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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

The Gender Gaze

There are many ways for a woman to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The easiest is to pay the $15 admission fee. The cheapest is to wait in line on a Sunday afternoon for free admission. But what if you want to bypass the long lines? According to the feminist art group, Guerrilla Girls, your best bet is to strip down in order to hang out (or up) with your fellow (male) peers. Only 3 per cent of the artists are at the Met are female, while 83 per cent of the nudes are of women. How can we hope to have an honest dialogue about gender in art, when one side insists on doing all the talking?

The Guerilla Girls parody famous works like J.A.D. Igres’ 1814 masterpiece Grande Odalisque to highlight art’s misogynistic focus on the highly idealised female nude. Although her exaggerated features are no doubt a focal point, the Odalisque’s form is dwarfed by the imposing presence of the male gaze, with Ingres adding an extra vertebrae, framing her as the “ideal” woman. Her pelvis practically spills out of the frame, sensually luring the viewer in to Ingres’ fantasy and allowing the male viewer into the otherwise forbidden world of the harem, reserved for the likes of sultans.

While the male perspective is obvious enough, how is a woman supposed to interpret such a work? As a viewer, she is undoubtedly struck by the painting’s technical splendour and adherence to realism. As a scholar, she cannot help but decipher the various symbols present in the painting. However, as a woman, she is denied the visceral sensation a man would experience. Rather than constructing her own meaning, the female subject is merely the bearer of meaning. A woman viewing the Odalisque sees less of herself in the female figure before her, than she does of the male hand which constructed it.

In the two hundred intervening years, the female image has undergone a massive change. In the hands of powerful self-portraitists like Rita Angus and Frida Kahlo the female image was controlled and perpetuated by the women whom it depicted. But what of the men who painted women, were they stuck in the misogynist mindset of centuries past?
In 2001, Lucian Freud read an interview in which Kate Moss expressed a desire to sit for him. Freud contacted Moss and sittings were arranged. The painting that emerged, Naked Portrait, depicts an uncharacteristically sexless Moss, reclining and resplendently pregnant. The result points the way to a contemporary male gaze of the female nude. Freud, armed with every painterly tool, constructs a work of honest brutality for an age where idealism has moved from the gallery wall to the pages of Vogue. It is almost difficult to credit the work to Freud, as Moss is clearly as in control of her image as the man holding the paintbrush. Although there is a male gaze here, it’s Moss who is in control of what we see. Again, the frame acts as a window into the female nude, but Moss’ awareness, both of her own form and its strength in a world dominated by popular culture, balances the former gender power struggle.


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  1. Aira says:

    None can doubt the vercatiy of this article.

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