The insincerity of the female nude

Women should not be afraid to reclaim their naked bodies, writes Priya Vempali

John Berger once wrote: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.”

These are the words which ring in my ears as I stroll through the halls of an art gallery, confronted by a never-ending stream of breasts, lips, cheeks, and hair – these are faces without stories, mouths without voices, smiles without substance.

As a woman, you become accustomed to seeing your own image reflected wherever you look, in a glamourised, beautified format. However, something about seeing the female form anatomised, deconstructed and rebuilt according to the male gaze never fails to astound me. It’s a disconcerting experience, only ever seeing reflections of your gender from an outsider’s perspective.

That’s not to say that men cannot express the subtleties of the female form within their work, but rather that women shouldn’t be confined to the other side of the canvas. When it comes to the artist-subject dynamic, I think that women probably have a better understanding of their own bodies than the men who attempt to possess them.

Historically, the gender imbalance within the art world has seen women adopting the role of the silent muse, the creative spark which spurs the male genius into producing yet another masterpiece – so long as he doesn’t cast her off in favour of a younger, prettier model. This is the view which continues to pervade the creative fields, despite second and third-wave feminist attempts to reclaim the female body as our own.

Indeed, Germaine Greer has described the muse, in her purest aspect, as being “the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work.” Disregarding the overtly sexualised submission within this statement, Greer’s perception of the female role here is rather degrading, as the woman is conceptualised as an aspect of the male genius rather than an individual in her own right. The compensation here, apparently, is that there is a kind of role reversal, whereby the female assumes the dominant position: “her role is to penetrate the mind rather than to have her body penetrated.”

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Unfortunately, I’m not convinced by this flimsy recompense. As an English student, I am constantly presented with the patriarchal tradition of glorifying the female body, most blatantly for instance in Petrarchan poetry. Just like the female muse in artwork, the Petrarchan vision espouses a notion of femininity, which is supposedly empowered through identification with the erotic. Indeed, the form exalts the apparent sexual authority of the writer’s ‘cruel mistress’, whilst she, ironically, remains little more than the silent object of male fantasies.

The idea that as a woman, the muse should take pride in her sexual dominance over the male creative is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Should we, as a gender, not aspire to be more than glorified mannequins ready to be stripped and painted, or is the glass ceiling too firmly established to be broken within the world of fine art?

One individual whose work provides a direct response to female objectification is the artist Tracey Emin, whose installation ‘Exorcism of the Last Painting I Ever Made’ saw her painting naked in a Stockholm art gallery for three weeks in 1996.

Viewers could come and see her working through fish-eye lenses in the gallery walls, and yet as the subject and object of her own piece, Emin remained in complete control. She subverted the traditional role of the female nude by bringing her naked body into a position of authority rather than submission, the domain of the creator rather than the muse.

In this way, she provided women with an example of what true female empowerment within the arts might look like: a world in which female nudity is not necessarily sexualised, but an extension of our own authentic identities.

Instead of attempting to reclaim the ‘nude’ from centuries of male artists, let us as women boldly reclaim that which is already ours – our own naked bodies.

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