Baroque Breasts

I’m fascinated in revisiting the debate over bared breasts in the Swedish National Assembly which was sparked late last year by the decision to remove a painting of the goddess Juno from the parliamentary rooms. While the first explanations for the dismissal of the topless goddess claimed awareness and sensitivity towards Muslim guests, Susanne Eberstein, the deputy speaker,  confessed that the real issue at stake was a feminist one;

“It’s tiresome (looking at) a bare-breasted woman when I sit at public dinners with foreign guests. I think it feels a little hard to sit there with men who look at us women.”

Tellingly, the initial parliamentary line was that racial sensitivity was the motivating factor, rather than be upfront about the real reason- that pictures of women, whether page 3, lads mags, or the history of the female nude in European painting are all part of the same patriarchal control of women’s bodies through the perpetuation of a certain type of image, in which women appear, naked, for the visual consumption and viewing pleasure of a male viewer.

Both the mechanism of high culture, as well as the omnipotent machine of mass media have co-opted images of women to create female archetypes of sexual availability and entertainment  and this process is so entrenched that it seems as normal to see a scantily clad or nude woman in a sexually provocative pose on the cover of a magazine, as it as on a bus stop, adorning the hoarding of a building, or in a collection of old master paintings in any respectable institution. Where it is not normal to see women without clothes on is in the workplace, a space from which sexual display and consumption and erotic entertainment are excluded, for obvious reasons.

The decision to remove the painting was answered by a predictable shower of insulting missiles by the online gynophobic community,  where said deputy speaker is judged as  jealous of the breasts in the painting, and deemd another (ugly) disappointment of the no-fun whinging feminist brigade.

Many commentators derided the decision, using the by now extremely tedious platitude ‘political correctness gone mad’, one comparing the paintings removal to the withholding of some of Rodin’s more sensual sculptures (including The Kiss ) from an exhibition of the artists work at Brigham Young university campus in Utah in the late 1990s.

But establishing the difference here is vital not just for validating the feminist concerns over the power of images in the workplace or in public, but for the current campaigns targeting the real harm that is being inflicted by the portrayal of women in the media.

Brigham Young university’s decision not to display the palpably erotic examples of Rodin’s sculpture, (for reasons of upholding dignity on campus) was fuelled by religious fundamentalism – the university is run by the Mormon church and requires a pledge of abstinence from non-marital sex from all students.  Schroder’s bare-breasted Juno does not invite a meditation on the human condition or the ecstasy and torture of physical love, as Rodin’s sculptures do but presents a naked body to leer at from a position of proprietorial dominance. It is an expensive piece of erotic titillation for a wealthy patron.

Sweden’s decision to respectfully remove a nude painting of the goddess Juno is underpinned by the recognition that the display of women’s naked bodies is a matter of sexual prejudice in a context where women are professional equals with the same agency  as men for making decisions about government, and the acknowledgement that the tradition of European oil painting is not innocuous in its power to shape archetypes which have the potential to threaten and undermine that balance.

This is not a prudish denial of the sexual beauty of the body,  nor a call for a Bonfire of the Vanities.  It is a different matter entirely and raises a point which we as art historians must continue to engage with – hat art history is as much to blame as lad’s mags for the normalization of the female body turned into spectacle for consumption and the perpetuation of the politics of the male gaze.

But it’s just a painting, right?  No one gets hurt, or do they?

We have a tendency to consider paintings of the past as inert;  in the era of the digital, immediately rendered image painting is too distant a material to seem linked to the real presence of a body – but imagine the difference if this were a photograph of a topless woman cavorting in a field.

This short film on Beauty by Rino Stefano Tagliafiero reminds us that with with even just a little animation all of those un-troublesome, canonical, two- a- penny nudes to be found in every major city’s art collection seem uncomfortably sexual, vulnerable and exposed.

John Berger’s analysis of the tradition of the nude and sexual politics in the seminal TV programme Ways of Seeing still hits the nail on the head more than forty years later.  One of his summary points about  the visual dynamics of gender in the history of Western art is as follows:

‘Men act, and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”  Watch an excerpt here.

I recently attended a debate on the democratization of art history in the media hosted at the inaugural View Festival of Art History and asked why in forty years nothing similar had been approached or embraced in broadcasting or publishing, surely the route to more democratic would be to revisit art history from this Marxist/ feminist perspective.

The short  and disappointing answer was that  there hasn’t been anyone comparable to the genius of John Berger who has come along since. Arts programming in the UK seems to be resistant to deploying a female voice to explore the history of culture, and was recently targeted by feminist writers such as Kathy Lette, who called for a female narrator to present the remake of the epic BBC series ‘Civilization’, which aired in 1969  and was written and presented by a suited and booted Kenneth Clarke.  His journey with the viewer through the Dark Ages to the refulgent glory of artistic achievement and flowering of humanity in the thirteenth century cast in stone the paradigm of the television art historian telling the story of art that was painted, written and narrated by the ‘dead, white man’.

Although the symbolic annihilation of the intellectual faculties of women in broadcasting and media is now diminishing, female historians often seem to be rolled out to present typically feminine angles to history and art history, addressing themes such as the domestic, or the story of courtesans, often assuming a gossipy style in relaying of the ins and outs of the bedchamber while the grand annals of culture are reserved almost exclusively for the male voice of history.

But women beware women; for an example of everyday unveiled sexism and prejudice, merely read Anna Baddeley’s blog post for The Spectator and ensuing comments about the validity of women presenting a series on civilization if they were prevented much from contributing to it. Oh, ok, that makes absolute sense.

I have digressed. Women are socialised from an early age to comply with stereotypes which are presented both in media and ‘high art’ and cultural representations, which consequently are perceived and tolerated because they are fashioned as being normal. Yes, hoards of female gazes devour Michelangelo’s David, as if he were a Renaissance Chippendale stripper, or linger over a full page spread of the equally heroically proportioned and de-robed David Gandy or objectify the tanned torso of the Diet Coke guy. And yes, men do suffer from  societal pressures enforcing an idealised body image (and bank balance.)

But the tradition of the male nude in Antiquity from which all of the above examples are cast was about heroism, virility, the poetry of the body, and nudity as a type of external armour, rather than an exposure of the body for consumption and critique.

When examples of art try to explore female sexuality from a similar point of celebration, petty fears about public decency are invoked as can be seen in the  recent removal of this painting by  Leena McCall from the Mall Galleries in London. 

Feminist artists and historians have been critiquing and addressing the display of the female body in representational art for decades. One of my first art history lessons with the great feminist Professor Tamar Garb covered Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe which I had claimed immediately and naively to ‘love’, as young art enthusiasts are prone to do. But when we were asked to recreate the paintings composition, the penny dropped. Two men, fully clothed, eat lunch and talk among themselves while a totally naked woman sits on the grass beside them, her garments discarded. Without actually stripping off, the mere thought of how it might feel to sit in front of the class with no clothes on, exposed to a crowd of gazes scrutinising my body taught me that paintings are always political.

This is no call for a neo- Mary Whitehouse  censorship of anything fun, sexual or saucy. The question is where it is appropriate- so that an appetite for pornography can be adequately and freely fed legally through made for purpose channels and not next to CBeebies magazine in the local supermarket. The same goes for frothy and sensual painting which is designed to titillate and flatter the master of the owner-spectator, and tease out envy in his friends who saw but did not own the body on display.

But a truly equal society will not lock these works away, nor censor them, but recognise the power of images in shaping our relationships with ourselves, our self-perception and acceptance of what appears to be normal. A truly equal society will raise consciousness to teach our young how women’s bodies have been used and the strangeness of that phenomenon, the disparity between how we are seen and how we are educated to be.  A truly equal society will educate about a darker time in the history of the sexes, where women were consumed as objects or facilitated the status of powerful men.

Yes it has ever been thus, but that is too much of a feeble platitude to stomach, because what has not ever been thus is the widespread access to education and careers, and yet the never decreasing pay gap between genders, the continued sexual violence against women, institutional sexism and the fact that young girls with their anxieties are helpless prey to the irresponsible assaults of advertising and media.

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1 Comment

  1. catherine mccormack says:

    Reblogged this on womeninthepicture and commented:

    In light of the recent censorship debates at Manchester Art Gallery in the UK and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I’m interested in returning to the ideas I wrote about in this piece. Without rethinking the historical depiction of women’s bodies in what we enshrine as ‘high culture’, a culture that normalises the nude female body as a spectacle and formulates our prevailing ideals of ‘beauty’, then I don’t think we will be able to fully address the restructure of gendered power.

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