Nudes: The Female Form
‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?’
So reads the provocative heading blazoned across the canary yellow poster created by the Guerrilla Girls in 1989. 27 years later, it’s still a pertinent question. The poster’s image – a reclining naked woman with the head of a gorilla – is based on the famous painting Odalisque and Slave by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and is accompanied by a disquieting fact: ‘Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’.
The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of female artists, formed with the intention of exposing sexual discrimination in the art world. A quick glance over role of the female nude in art history and it’s clear they have a point. Hundreds of portraits of the female form line the walls of art galleries, spanning from Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (ca. 1510) to Lucian Freud’s portrait of Kate Moss (2002). Despite differences in medium, style and subject, the vast majority of these portraits have something important in common: the artists are men. Only with the advent of contemporary art are we finally seeing the emergence of female nudes created by women, as they begin to turn the artist’s gaze on themselves. As well as it being practical and cheap to use their own bodies as models for their pieces, these self-portraits are often deliberately subversive, challenging the spectator to see women’s bodies as more than just aesthetic objects.
Of course, male artists have not abandoned the nude entirely to their female counterparts. While 20th century artists such as Egon Schiele produced work that blurred the line between art and pornography, many contemporary male artists are painting more complex, less sexualised portraits of women, designed to provoke rather than titillate. Lucian Freud is renowned for such nudes; his painting Naked Portrait (1972-3) depicts a naked woman lying awkwardly on a bed with a pained expression. The harsh lighting and the visibility of the artist’s tools within the painting reinforce the artificiality of the setting. By refusing to idealise the model, Freud highlights her vulnerability in this artistic space. Perhaps artists have just moved beyond the Renaissance movement… as one would have expected them to!