|Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538|
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)
|Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863|
|Paul Gauguin, Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Watching), 1892|
(Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York)
There is a story that goes with this painting that Gauguin explained in great detail on several occasions in his letters, notebooks and in Noa Noa - Gauguin came back late one night to find Tehamana lying in the dark, terrified of the evil spirits of the night. The figure in the back is supposed to be Tupapau, the evil spirit of Maori superstition. Even though Gauguin went into great detail about explaining this work, all his various explanations only add to the ambiguity of the painting. If this was supposed to be an interpretation of Manet's Olympia - it was actually referred to as "brown Olympia" -the black maid with the flowers has been replaced with the Spirit but instead of sitting and confronting the viewer, this female is lying on her stomach in a stiff pose, looking in our direction without any comprehension in her eyes. Tehamana's odd pose of lying in the very front of the picture plane, almost as if she is about to fall, shifts the viewer's dominant position and instead of confrontation, he is faced with a plea for help. This submissive position can also be read as the documentation of her rape since Gauguin associated sex with violence.
|Paul Cezanne, A Modern Olympia, 1873-1874|
|Fragonard, The Swing, 1767-1768|
(Wallace Collection, London)
Men have been representing the female body for centuries under the guise of classical, historical or mythological themes. Females have been subjugated to the male gaze as sexual objects probably from the beginning of time. Here we can rejoice in the fact that at least these three artists have opened this issue to discussion. No matter what their original motives were, today, we can interpret them as a critique of the male gaze and the representation of the female nude in the Western culture. This critical look and discussion I feel actually empowers women.
1 Peter Brooks, "Gauguin's Tahitian Body" 340