The Trope of the Body and its Gendered Representations- PART ONE by Ruth-Eloise Lewis

“Our understanding of the body, our reading of it, is only possible with a concurrent reading and understanding of gender.”[1] The construction of the naked female body in the history of Western art has created a social and cultural emphasis on difference and gender. This female body when translated into the language of art is no longer simply ‘naked’ but elevated to the higher, superior status of the ‘nude’. However, the gestures and attributes of the female nude are often idealised, flawless and perfected (or on the other hand, monstrous and grotesque) working as a site for the masculine gaze, for fantasy, desire and fetishization. The Venus Pudica is a classical figural pose that has been passed down in the history of art and has worked to create an ideological notion of ‘femininity’ and the ‘feminine.’ This gesture sees a naked female with one hand covering the vagina, drawing the spectator’s eye to the point being hidden. Therefore, is this gesture covering or pointing- is it inviting the masculine gaze or endowing the female body with shame?

Titian’s Venus of Urbino, 1538, is perhaps one of the most famous examples of the Venus Pudica pose, although here we see her reclining horizontally instead of vertically. It is possible to note many iconographical features in this allegorical painting- the notion of loyalty and fidelity expressed the depiction of a dog connoting marital love and desirability, however, what is most apparent is the use of the Venus Pudica pose, her left hand placed over her groin that transforms the spectator into a voyeur. Venus gazes directly into the eyes of the viewer, a slight, flirtatious smile playing across her face. She becomes the object of the gaze, her central position and dominance of the frame inviting the (masculine) viewer to fantasise about her unblemished, sexually clean body. The gaze focuses ultimately on the covering hand, inviting the masculine imagination to contemplate what we do not see. What we do not see becomes eroticised, the image of the vulva itself. There is a complete blank denial of the female form, it is simply erased and ignored. The female form is reduced to an object of masculine desire, a repository of male fantasy that does not express the daily reality of their bodies that women experience.

The female body is idealised and distorted, the clean, smooth perfection portrayed becomes naturalised. Women artists working in the 1970 saw this construction and representation of the classical body, of the Venus Pudica, of Titian’s erotic and sexually inviting Venus and worked to reclaim female subjectivity, taking the cultural heritage presented to them and attacking it, reversing it, using it for their own purpose.
Part Two will focus on a specific reading of an artwork that serves to  deconstruct this trope…. coming soon…. !

[1] Hilary Robinson, “Border Crossings:Womanliness, Body Representation” in New Feminist Art Criticism edited by Katy Deepwell (Manchester University Press, 1995) p. 138-146: p. 138

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