Thursday, July 12, 2007

Observations of a Female Artist depicting the Feminine Nude

As an artist and a woman rendering nude studies, I find myself to be the subject of much curiosity, some of which has been a challenge both personally and professionally while subjecting me to questionable moral speculation. Not all cases have been received negatively. The moments I have been heralded have offered more encouragement than possibly is warranted. These instances have been received with profound emotion as I have a deep respect and admiration for the human body for various reasons. However, the occasions in which I have been maligned for rendering nudes are perhaps felt more intensely than the praise I have received as my character is most often insulted.

The feeling I find most common is that women are often discredited for not having the proper appreciation of the feminine form. Therefore the question arises of how they could possibly render a female nude to the full satisfaction of artistic capacity? This amazes me and more often than not challenges me to create in different ways. Mostly such an insinuation further perpetuates my passions to prove otherwise for woman inhabits the feminine body and therefore is intimately aware of its subtle variations.

However, I understand that rendering figures as art is generally inconceivable to the common mind as largely our society has been polluted by pornography, stripping the general public of classical artistic esthetics otherwise appreciated for centuries. Therefore a woman depicting nude figures in art is often regarded as exploiting her own sex. While heralded by some in a perverse sense, she is commonly denounced by others for lacking morals. As such, I was ever so pleased when I read that Ruth Bernhard said:

If I have chosen the female form in particular, it is because beauty has been debased and exploited in our sensual 20th century. Woman has been the subject of much that is sordid and cheap, especially in photography. To raise, to elevate, to endorse with timeless reverence the image of woman has been my mission.

The exploits Bernhard speaks of did not stop with photography, they have expanded over time and have ravaged the art world as well as all other artistic expressions. As such, I have not always found the courage to paint nudes, sometimes abandoning them for years at a time. Although an appreciation for beauty is always in my heart, bravery has often fled because of accusations depriving me of decency and artistic ethics. Bernhard’s ideals, as stated, have always been a part of my artistic goal, even before discovering her work, or her statement.

Not only that, I feel deeply indebted to a sense of preservation of feminine figurative art for as a woman I understand most profoundly that creation of life, through the womb, is a miracle in of itself. These bodies we live in are more than machines, or bags of flesh that encase our souls, they are art – living and moving in form. It is a fascination with the body that begins like a seed and blossoms into a bud, which then blooms to the full height of it’s glory like the most exotic of flowers, before fading quite suddenly and returning to the earth from which it sprung that I wish to capture for beauty is fleeting. All bodies eventually fade like perennials in a garden, or wilt like flowers left unattended and forgotten in a vase.

As a society, we feel free to look at a floral display, but yet we’ve been told there is only one way to look at the body and that is in a sexual sense. This is not true, it is okay to admire loveliness, to elevate it, and appreciate it for what it is while it lasts. My only goal is to promote that which is exquisite in a state of innocence so that it remains timeless and becomes immortal through art to our period of history. These days we live in will not last, just as we will not, but hopefully through art, our splendor will not be forgotten. It is the obligation of the artist to preserve radiance in its purist state.

All the thoughts which diminish, rather than preserve, the female form in art can be attributed to the affects of society throughout history. I feel many of our greatest artists have been moved by such challenges, and perhaps painted as an anointment to aid in healing. I firmly believe Gauguin saw and experienced this in the society he lived in, however to the opposite extreme, in which puritanical ways stripped cultured civilizations of passion by undermining women in their emotional gifts to perpetuate life through an expression of love. He lived in a time when woman were bartered and sold into marriage, or for pleasure, to such an extent that even more than a century later, we are still confused in our healing as we try to find balance in romance. As such, Gauguin sought to “become a savage,” I think, to preserve innocence and truth through art as the quintessence of purity at the time was mistaken for savagery. Therefore, the purist reason I paint nudes is to protect that innocence, to find that balance between points in history, which allows us to truly love and create life as a result.

We are art, in all that we do, as a collective whole manifested in our thoughts that announce what is acceptable and what is not. Our art is a consciousness presiding over our culture and should be preserved as such to either depict society as it is, or to heal the distortions that dominate and mutilate it. Therefore, I always find the courage some how to return to paint that which I cherish: the human form from the feminine perspective and all its rights to freedom and expression of love. As Jean Dubuffet said:

I would like people to see my work as a rehabilitation of scorned values and, in any case, a work of ardent celebration.


Unknown said...

Quite brilliant. So, can you give us a link to your paintings???

New York City said...

Great essay! It brought up in my mind a great number of interpretations that might be made by different groups in society. I have often (even as a male, though to a lesser degree) been subjected to criticism for painting the nude for the very same reasons. But an odd thing happened when I moved to New York. In the "Art Community" here, suddenly what was considered transgressive most everywhere else in America, was viewed as not transgressive enough. I was criticized for being too safe, too beautiful, or not "Avante Guarde" whatever that means today.

In the vein of perhaps a continuation of this line of thoughts, I'd like to know what you think about a common feminist argument: That throughout art history the female nude has always been the object of the viewer (who is assumed to be male). And other than a few examples (like Manet's Olympia) the woman depicted is presented to the male viewer most often in a submissive pose. Thus depicting the female nude in any traditional sense is a form of propaganda subjugating women by reinforcing male dominance.

Denise Williams said...

I would like to first Thank you for your compliment and then return the same to your many faceted inquiry.

Regarding the feminist argument of the historical female nude being an object to presumably male viewers and presented in a submissive pose with the thought that any continuance of this manner of depiction reinforces male dominance over women, I do have some thoughts about that subject.

First I would like to say a number of women enjoy female nudes for aesthetic reasons, though we as a society choose to over look that fact largely. It is my understanding that women are more drawn to the female figure than men realizing the artistic value. So, I would have to dispute the female figure, as stated by some, as being an object to any particular viewer at all. I would say rather that all subject manner within a piece of art is an object to a vast appreciative audience. It is not proper to exclude some of that audience in favor of a more limited one simply to suit our political purposes.

Yes, I have heard the feminist argument as well and regret that I have never taken the time to actually ponder its origins. Although to me, the works you speak of, were at one time regarded as pornographic, where as now, in the twenty-first century, as being suppressive to women especially in comparison to what the pornography industry offers today. This thought baffles me and I am still pondering it in hope of achieving an understanding which continues to elude me.

As an artist, I try to keep an open mind. As such when I view work, I hope to form some semblance of understanding not only of the artist’s point of view, but that of the period of history and the politics under which the pieces were created. I personally don’t view those works as submissive, not then nor now. The reason I do not is I find them largely liberating to women especially during the periods they were rendered. For historical purposes, though Olympia was presumably of a prostitute, Manet did not depict his subject as low or base. In the eye of the viewer, she is a woman in repose not denounced for the profession she is disposed to. If we understand what the women subjected to that profession endured, then as now, we might see Manet’s Olympia differently. Instead of submitting to the service of men, she might be a woman who has risen above the abuses directed toward those in her profession and has liberated herself of it, thus the depiction of her repose and the woman in service to her. I have always argued this point strongly. Though she is said to be a prostitute, when I look at the work, I only a see a woman who used to be a courtesan and is no more, now she is equal to man as her poise is similar to that of a bourgeois with his feet upon a desk, or a Roman Official reclined for his evening meal.

Certainly, in western civilization that profession is no longer heralded, however the piece should not be subject to discrimination for it only marks the ideals of a certain time in history. Does it shatter those ideals, or support them? That answer is left to the discrimination of the individual viewer. However, if we examine history, we learn that many women of the time suffered equally and far worse than Manet’s Olympia. I think his piece, when painted, called attention to a matter that needed to be addressed. Since the issue was not academically scrutinized, the piece was slandered then, and is still done so today.

Another group of works depicting women is the Rape of the Sabines, which has been depicted by many artists throughout history. I feel the reason it has been rendered so often, just as our ladies of the evening have, is simply because women have been subjected to such atrocities with the common public not doing much more than turning a blind eye to it for all of history regardless of efforts otherwise. We see this still in our era manifesting in different forms in society contingent upon the continent. In western civilization, I think it’s much more subtle than else where.

If critics wanted to point out women being portrayed as submissive in art work, these pieces would be the place one would understand that reasoning without question. Considering these women are all subject to receive what is known as a heinous and violent crime toward women, I am always amazed that no artist has actually depicted the horror one must experience upon such violation. Perhaps considering historical art, this is understandable as it reflects the values of the time regardless of the truth there in.

When we understand that history once condoned such actions against women as our mythological gods were excused from such behavior for being overwhelmed by the earthly beauty of women and therefore were considered more of a victim to women’s charms than the women who were assaulted, we begin to comprehend the art. An entirely different subject, but one no less important when speaking politically of submissiveness of women in art.

Yes, I understand there is much contention upon the need to strengthen the female nude. However, I don’t feel depicting them more raw in nature is the answer – leave that to pornography, it seems to do just fine all on it’s own and doesn’t need help from the art world – if that is in fact the purpose that would be suggested in such renderings. Just as portraying the nude female figure with the strength of Atlas, and having her lift heavy boulders to demonstrate her strength is not a depiction of feminine strength, nor is crude art. Where that so, then perhaps, Diane the Huntress could be nude as she slays a dear with a buck knife rather than a bow? Still, not artistically appropriate. I think women portrayed in femininity is strength enough especially if she is confident to rest peacefully and serenely in the work.

One must understand that when we as artists depict the female form, there is much controversy as society is uncomfortable and does know how to remedy women’s issues, not now, not previously. Therefore one might assume to paint a woman in repose might be to subject women artistically as subservient to men hindering woman’s ability to be recognized for her intellectual prowess; whereas depicting them raw in nature might strengthen their sexuality and in doing so empowering females somehow. In terms of equality, what does sex have to do with it? Moreover, I still contend Michael Angelo did not need to resort to such tactics to demonstrate the power of man. If we as women want to be seen as equals, then we should allow our natural beauty to shine forth.

Actually the depiction is only in the eye of the beholder. If the artist has rendered the work properly, not only will an element of the artist’s soul grace the work, but will have done so in such a manner that the viewer is strengthened in their reaction to the painting and thus their soul is revealed through their response. Great works of art reveal more about the viewer than that of the artist’s whose secrets are held within their renderings.

If a man so loves a woman that he paints her with much softness and beauty then I say that man is a great man as he is capable of compassion and tenderness within his heart. These are the things I hope should be remembered in art. If a woman depicts women in the same light, then I would assume she loves the same thing about women that man does. What does the Tao say? In strength there is weakness and weakness strength. Those things are within all of us, man or woman. To cut one part out because it does not behoove us politically, and leave only the other, is to invite us not to be whole, not in ourselves, nor in our art. So, in rendering woman’s softness, one depicts her strength. I ask where is the problem in that?

Having dissected all of that, the only conclusion I am able to draw about that particular subject directed toward art, is that women issues have yet to be resolved and are therefore elucidated by prejudices directed toward art we have not discovered all the abstract possibilities within.

I apologize for the length of my response, however, I must point out, it was a broad question you asked regardless of how brief. Thank you for your interest.

Denise Williams said...

I too have a question for you. Manet’s Olympia is subject to hundreds of interpretations, how do you view it?

New York City said...

You too have opened up a vast arena for discussion but I'll try to be brief. As you pointed out the interpretation of the work is subjective and relative to the parameters of the given culture. I do agree with you on many cases, however, as a side note I'd like to add something about "The Rape of the Sabine Women". Our culture today doesn't know much about Greek mythology, but at the time the famous sculpture was created (and throughout much of western history) the myth of the Sabine Women was commonly known to those who viewed the work. In brief the story goes that shortly after founding the city of Rome, the Romans found that they did not have any women and their city could not grow. So they went to a neighboring tribe and took all of their women. However, when the neighboring tribe came to Rome ready for war to reclaim their women, the women chose to stay with the Romans because they treated them better. Thus the image of the violent rape is somewhat negated by the rest of the myth and so it was not thought of in that context.

However, your point is well taken.
I would recommend that you look at the work of Jenny Saville as they beautifully address in many ways what you are discussing.

As far as "Olympia" is concerned, I see it as a comment on the society of the time. Most of the "gentlemen" of high society who would see this painting in the Salon would recognize her face. Because they were her patrons. Thus, as you say, it does break down the social and gender based hierarchy. But if one takes a good look at her pose, you see that she is not in fact submissive but very much in control. She stares challengingly at the viewer. Her left hand covers her genitals coyly but willfully. It is she who has the control. And she also benefits from the exchange, as one can see from the choker, bracelet, velvet curtain, perhaps given to her by the very same gentlemen gaping in shame as they stand beside their wives while viewing the piece.
I can only imagine Manet's mirth at seeing their faces at such a moment.

Denise Williams said...

This is true what you say about the Rape of the Sabines, but that is not what I was examining within the work(s). I apologize for skirting the issue and thus being unclear. Please allow me to excuse myself when I point out the obvious - that I have a tendency to be verbose – that’s why I paint, it allows me to be concise.

About . . .Sabines, considering the culture of the time, it is understandable how women would ultimately prefer being plucked from their homes and taken elsewhere especially once they understood the vast improvement which doesn’t actually seem like much of an enhancement at all. . .. Had I lived at the time though, I must admit, I would have stood by the side of the road holding a sign reading: Take Me! just to improve my situation as a woman. However, the fact that Romans actually treated the women better than the Sabines, well it leaves one questioning which would be better at the time, wife or courtesan within their culture? Another topic.

The question arises over the moment the images depict of the women being taken in contrast to the Olympia. I’m looking at the scene narrowly rather than broadly. What I find difficult to believe, is understanding how women were treated during that period, is how they can seem so submissive in their capture when they would obviously anticipate something far more brutal than what they were to receive based upon their experience. Even if they submitted as a survival tactic, wouldn’t there have been an element of fear? Regardless, what we see is submissive -- women willing to accept themselves as chattel with no control over their destiny – which was the case. Even so, from a feminine point of view, there is something I am missing in the over all feeling of the scenes leaving me to understand Picasso’s depictions all the more when normally I disagree with the way he portrays women.

I thank you for reminding me that Manet had depicted a well known courtesan. Of course courtesans, or mistresses of the time received far different treatment than prostitutes which has always been the case. The painting I feel represents those professions symbolically addressing different levels of society and how they were esteemed as the lowest prostitute of any given period might be paralleled to how the lowest worker of the time is treated. Different subject – a broader view. It is society that narrows the focus of an artist’s work as the artist’s purpose is sometimes so broad in nature many volumes could not actually describe their principle of single a piece. I feel one could spend a lifetime writing solely about Manet’s Olympia, and thus it’s fascination, as well that of the Rape of the Sabines.

The comparison I make is that Manet’s Olympia is not submissive, while the Rape of the Sabines is. I believe the thing I’m realizing as I give this more thought, is that when women are portrayed as submissive, or even empowered through prostitution at any level, society needs to be addressed, not art. Because we still have much contention over the way women are portrayed in art today, would certainly lead one to believe these ancient issues have not been entirely allayed. When society has to incorporate laws for equal rights, etc., the problem still exists in the heart of humanity and thus we see it in our art. Just as if murder were not a problem, there would be no law against it.

When those who lead the art world ask for more Avante Guarde renderings to the point that it leaves artists creating work that has no truth, what we should realize is that change is still sought. I feel strongly that Manet’s Olympia is not questionable, however, the Rape of the Sabines with the exception of Picasso’s work is, at least to me. I personally feel Manet spoke of truth through his work, while the others, except Picasso, forced it to the point of prevarication to suit their end. We can try to create images to represent our society so that future generations will perceive it differently, or perhaps to convince ourselves otherwise, and maybe to give us a false sense of success; however, if it is not the truth, it will be doubted as greatly as the common depictions of the Rape of the Sabines in that particular moment of focus if it is narrowed to that subject only. Granted, if viewed more broadly, it opens the floor for greater discussion as in politics which required only certain things to be illustrated in art.

One element of truth, I feel, which may be attributed to both these studies is that the subject of nude women in art reflect society’s overall views, or that which it wishes to be true. As such, it is my thought that the Rape of the Sabines, pertaining to that particular moment, is equivalent to asking for something beside the truth of women in art today, and thus the request for something more transgressive.

As well, both works are produced in wisdom. The insight being that the artists understood even if their intent were explained to the birth of conception, the meaning would still be lost on the ears which it fell. Thus so, a rendering done properly would not only raise question to the moment itself depicted, but to all things it symbolizes as well. So, what is the truth? One speaks of empowerment, while the other addresses perhaps the need for it? Further, even in empowerment, a sense of loss of self – but isn’t that the case many times? To gain something, we loose something else? Don’t we see the same today?

Women in art isn’t controversial because of the nude figure. The controversy arises out of the reflections of society seen therein as women give birth to more than children, and in that perceived weakness is a strength history cannot deny as it is ever so evident in art.