When it comes to the portrayal and prominence of women, the art world has a checkered past. Take one art history course and the ratio of notable artists will astoundingly favor the male. Of course, this isn't just revisionist history; throughout time women's voices were often unheard or disregarded as unimportant. And even though we've made great strides with the feminist movements, our work is never done. Now, more than ever, women need to continue to insist upon sharing their unique experiences through artistic expression. Here, writer Angella D'Avignon gives us a brief history of the female gaze, and emphasizes the importance and value of its place in art and the cultural world at large.
In 1865, Edouard Manet premiered "Olympia", a painting of a nude woman who looked directly into the viewer's eyes. She was defiant. This alone made the painting a revelation, and most attendees assumed she was the artist's lover or a local courtesan, but she wasn't. She was Victorine Meurent, a popular model and an artist herself. In fact, a few years after "Olympia", her own paintings were chosen in a juried salon show over Manet's. She was a real woman with a life and a career, but she is always more likely to be remembered as Manet's model.
In 1913, people were absolutely scandalized by Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, not for its nudity as much as it's movement, as the nude moved. The nude had agency of their own and broke stylistic tradition visually, while unsettling a notion that nudes in painting (women) should be still, ideal, and overall, silent. Nudes were demure, they looked away passively from the fourth wall, making it easier to them to be gazed upon.
This phenomena was articulated in 1975 by film critic and second-wave feminist Laura Mulvey famously coined the term "female gaze" to describe the phenomena of male-directed visual perspectives in film in her essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". From casting to selective camera shots, the majority of movies emulated what a heteronormative male would focus on as the majority of filmmakers have been ~surprise~ male.
There is still power in visual representation, even if it isn't the sum means to an end. The world around us is a mirror reflecting what we assume is standard. But what is standard isn't necessarily what, or rather, who is actually out there. In fact it almost never is. Artist and writer Aria Dean illuminates this deftly in her essay about the trend and potential political power in the selfie, writing that "Selfie feminism likewise claims a universal female experience located in the female body," and that, "While perhaps unintentional, the functional specificity of Feminism: shrouded as it is in centuries of totalizing language, becomes exclusionary to non-white women, as well as trans, nonbinary, and disabled people." This standard, i.e. white, cisgendered, and able-bodied, extends beyond the male gaze and includes it's opposite, a female gaze, and this gaze, as Dean critiques, has long reflected itself back to itself.
In her 1992 essay, "Olympia's Maid"ÃÂ, artist and photographer Lorraine O'Grady deepened the conversation and made it intersectional when she points out the role of Olympia's maid in Manet's groundbreaking painting. In the image, Manet's "Olympia" is being tended to by a Black nurse, leaning over her with flowers. Her presence had never been formally or academically questioned until O'Grady's essay, where she points out that Feminist conversations about representation and the male gaze had historically excluded Black women and women of color. O'Grady writes, "To name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves. For some of us this will not be easy. So long unmirrored in our true selves, we may have forgotten how we look. Nevertheless, we can't theorize in a void, we must have evidence. And we, I speak only for black women here, have barely begun to articulate our life experience."
Dean takes cues from O'Grady and elaborates on the posture we take in our saturated digital landscapes: "We are each the constant voyeuristic subject and object, both surveilled and surveyor." It almost feels inescapable to draw or paint ourselves, let alone draw or paint others.And we can't assume that figural representation it isn't going to be problematic because it probably will be, especially when it comes to depicting a gendered figure, especially when drawing, painting, or illustrating a feminine body. Out in the world and off the page, a woman being in control of her life and body is still a radical idea for much of the world, women are regularly policed for their sexuality, harassed in public space, socially punished and questioned for reporting rape or sexual misconduct, denied economic equality, and kept from making decisions regarding their own physical health. And in affects us in varying ways, filtered as though on a spectrum and that specific and individual experience is important and worth seeing.
As stated, there is no one type of way a woman looks, no one type of woman that should be counted as the standard, but yet, in art tradition and in media, women are routinely depicted according to these established forms. So what now? This is what makes the distinction in work about women by women important. Women ought to draw themselves the way they see themselves. This is where subjectivity becomes critical.
Header: Gracias by AY Palatnik
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