A term heard often when concerning the female nude in art is the ‘male gaze;’ but what is the male gaze?
Objectification of women in art and the way in which they are portrayed is known as the male gaze. The theory, coined by Laura Mulvey in her theoretical essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ calls upon the Freudian concept of scopophilia which identifies pleasure with looking and as an act that is a characteristic of sexuality yet exists independently of the erotogenic zones. Mulvey argues that the pleasure experienced by looking at an image is classified into two categories; that of active male and passive female.
The image of women posed as passive beings are created in this way which allows the active male to project their fantasies upon them. This is identified as the ‘male gaze’ whereby women are presented in an erotic manner for the visual pleasure of a male spectator. This bears relevance to the notion of scopophilia which was associated by Freud as objectifying people and “subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.”[I] The infamous ‘Venus of Urbino’ by Titian, featured in The Guardian’s top 10 female nudes article, provides the perfect illustration of this; not just in the artwork, but how it is written about. Written by a male journalist, the article concludes “for me, there’s nothing more moving in art than the breasts of the Venus of Urbino.”
The male gaze can thus be identified as being more than just viewing an object but rather as the relation between the object and the viewer. A painting that is made in the guise of the male gaze then requires the viewer to essentially become an active male viewer as the painting was created in the male gaze. The woman in the image therefore becomes an object of desire and ownership for the male viewer.
One painting famously became the centre of a feminist suffragette protest in 1914. ‘The Toilet of Venus, also known as The Rokeby Venus, is the only surviving nude by the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. The painting depicts Venus, the Roman goddess of love, nude in a reclining pose on a bed with her back to the viewer.
On 10th March 1914, Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and took a meat cleaver to the painting delivering seven slashes to the canvas. She later declared that her motive for the vandalism had been the arrest of Emmeline Prankhurst the previous day. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.” She later added in a later interview in 1952 that she “hated the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”
Her statement seems to symbolise a feminist attitude towards the female nude genre. Attracting the attention of male viewers and inviting them to project a certain image or fantasy onto the depicted figure.
The allusion to the objectification of a woman’s body who is subjected to male fantasy, coupled with how the painting was viewed by men, made it a target for the feminist protest.
In the third and final part of the Women In Art series, I will be exploring how female artists tackled the female nude genre and the challenge they posed to the male gaze.