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Objectication and Artistic Nudity

(22 Posts)
SpiritedQuill Wed 12-Nov-14 14:32:04

I picked up a copy of a magazine called "The Artist" this month. I was drawn to it by the watercolour elephants on the cover and didn't realise I was about to wonder about objectification in art, courtesy of the editor and a feature article.

I'm coming at this from the perspective of someone who creates (er... entry level) art and is interested in art but not educated on art criticism or history beyond a very basic portion of my Standard Grade Art course. I was just thinking about this and wanted to talk to other feminists about it. I don't claim to have made an astonishing new discovery or have a startling insight into the subject.

The editor Sally Bulgin acknowledges the controversial of nudes in art. She discusses an current exhibition of Egon Schiele 'The Radical Nude' and quotes Steven Lindsay from the feature article (which is about the approach of two contemporary artists to the nude form) "Painting the nude is a fundamental part of art; it teaches balance, form and relativity in a way no other subject matter can."

She says "For these reasons alone we should challenge and reconsider the distinctions and age-old debates about art and eroticism."

The feature article, also written by a woman, Susie Hodge, interviews two male artists (Michael Alford and Steven Lindsay) who explain "why they find the nude so compelling".

The article is illustrated by three 'nudes' by each artist.

Michael Alford
1. 'Reclining Nude, Red Damask' is of a naked woman lying on her back, her arms covering her nipples, her groin area covered by a light cloth, she is facing away from the artist/viewer who is looking slightly down to her/
2. 'Reclining Nude, Gold' is of a naked woman lying on her stomach, propped up on arms which cover her breasts, feet in the air, back and bottom silhouetted, looking away from the artist/viewer who is looking straight on to her.
3. 'Summer 1' is of a naked woman lying on her back in a twisted position from a foreshortened perspective - her head and chest close to the viewer, her hips and legs into the background. She is facing away from the artist/viewer who looks down to her. The position looks uncomfortable, I'm not sure if it is quite as impossible as some of the spine breaking comic strip ones that have been parodied/critiqued on The Hawkeye Initiative ink{\]]/}

Michael says "You have to understand anatomy, but you're not really painting it. You start with a real person - you want to capture the specificity of her form, her pose. But from this point, the process moves in the opposite direction from portraiture; you're not painting individuals when you are painting nudes, you're painting archetypes. In fact the less individualised they are, the more successful they are."

I think this is relevant too: Susie writes "One of the issues that affected artists in the past was the cost and availability of decent models. Finding them is easier than it used to be thanks to online agencies, says Michael 'but their availability and suitability is often a problem, quite apart from the cost'. "

Steven Lindsay
1. 'A Moment of Introspection' is of a naked woman seated on a stool, her bottom half in profile, but then her back twisted so that she is looking away from the artist/viewer into the back of the canvas. The artist is looking slightly down to her but not far off eye level.
2. 'Reclining Nude' is of a naked woman lying flat on her back on what looks like a flat slab or podium a bit below eye level, her face and hair obscured by a raised hand, her hips and legs oddly tilted to face the artist/viewer. Her face is in profile but her eyes are hidden by her hand.
3. 'Male Nude Study' is of a man standing - though lower legs are out of frame. He is in profile with his hands on his hips, though his arms are out behind him. His genitals are partly visible in profile. Perspective is that the artist is looking up towards him, he is above eye level.

Susie writes "Steven's nude paintings portray detached figures... The person he paints is less important than what the figure represents."

I found the article set off my feminism 'objectification' sensies very loudly. I realise that art is a visual medium and is bound to make objects out of its subjects to some degree. But the treatment of female bodies, differs to male ones (you'll have noticed that in title, the male nude is marked with gender, clearly he is an exotic flavour, different from the normal (female) flavour. He has a more active stance and is not contorted. All of the models are not looking out of the picture and so don't challenge the voyeuring (male?) gaze of the artist or viewer.

Presumably it is possible to paint the human body and appreciate its form as an artist without posing the model in ways which encourage further objectification and promotes sexist tropes of the female as passive and receptive and the male as active and thrusting?

I am not really particularly directing my ire at these individuals, because I realise they are a small and less offensive sample than many others. Just the general "Damn, there's sexism again..."

A bigger problem is the relative sexism of the industry towards artists themselves. I did watch a rather good documentary on BBC4 about women artists throughout history being somewhat invisible. But it was before we had a recording box,so I can't watch it again.

I'm aware of the campaign about whether women need to be naked to get into an [American] gallery a few years ago. I don't know if things have improved since.

Sorry for the essay.

GarlicNovember Wed 12-Nov-14 16:43:27

"you're not painting individuals when you are painting nudes, you're painting archetypes"

Then it's a pity he can't distinguish between an archetype and a stereotype grin

Question from your thoughts: Does the artist have a responsibility to query his own internalisation of gendered sexual stereotypes? Or it it permissible (as Alford seems to imply) to pander to those stereotypes in order to sell more pictures?

I rather suspect Lucian Freud would have disagreed that de-personalised nudes are more 'successful' than portraits of the sitter's individuality.

cailindana Wed 12-Nov-14 16:46:11

Take a look at this artist:

She doesn't paint nudes, she paints women who happen to be naked.

A nude is faceless lump of sexual meat.

GarlicNovember Wed 12-Nov-14 16:57:45

I've had a look through Steven Lindsay's gallery. It strikes me that playing around with objectification is part of his thing - almost all of the portraits are stiffly posed and strangely accessorised. Perhaps it might be interesting to ask him the question!

Michael Alford's nudes, I think, are cheesily stereotyped (nicely done, but still cheesy) and made for hanging on expensive staircases. I'd quite like to ask him what he thinks about whether he thinks he's pandering to pornification, but I think Lindsay's answers would be more intriguing smile

GarlicNovember Wed 12-Nov-14 17:00:56

.... and how many times can I put 'think' in the same sentence?! Failed deletions blush

Chaplin's work is lovely, cailin. She manages to be both 'real' and witty at the same time ... or maybe the wit's the easy part, since real life is quite funny!

cailindana Wed 12-Nov-14 17:15:24

"Nudes" IMO are a male idea of what a woman is - supine, sprawled, inviting, faceless, just a body. The nude is very much an object - a challenging set of lines and figures that are difficult to render on paper. It is an extremely stylised type of painting - the nudes you mention here are very typical of the genre. They are bland pieces of rubbish IMO.
When Alford says "you're not painting individuals when you are painting nudes, you're painting archetypes," he basically says, women aren't people, they are representative of what men want. Even when actually represented full in the flesh as the muse of art they are still hidden and anonymous, merely bodies for reproduction - pun intended.

That's why Chapin's work is so startling - we are simply not used to seeing women as actual people who happen to have bodies rather than bodies with faceless heads attached.

GarlicNovember Wed 12-Nov-14 17:41:31

I didn't want to be rude about the artists referenced in Quill's OP, especially as they're not bad. Neither seems particularly original (putting gas masks on your sitters doesn't make you original), and I wouldn't take their work as representative of "art" in a broad-topic discussion. Representative of "men" and a failure to see past cultural objectification, perhaps.

SpiritedQuill Wed 12-Nov-14 18:37:24

Ooh thanks for all your opinions so far. I love Aleah Chapin's paintings thanks for introducing me to them.

I think that the editorial was suggesting, but didn't necessarily say outright, was that the problem people have with nude paintings is nakedness and that it comes from a prudishness about bodies and sex.

But when I looked at them, it wasn't the fact they were naked, or that some were a little sexual. It was the inequality of it. The artists quite literally looked down on many of the female models whilst looking up to the single male one. The women in submissive sometimes contorted positions, when the man is in a natural one.

I don't know whether its reasonable to expect male artists to see that they are just copying the cliches of the past, as though women's status has not changed at all or not. But I think as someone who can see that, reading it in the context of the editor saying that we should rethink how we view such art given that it is an important and complex subject to paint, its reasonable to point it out.

I agree that it is a challenge to paint, and involves skill, but I don't think it puts it above critique that painting naked people could be done differently. In a way that doesn't just carry on centuries of images of women as lesser, as submissive, sexual objects without personhood.

I'll have a look at the websites of the artists, obviously I just saw a few examples of their work, and I'm sure that from the examples I saw they aren't the worst examples of female objectification in art.

Thanks for reading through my long post and responding.

BellaSolanum Wed 12-Nov-14 18:47:44

I think that, unfortunately, there's a lot of artists who do nudes, but few who do them well.

I think that there can be a case for treating the nude body as an object, in the same manner you'd do a still life, where I have a problem is when it's a nude of a woman presented as a specifically sexual object.

GarlicNovember Wed 12-Nov-14 18:54:25

This one by Michael Alford particularly got on my nerves. There's just no excuse!

BellaSolanum Wed 12-Nov-14 19:00:20

I saw that one and had to double check where he'd drawn her hand. Totally unneccessary.

GarlicNovember Wed 12-Nov-14 19:07:30

Hah, me too, Bella! Prudishness? Perhaps if he had the nerve to paint a real woman doing real masturbation, he'd produce something more meaningful.

I was just thinking a bit more about this ... the problem people have with nude paintings is nakedness and that it comes from a prudishness about bodies and sex.

How about: the problem artists have with nude paintings is nakedness and that it comes from a prurience about bodies and sex? If they can't separate naked bodies from thoughts of sex - and can't think about sex without resorting to clichés - they can't properly depict real people naked.

BellaSolanum Wed 12-Nov-14 19:20:13

Absolutely agree, I don't know if you saw the painting by Leena McCall that was removed from a gallery for being "too sexual" but was then replaced by a more traditional nude (eg. woman as passive)? I loved that one

GarlicNovember Wed 12-Nov-14 19:23:45

What? That was 'too sexual'?! hmm I hadn't seen it before, Bella, thanks.
She's got attitude and pubes ... Now, which of those is the offensive part, I wonder?

BarryTheHatchet Wed 12-Nov-14 19:29:22

I used to work as a life model, both for classes and for a professional. Interestingly, the professional always asked for 'straight up and down' poses, whereas the poses for classes usually included reclining ones with lots of curvy angles.

KatherinaMinola Wed 12-Nov-14 19:38:04

The art world can be very unreflective.

Do you know the work of Alice Neel?

BellaSolanum Wed 12-Nov-14 19:38:21

It's a mystery isn't it? wink Especially as they replaced it with a nude

BellaSolanum Wed 12-Nov-14 19:45:02

Alice Neel's stuff is lovely, I like Jenny Saville's too, especially Branded and The Mothers

NormaStanleyFletcher Wed 12-Nov-14 21:46:00

All of the paintings by women are so muchmore interesting than the ones by men (sorry, not eloquent tonight); THAT is what jumps out at me.

NormaStanleyFletcher Wed 12-Nov-14 21:46:30

And the women depicted look interesting.

YonicScrewdriver Wed 12-Nov-14 22:26:29

Tangential, but Mary Beard was on Woman's Hour today talking about representation of female heroes in art and how Edith Cavell was portrayed as a saintly nurse rather than a begrimed resistance worker, and how a statue of her facing the firing squad made her smaller than the soldier and gun!

BellaSolanum Thu 13-Nov-14 00:18:01

Norma Yep, I noticed that too.

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