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Patriarchy in Art: a study of female nude

For centuries, male artist used the female body for “art”. And it still perpetuates because many patrons of such works are men. Females nude art is ‘aesthetically pleasing’, ‘erotic’ and in many ways patriarchal.

Before the conception of art movements such as surrealism, cubism, expressionism paintings followed a certain set of rules. Still-life, architectural, sceneries and portraits were a common genre of art that a load of artists followed and emulated. Nude art was extension of still-life. While in the earlier times, female nude celebrated the idea of fertility and procreation.

Lady Godiva, John Collier

In ancient Greece, aesthetics was one of the major obsessions of people that was predominantly used for social or class distinction. It reflected in their garbs and substantially in the absence of it. Originating from the story of an athlete, Orsippus of Megara whose cloth slipped while he was mid-race which helped him win thereafter starting a whole fashion trend. But the celebration of aesthetics of nudity in statues and other forms of art was limited to the male athletic body. Greeks unanimously agreed to naked portrayal of gods but hesitated to do the same for goddess. But when they did, it was superficial human-like figures flawless with bright skin and hair.

The role of women in the paintings and other forms of art has been more passive, hinting subordination. The traditional gender hierarchy, that is, subordination of women along with dominance of men has always been sexualised. One of the attributes of these passive figures is their lack of personality, unique identity, qualities or quirks. They are mere sexually available figures. For instance, John Maler Collier’s Lady Godiva has a folklore associated with it. Leofric, Earl of Mercia imposed heavy taxes on his people and his wife, Lady Godiva, was against this. She tried negotiating and her husband dared her to accede her demands if she rode nude on horseback through the city. To his surprise, she actually did it. The story is a fictional lore and yet Lady Godiva’s portrayal fails to show her valour and regard for her people. She is a beautiful yet passive figure looking down. While it could be agreed that Lady Godiva, like many other subjects of such works, was fascinating her portrayal fell short to render it. In Sleeping Venus, as the name suggests, the figure’s loss of consciousness alludes her sheer passivity and vulnerability. At the same time the position of the figure puts her face as secondary visual leaving her erogenous zones more accessible to the eyes. It also sexualises the idea of passivity and powerlessness. Many works by Titian, Giorgione and others practised the same theme.

Sleeping Venus, Giorgione

Male Gaze is another reason. According to feminist theory, it means that the practise of depicting women as sexual objects in arts and literature from a heteronormative and masculine way for male audience. A.W. Eaton said, “It is in this way that the genre of the nude perpetuates and promotes a damaging gender stereotype, namely that women are first and foremost sex objects; that is, that a woman’s sexuality, and in particular her sexual appeal to men, is a primary feature of her identity.”

Apart from this, there has been a diligent effort to portray the perfection and beauty of women in media, art and literature. While a capitalist society will always gain and encourage this, it is important to realise that outside this agency is a group of valuable women who might not be as aesthetically pleasing as Marilyn Monroe but still remain significant. This explains why artists like Frida Kahlo are so celebrated. Their portrayal of themselves is more strong, narrates a story and most importantly, it gives the subject more dimension. Thus, celebrating women beyond the restriction of their beauty.


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