Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Female Gaze and the Gaze at the Female: Between Manet and Coubet (Musee d'Orsay, Paris, France)

One of the {many} things that set my brain ticking while I was visiting the Musee d'Orsay one cold, rainy Parisian day was the way women were portrayed in art in the 19th Century... before modernism, before feminism, before women's sufferage.

I was particularly surprised by the differences in how women were portrayed in the work of Edouard Manet and GustaveCoubet. They were each others contemporaries, but the views on women portrayed in their work couldn't be more different.

Manet was a rare breed of man; a feminist. Although he can, in our world, be criticised for his portrayals of the female nude (done, quite obviously, through the male perspective), he did something no other painter had done till then. His women are not objects, but people. Quite simply, he gave them the gift of the gaze, which has, and still remains, largely the property of men. His controversial Olympia of 1863 stares back at the viewer, questioning and confronting the male gaze. In his Le dejeuner sur l'herbe (also 1863), the nude woman stares out at the viewer, her gaze also confronting men's assumed right to treat her as a visual object.

[Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, Oil on Canvas, source: here]

[Edouard Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, 1863, Oil on Canvas, source: here]

Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde of 1866 was even more controversial than Manet's Olympia but for very different reasons. The painting was criticised as pornographic (which, arguably, it is). However, the painting is perhaps the most clear example of the objectification of women in fine art. The model has no voice, she is, and this painting is, only and excusively to be looked at, to satisfy the male gaze.

[Gustave Courbet, L'Origine du Monde, 1866, Oil on Canvas. Source: here]

But this is an extreme example. The same objectification of the female nude can be seen in Courbet's 1854-55 L'atelier du peintre. The nude female is only a prop in the artist's studio. She looks on admiring his work, and is on view for the whole studio. It is clear she is the focus of the painting.

[Gustave Courbet, L'Atelier du Peintre, 1854-55, Oil on Canvas. Source: here]

However, it is not fair to single out Courbet. Perhaps the objectification of women in his work is far more surprising in comparison to his rural scenes which 'gave new dignity to the peasants'. Each and every artist of the era portrayed his women in the same light as Courbet.... the nudes of Degas and Maurice Denis and the call-girls and can-can dancers of Toulouse-Lautrec do not confront the viewer but accept their gaze. Courbet was just following the conventions of his oevre. But this leaves a few questions;

Does that excuse the objectification of women in art?

Does objectifying women for the purposes of art excuse the artist?

And what would the world have to say if these works were painted by women?

But that will all have to wait.

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