by Jennifer Lynch
The question on whether the words ‘nude’ and ‘naked’ can be used interchangeably had been quite troubling to many up until 1956 when Kenneth Clark's The Nude. A Study of Ideal Art was published. In his book, he explains how the word naked carries with it the connotation of vulnerability and embarrassment. Essentially, being naked is being stripped from your clothes and being in one of the most susceptible positions, whereas the nude is “a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed” (Clark 23). In the art world, however, a painting of a person not wearing clothing is strictly considered to be a nude. Interestingly enough, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 85% of the ‘nude’ paintings are of women. With the ongoing conversation on the sexualization of the women’s body in our society, it is important to investigate whether the paintings we pay to view hung on the walls of museums are embracing the nature of the woman or objectifying it. The subtlety between the two often boils down to one question: was this piece created to align with the desires of the “male gaze” ?
The ‘male gaze’ is a term coined by Laura Mulvey, to point out how art is often tailored to please heterosexual men by creating the illusion of male dominance. In the sphere of nudity, this manifests itself when a woman is displayed in a state of vulnerability—or, rather, naked. A clear example of the difference is shown when contrasting two oil pieces made by two renown male artists; Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia. It is speculated that Manet’s piece has not only been inspired by Venus of Urbino, but was rather a mockery of it. Painted nearly 330 years later, the piece features a well known prostitute named Victorine Meurent, staring at the viewer, unclothed and resting on a bed whilst a maid hands her flowers presumed to be sent from a client. In Venus of Urbino, a goddess is depicted. The eyes of the viewer follow her arm, draped over her thigh, and leading to her hand—barely covering her genitals. She welcomes the viewer, seductively, while Olympia dominates her canvas through a defiant glare.
By this description you would assume that the subtle glory of Manet’s painting was praised by its contemporaries—when it was actually rejected and critiqued harshly. For one, many people were offended by its commentary of the Venus of Urbino. To many critics, the painting didn’t follow the rules of the nude while Titian’s did. The model for his painting represented a goddess, while Manet’s model was simply a prostitute seemingly waiting of her next client. The Olympia was too honest for the prestigious art world.
For hundreds upon hundreds of years, men were the ones collecting, creating, and admiring art, according to the desires of the patron, or the collector. Although women are now ever-present on the artistic scene, the depiction of nude female bodies in the media can very quickly go from empowering to…naked. Works like Manet’s Olympia should empower women and men alike. Men do not need to be taught to fear women who say no, who take charge, or who embrace their nude body; they should support and admire them. The objectification of women’s bodies in art ends with the analysis of the circumstances of every nude creation—as, it is in the recognition of harmful artistic patterns that women can be empowered to tell their own naked truth.