In these times, when a man who boasts of being entitled to grab at the most intimate part of a woman’s body gets elected the leader of the free world and a spate of women have stepped up to accuse numerous other powerful men of sexual abuse and harassment, I thought it might be the right time to revisit an old term paper I wrote last year on the female nude, comparing how the female body has traditionally been depicted, in Western art, with how a contemporary Southeast Asian artist has attempted to reclaim the female nude from the patriarchal male gaze.
Any visitor wandering through the illustrious museums of Europe and America would be struck by the prevalence of depictions of the female form, more often than not, nude, in painting after painting and sculpture after sculpture. The ability to skillfully depict the human body, in particular, the unclothed or nude female body, has traditionally been regarded as the highest aspiration for artists. Indeed, more than almost any other subject, the female nude connotes “high art” and is an icon of Western culture, civilisation and artistic accomplishment.
The 17th-century Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez’s well-known work, The Toilet of Venus (popularly known as “The Rokeby Venus”), is a prime example of an oil painting of a female nude in the traditional European style of the Baroque era.
The painting depicts Venus, the goddess of love, who was regarded as the most beautiful of all the goddesses and the very personification of feminine beauty. In this painting, she reclines, with her back to the viewer, and gazes at her reflection in a mirror, which is held by her son, the winged Cupid. The mirror forms an enigmatic focal point of the painting, reflecting a mysteriously blurred and foggy image of Venus gazing back at the viewer, as she proffers an intimate view of her slender, yet lush, nude back.
The Rokeby Venus has long been regarded as an outstanding example of the genre of the female nude. However, it also stands as an example of the strong patriarchal tradition in Western art history, in which the representation of the nude female body is heavily coded to signify masculinity, male power and domination over the female. As famed art critic John Berger writes in his seminal book, Ways of Seeing, this way of seeing women and portraying them, is one where “… the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.”
No discussion of The Rokeby Venus would be complete without at least alluding to the incident, in 1914, when the suffragette Mary Richardson slashed Velazquez’s canvas, then hanging at the National Gallery, London, with a meat cleaver to protest the arrest of fellow suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. As the feminist writer, Lynda Nead has said, “The incident has come to symbolize a particular perception of feminist attitudes towards the female nude …”. She suggests that the 1970s feminist claim to “our bodies our selves” was not only a call to women to reclaim their rights over their bodies in the area of health, reproductive rights and sexuality, but also over the ways in which the female body is imaged and represented in the visual arts and culture. Modern female artists began to create works depicting women’s bodies in reaction against “representations of the female body produced by the ‘Old Master/Playboy tradition’.”
One such artist is the Filipino sculptor, Julie Lluch. One of her country’s foremost sculptors working today, Lluch creates life-sized sculptures which are portraitures, mostly autobiographical. They depict universal issues that concern women, such as marital relationships, motherhood and society’s repressive expectations towards being female. See, for example, this 1988 work that I was fortunate to see when I was visiting the Fukuoka Art Museum last year, Cutting Onions Always Makes Me Cry.
Lluch’s sculptures are full of psychological twists and tensions and she uses the body as a vehicle by which to address various issues pertaining to the nature and condition of womanhood. In her terracotta work, Thinking Nude, which is in the collection of the Singapore Art Museum, Lluch has sculpted a nude figure of a woman, standing in front of a mirror, examining her body and appraising her image as it is reflected back at her. One hand is grasping her right breast. Hers is not the unblemished body of a young girl, but that of a mature woman whose life experiences and history can be read from the stretch-marks, post-caesarean section scar, and sagging breasts on her body. Unlike Velazquez’s Venus, Lluch’s subject “ … examines her own body and looks straight into her own eyes in front of a mirror.”
The power of Julie Lluch’s sculptures lies not only in their thematic significance but also in her choice of material. The artist has explained that she chooses to work with clay as opposed to stone, marble or bronze, which are harder and more permanent materials for sculpture, because these are properties which are associated with men, whereas clay is a soft, sensuous and more malleable material which, to her, is more readily identifiable with women. Her choice of clay also represents her resistance to the notion of “high art”, as opposed to “low art”. Clay is a humble material, associated with the provincial, with folk art and craft and is the material used for the making of the traditional Filipino household cooking pot, the palayok.
In Thinking Nude, the intelligent and meditative woman looking at herself in the mirror and contemplating her nude body is, unlike Velazquez’s Venus, searching for self-definition rather than allowing herself to be defined by the gaze of the male viewer. She objectively and casually touches her own body, as if to declare “I am not just a body, I am a person.” Filipino art historian Flaudette May V. Datuin says that, in this work, “the female body becomes impermeable to male control and construction, tightly sealed through the margins of clay” and that it is “only the owner of the body, who takes her body into her hands, and takes control of herself and her quest towards self-discovery and self-knowledge”.
While modern women artists like Julie Lluch have, in the wake of the feminist movement, attempted to reclaim the image of the female body from the patriarchal Western tradition of artists like Velazquez, the use of the image of the female nude may still be problematic and risky, vulnerable as it is to reappropriation and lending itself to a voyeuristic interpretation. As Datuin says, “There is no ‘safe place’ for the female nude, no cocoon, from where she can find a utopian space and explore and know herself.”
Perhaps the answer lies in exploring, as some modern female artists have done, the female body in more complex, multi-layered ways, making images of the nude that do not necessarily conform to traditional ideals of beauty and desirability but that celebrate the female body in all its diversity, imperfection and even ugliness. It is perhaps in this continued exploration that representations of the nude female body may finally be liberated from the shackles of the patriarchal male gaze.