s acceptable out of a learning situation (part of learning to draw is learning how to draw figures) is a matter of degree and personal social/political value judgements.
This episode is about the nude in European art from about 1400 to 1900.
My main reaction to this episode was anger. I may have subconsciously known that the nude exploited women, but I’d not really thought about it. When it’s pointed out to you you can’t ‘un-see’ it… and it’s both shocking and glaringly obvious.
He had a great definition for being painted without clothes:
Naked: to be completely oneself.
Nude: to be seen naked by others but not recognised for oneself.
There was a lot of history in the episode so I’m going to try to boil it down to my interpretation of his argument and my ‘modern’ day spin.
The paintings of nudes during this period represents the position of women in the social elite. They were objects to be used by men. The women had no action in the world and their value, status and power was derived from the men they were attached to. The prize for being beautiful to the male gaze was to be attached to a man.
The level of hypocrisy is breathtaking: painting a naked woman because they enjoyed looking at her and then putting a mirror in her hand and calling it vanity – when she was forced to make herself ‘beautiful’ to satisfy male desire. And in doing so echoing the church’s blaming Eve for original sin when god sentenced her to a life of subjugation to man… God said that Eve’s punishment for biting the apple (original sin was the womans fault!) was that man was now her god. A whole ideology that ruled church and state for 100’s of years based on the subjugation of women.
Placing the moral blame on women for making themselves look ‘beautiful’ for men is also a way of diminishing and controlling women.
If a woman’s very survival (let alone her physical comfort and status) depends on being attractive to a man it is logical that she would focus a lot of attention on that.
He starts the programme by saying that men dream of women and women dream of being dreamt of… of being attractive… of winning the beauty competition. We infer (or hope) that that was then not now.
In the paintings the women are passive and available for the viewer. They rarely look at male lovers even if they are in the painting, but look out at their real master (the owner of the painting – the viewer) or away from their ‘lover’. The only competition is cupid who perversely as the giver of sexual attraction and conquest is a toddler presenting no sexual competition to the adult male viewer.
Women are shown lying down, languid, lips often apart, wide-eyed responding with charm to the male viewer they know is looking even though they don’t know them. They have no pubic hair as that is a symbol of sexuality and their sexual passion needs to be minimised. The bodies are not real but idealised objects of desire… like the woman winning the competition in the many paintings of The Judgement of Paris.
They are not shown active… dancing… or initiating sex for their own pleasure… just as available and acquiescent to the demands of the man. They are there to feed an appetite not have any of their own.
In other cultures (with a different audience) women are shown as equal in a celebration of nakedness. In Karma Sutra painting in India nudity is depicted equally, both women and men are active and consumed by sexual love.
One is not there to feed the sexual appetite of the other.
Male lovers were painted but these tended not to be for public display… and were generally pornographic.
The height of this practice was in the public academic art of the 19th century. Huge canvases filled with nude women ready to feed the most ravenous male appetite or wildest fantasy hung in important public buildings. Yet at the time it was not seen as ludicrous but acceptable, condoned and hung proudly with the blessing of the art world and the men with social and political power… in retrospect revealing the unquestioned control by men over women in ‘polite’ society.
The questions that arise from this are: Why? How? Did it matter? Does it matter now? And how does it affect our art practice today?
Because they could. Men had absolute power over women and wanted (they couldn’t under the Christian mores have had pornographic paintings on public display) to titillate themselves by looking at nude women, so they did.
Rich men and important groups of men… initially the church, in medieval times, and then more secular were the only ones who could afford to pay for art. And artists satisfied their market. It was possibly so acceptable that neither the artist nor the buyers knew what they were doing… or maybe they did and chose to ignore it?
It would need a social historian to answer that one!
There wasn’t a mass market for art… and the elite controlled the flow of ideas and images. That they didn’t challenge it themselves is interesting. The challenge to nudity in society and on public display (like girly magazines having plain covers) didn’t come from enlightenment within the ruling classes. The change came as women gradually became more active in the world and gained economic and political power.
It was also challenged when photography was invented, along with the mass distribution of images, as artists and thinkers started questioning the role of art. Artists such as Edouard Manet who painted ‘Le dejeuner sur l’herbe’ in 1863 exposing nudity in art for what it was.
But my feeling is that real change was driven more by the increasing power of women in society – the right to own land – to vote – to work – to have economic and social power.
Did it matter?
HUGELY!!!!!! Painting nudes normalised abuse. It normalised the view that the role of women in society was to satisfy men . It mattered that the artists were painting these pictures and it mattered hugely that they were glorified by being hung in public places and the corridors of power.
Does it matter now?
Less so… art is not the dominant social force it once was… that has passed to TV/film/magazines… and the mass distribution of images. And art can be manipulated by anybody with a computer, so the artist and owner have little or no control over its usage.
And the ideas, rights and needs of women are part of modern society… in some groups more than others. Paintings of nudes, like girly magazines, are no longer acceptable on public display and would be challenged.
Though it’s ironic that alongside this public shift in attitude there is now freely available porn in private on the internet. As though the ideas and usage have not gone away but just gone underground, hidden. Maybe a bit like Victorian mistresses? The wife for public appearances, home keeping and child-bearing and the mistress and prostitute for sex and fantasy.
That said, it does matter… there is less economic need to paint nudes for artists. Though artists always had a choice as there were portraits of men and women and lots of other subjects… it just seems like nudity sold.
And still does!
So, if an artist chooses to make financial gain by feeding the male gaze and lending support to an exploitative view of women as objects (or as John Berger puts it – as ‘sights’ to be viewed not as individuals recognised for themselves) he is making a choice.
A choice that affects him, his model and society at large.
There is an argument that the model enters into the contract freely and gets paid. But I would counter that most women don’t strip naked for a living if they have economic choices and that the implications are bigger than the contract between artist and model. Nudes lend support to the owner/viewer (and wider society) that women are there to feed male desires.
How does it affect our art practice today?
Now nudes have been exposed an artist has to make a decision whether he will profit by serving the male gaze or paint something else.
It affects him, the owner/viewer, the model and societal attitudes to women. It is a significant social and political act.
Artists cannot control how their work is used however much they try to control copyright. Once a picture is painted and sold it’s almost impossible to stop it being copied and distributed online or foresee how it will be used. It can be changed by the addition of music, movement, cropping… and used to support arguments and for the benefit of others in the way the artist never intended.
But there is a world of difference between having a work of art subverted without permission and painting a nude.
I think it’s fine to paint naked men and women but personally I would not paint a nude.
A final point… John Berger said that during this period there were tens of thousands of nudes painted and only 20-30 exceptions. He mentioned paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt and George De La Tour which were more like personal love poems, character pieces where the woman is seen as herself.
It would be nice if in the future we looked back and those numbers were reversed. (Though we probably don’t need tens of thousands of naked paintings – a few exquisite ones would probably do!!!)
Okay… I just watched that all the way through without taking pages of notes… so this won’t be as detailed. I might watch it again but I think I got the gist.
This should be a lot shorter.
Oil painting (from 1500 to 1900) was all about ownership.
(Not withstanding the few notable exceptions which break the rule! He cites three pictures. One by Rubens which celebrated the land and château near where he lived… but the owner is away and the land is full of plenty… the hunting is free. It shows a world of plenty contradicting ownership and the entire history of private property. A second by Vermeer of a woman weighing gold or pearls that is really about a moment in time (held between her fingers) and weighing the nature of existence; and the third the older self-portrait by Rembrandt showing him bereft of property and wealth,alone with the question of existence.
But, John Berger emphasises that out of hundreds of thousands of oil paintings these were a handful. And however much the art experts try to hold these up as examples they do not represent traditional oil painting in this period.
Of the 99.99% of paintings we see only a tiny proportion in our galleries, but they hung everywhere there was money, status, wealth, ownership and power.
He starts by saying that the style was to paint objects as if they were real. Be that goblets, lutes, exotic food, tapestry, pedigree livestock or country estates. Real things which are buyable. So the purpose of the painting was to advertise the owners good fortune prestige and wealth.
It is ironic that the paintings themselves, that displayed these objects, were also objects that could be bought and sold. They were in some respects the most valuable objects of all.
Many paintings were about classical mythology in classical literature and seem remote to us, but to them it was very important, a secret world entered only by those initiated with specialist knowledge, the privileged few. It put them apart.
They could imaginatively put themselves into these paintings. The painting gave them props, setting, characters and a situation… they could play out the protagonist as they wished. They could be the god displaying all the classical virtues and making all the classical gestures. It gave them a mythology and reinforced their vision of themselves.
It was part of the mentality that let them start the slave trade, conquering far away lands, destroying the native culture (and gods) and replacing it with ours, with Christianity. Otherwise the natives would not be difficult to control. We siphoned off the wealth of the world for our benefit, it’s that wealth that made the grand living possible, and the rich justified it by telling themselves they were the most advanced civilisation in the world. The natives were savages and barely human so they could do with them as they pleased. They were noble gods with the world as their playground.
Another point he makes about paintings is that you can’t hang music or poetry on the walls – but you can hang paintings. And in those paintings you can see your wealth displayed. Mr and Mrs Andrews, for instance, would take great pleasure in Gainsborough’s painting showing them as owners of their land.
Land that was not to be shared… in those days you could be whipped for stealing a potato and deported for poaching.
Even today paintings represent wealth and galleries (where that wealth is housed) are guarded like banks.
So, painting served material wealth – not spiritual as in the early religious paintings or in symbolic paintings from around the world. It was the first time in human history paintings had realistically represented objects (possessions) as if they were actually there. That could be expensive goods from silver trays, to goblets to pineapples; livestock with a pedigree as proof of value (not in nature but like an object emphasising the social pedigree and wealth of the owner; and buildings, not idealised beauty, but as seats of power and privilege.
The rich (the only people who could afford art) also bought portraits to celebrate, not things, the ‘confidence to whom ownership brought confidence’. Generations of human bloodstock showing the continuity of power and worthiness – 100’s of thousands all over the country, but representing only a tiny proportion of the population. The portraits painted their patrons like a mixture of livestock, furniture and tailors dummies. The paintings said, I had power – I existed.
Women were often painted in seas of expensive materials emphasising wealth.
There were also paintings of Mary Magdalene, but they were sexually hypocritical. The title was framed in sacred love – but the painting was about profane love. They were painted as pretty, well dressed available young women not as religious icons. No different to portraits of young women for their betrothed, the women were objects that could be bought and owned.
The poor of this period do not have any portraits or annals.
So, it seems to me that you could argue the painters of this period were craftsmen not artists. They were employed like architects or builders to make something useful for the owners, not to reveal a human truth. The value was not to humanity (like Shakespeare’s plays) or society at large… their use and value was solely for the benefit of the owner. A painting was like a car – it did something very practical for the owner – it didn’t get him around – it displayed his wealth – his right to ownership – his confidence – reinforced his self-image as being like a God and gave him an imaginary stage to play out his mythological fantasies.
In short it was a great skill in grubby servitude to money – but around 1900 it was freed by photography and suddenly had to find a soul. It had an existential crisis which resulted in 50 years of isms while art found an identity and purpose.
A final, personal point, is that art is still used by the rich for the same purpose… portraits of the wealthy are still commissioned to hang in stately halls and castles. And only the rich can afford to buy high art.
But now all the might, beauty and undeniable power of the painted image can serve mankind as a whole.