I stole this image from a painting in the style of Jaques Charlier called The Adorning of Venus. My version is intended to be both serious and playful.
I had to find the essential lines in the original painting in order to reduce it to a lino print in one colour. No fudging is possible. Each line is either there or it isn’t. Of course, one has to use lines also to imply what isn’t shown, thus for example her lower lip is implied by the upper lip and the shadow under the lower lip, and flowers are suggested by the edges of petals. As in my earlier attempts at this genre, in copying one comes to appreciate the skill of the original artist not just in representation but also in composition.
The original painting displays the same contrast of light body against a dark background, but with a diaphanous cloth caressing the sitter’s naked form. While I have copied the general structure of the folds of the material, I have taken a few playful liberties with it, in order to create some wave-like patterns, almost as if she is Venus being reborn from the sea.
On the male and female gaze
Not infrequently one comes across essays on the internet and elsewhere questioning the depiction of the female nude in art, and discussing the ‘male gaze,’ usually with the implication that there is something wrong with it. There is of course a huge historical imbalance in terms of the number of depictions of female nudes in art in relation to the number of female artists, at least until the present century. There are also serious political and social questions around traditional depictions of women as passive and disempowered, politically, socially, sexually and economically.
I would argue, though, that art seeks the beautiful. (‘Art’ exists that doesn’t, but that is not my concern today.) Natural forms are beautiful, and the human body holds a special place among them. A well-executed nude, male or female, has a power hard to replicate in landscape or flower painting, awesome though these other genres can be.
The problem in my view is not so much the male gaze, which is what it is, but the relative absence of the female gaze. We also have many examples in art of male nudes, done mostly by male artists. We already have the male homosexual gaze, for example in the works of Caravaggio and Michaelangelo. There are no doubt historical reasons for the absence of the female artist’s gaze on the male nude, women having been largely excluded from the ateliers and life drawing classes.
Now that it is socially possible for women to attend life classes, representational art is out of fashion, at least in the kind of modern art that attracts financial speculation. Some art schools no longer even offer life classes. I once attended evening life drawing classes near a renowned Art College which boasts several Turner Prize winners among its alumni. Some of the other (as it happens, female) students at the class had come across from the College because they were not offered life classes there.
So now when at last the female gaze on the male form becomes possible, it remains rare. I attribute that largely to a decline in artistic training. It would be a shame, in my view, to succumb to puritanism when a better solution would be the empowerment of the female gaze.