Saturday, September 4, 2010

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Drawings, Nudes, Women, Thinking. . .


Detail from a painting by my friend, Alison . . . Subject to be revealed . . .


The Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition The Modern Woman: Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, will close tomorrow, and this delightful and instructive collection of works will return to Paris. Even if you are lucky enough to visit that city, you are unlikely to see these drawings as, for lack of exhibition space, they have been stored away, unseen by the general public, since their acquisition. So if there's any possible way you can get downtown Vancouver for a peek before tomorrow evening, run, don't walk!

I've already spoken about the show rather generally, noting several of my favourite drawings, and I've linked those observations with some thoughts about a portrait of my late-teenaged self. Those thoughts primarily involved the gap between that young woman's conception of her visual appearance and my recognition, now, that she is actually much prettier than she knew. They also reflected the way the cultural construction of female attractiveness affected both my own and my mother's perception of our bodies.

Much of that cultural construction now, of course, comes from a barrage of media -- movies, television, magazine advertising, fashion runways, the list goes on. But before that, we have a long, long history of art which, while attempting to represent female beauty was, at the same time, both reinforcing and constructing notions of what that beauty included (and, at the same time, excluded). And through that long history, almost all the artists doing this socio-cultural work were male.
And a key genre, for those male artists, was the female nude. There are some beautiful, intimate, wonderfully easy-appearing sketches of the nude in the VAG's show, reflecting not only the changing sexual mores of the increasingly urbanized and industrialized modern period, but also the move away from classical and religious subjects to those of everyday, unidealized life, as well as different techniques by which to render that and persectives from which to view it. (I loved Rodin's nude sketches, pale -- lead and watercolour -- in such loose, simple lines) Nonetheless, the nude is generally a beautiful nude, and generally a female one, and always, according to the VAG show, young. We're a long, long way from the nakedness that Lucian Freud records. . . .

Don't worry. I'm hardly going to call Rembrandt or Monet or Botticelli, Rodin or Renoir or Seurat male pigs for sexually objectifying women. Unquestionably, these artists, part of the cultural web of their day, created beautiful work which speaks to us now, transcending gender politics to convey truths over which we linger. Equally unquestionably, at least for me -- and countless feminist art scholars, as well as psychoanalytic thinkers, have written convincingly about this -- the male gaze prevailed. We women are represented to the world as that male gaze sees us, and we construct ourselves according to that representation.


She sees herself watched by artists' eyes; she sees herself standing
nude before the pencil, the palette, the studio; nude for art, in that almost
sacred nudity that quiets the senses.
Edmund & Jules de Goncourt, as quoted
on the walls of The Modern Woman show.

And against that equation of the nude with the sacred, Degas more than
hints at a certain prurience associated with the genre when he says (again as
quoted on the walls at the VAG) "I want to look through the keyhole."


Let me quickly add that the male gaze is never, itself, the gaze of any single man (you'll perhaps remember that undergrad class where you puzzled about Jacques Lacan's distinction between Phallus and penis. . . ). Without becoming too theoretical, I do need to point out that we all fold ourselves into that gaze, look through those eyes, and that it is a gaze to which men are subjected as well, scrutinized for their own "manliness." Female artists adopt the genres of the male artists who have painted before them, female friends scan each other's new wardrobe acquisitions for how well they bring out this or that feature: The Male Gaze 'R' Us!

That constant awareness of a gaze assessing our visual worth as women, I think, operates also to insert a (however minimally) distancing screen between ourselves and even our best female friends. We might push that screen aside as quickly as possible, push past it, but I believe there's still some micro-processing, some assessment, comparison, of our friends' visual attractiveness
vis-à-vis our own. And here's where we move from the general theorizing to the personal and specific. I have long been aware of the work it takes me to move past that distancing screen with/through one particular friend, the strikingly attractive and multi-talented Alison.
For three posts now, I have been getting closer and closer to revealing my own experience with the nude -- or should that be naked? -- portrait. At the same time, in a nod to Zeno and his paradox, I have been stirring up a wealth of detail that keeps me feeling further and further from completing my task. I thought I'd get it done in this post, but having written another four paragraphs and still having several to go, I realized I'd surely be exhausting your patience in an overly long post.
And yet, to try to describe sitting for my portrait without telling of its context would be to do the painting a disservice -- to me, the friendship in which it was created is central to the image it shows. And that friendship is over twenty years long, years which demanded more paragraphs than I'd originally budgeted for. So those will begin my next post which will finally get us to the portrait hanging on our condo's walls, where my granddaughter saw it and said, . . . .Oh, but that's for the next post.
Meanwhile, though, we can chat -- I love your comments!