Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Authored by B Mataua
I was walking around a contemporary exhibition here in Melbourne, when I heard a visitor whisper to their very bored companion that all she sees are nudes and if that's all there is to art, nude woman and excited men. I shook my head quietly and moved on with the comment lingering in my mind. That visitor was questioning the obsession vs. observation debate on the female nude and I believe she has the same misconceptions as many others do, that art is just used as an excuse to showcase the female nude in acceptable circles of observation. You have Manet's Olympia that addresses the obsession vs. observation issue a modern piece of straightforward female nude glory, but it's more than that isn't it? Olympia is more than a female nude, but a social commentary on prostitution and the consumption of vice staring the viewer in the face. And that's what I mean by obsession or observation, it is more than obsession for the so-called "male gaze" it is a representation of, a description of or a study of.
What I mean is, my sister is an artist and she goes to a prolific art school. When she first started drawing she had to learn the basics and that was proportion, perspective, space, colour and material. They learned this through the nude, male or female. She was able to understand proportion, how to use space and how to create illusion or three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional plane. I say this because sometimes it is just practical to paint something we are familiar with in order to learn. There is nothing that we are more familiar with than we are with the human body. When did it become a sexualised form deemed necessary for the male gaze? And when did women specifically start making it about sexual gratification. It was clear, using my example prior, that the man was bored I don't think he was even looking at the nude figure. And this is when I say that art is made with a specific viewer in mind, something that resonantes not with those on the whole but a specific population where a silent communication takes place. Why with the female population, the nude becomes sexualised? I say this as an open minded female mind you. My point here is that, the female nude for centuries now has been used as a point of study and is understandable that this point of study spills into artists work. I am not making the point that the female nude is an object therefore the nude is objectified, rather I am saying that it is a tool that has neither meaning or symbolic representation.
The female nude is a beautiful form that represents, grace, fertility and more for me rather than a highly sexulised figure to be consumed by the male population. Don't get me wrong, I understand that pornography is prevalent and that many use the female nude to exploit but I don't believe that's entirely the case with fine art. The act of the voyeur is subjective, something that Warhol often addresses with his films including his work on BlowJob. Again, I would argue the female nude is a tool of learning. With that rant in mind, before looking at fine art as an acceptable way to present nude for the subjection of voyeurism and the male gaze, remember that the female nude is a beautiful representation of what is natural and good.
The female nude can also be a very powerful image to the viewer, we see that with Manet's Olympia. She takes ownership of her body, instead of an object to desire she challenges the viewer to look at her body as she displays it without abandon. It is a powerful image of a women in a trade that demeans and devalues the female body. Rather, she takes ownership of her own image/body so much so that the viewer shys away from the unabashed gaze.
One such artist was Carolee Schneemann, a feminist artist, whom addressed sex and gender through art & media by using her own body. At one event she held red paint in her vagina and naked she released the paint onto a canvas while naked pushing the boundaries and conceptual ideas around abstract painting and happenings that were big at the time. She not only addressed taboo subjects such as the female period, birth and the nude female figure she demonstrated through this performance its strength and beauty in all its forms.
The female nude can be a powerful tool to use symbolically and for learning how to draw or paint. The reality is, it is something to observe and appreciate and learn from rather than subjectify, objectify and demean.