Check out other recent additions to the site:
A new gallery 'The New Reclining Nude'
A new gallery 'The Siren's Song'
A new addition to 'That trick with a knife'
Check out other recent additions to the site:
A new gallery 'The New Reclining Nude'
A new gallery 'The Siren's Song'
A new addition to 'That trick with a knife'
Updated: a day ago
The reclining human figure is one of the most popular poses in art history, principally in painting. It is an established subject within both the Western and Eastern historical traditions; for example, the reclining Buddha represents parinirvana, the state of being after death in one who has achieved nirvana in life. But the approaches to the reclining nude have changed markedly over the years.
In the West, the Renaissance painter Giorgione (1477–1510) popularised the demure reclining female nude in his Sleeping Venus (1508–1510):
Sleeping Venus established the reclining female nude genre. A female nude reclining on a couch or bed, usually in a classical story setting, became an accepted method for an artist to demonstrate their mastery of the human form, and to show that had studied the works of historic masters, which was regarded as essential. The reclining nude became a popular part of painters’ repertoires first in Venetian art and then far more widely. Notable examples include Titian’s Venus de Urbino (1538), The Sleeping Venus (1625-30) by Artemisia Gentileschi; The Rokeby Venus (1647-51) by Velazquez; The Nude Maja (1797-1800) by Goya; Olympia (1863) by Manet and Modigliani’s Reclining Nude (1917-18).
A variant of the reclining female nude called the odalisque was a popular subject in early nineteenth-century French painting. The anonymous odalisque – originally meaning a slave in a Turkish harem – was usually placed in an exotic setting, and posed with a voyeuristic suggestion of submissiveness, which today seems little more than an unabashed male sexual fantasy. The movement, if it can be called that, coincided with the Second French Empire's colonisation of Algeria in 1830.
The apogee of the eroticised nude cloaked in mythological elements is arguably The Birth of Venus by French painter Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889). It presents a fleshy, prone nude goddess, Venus, wreathed in sea foam and surrounded by cherubs blowing trumpets. It was displayed at the 1863 Salon and purchased by Napoleon III for his private collection. But the stereotypical approach to the reclining female nude had begun to change. Contemporary writer Emile Zola satirised the hypocrisy displayed in The Birth of Venus:
"The goddess, drowned in a sea of milk, resembles a delicious courtesan, but not of flesh and blood – that would be indecent – but made of a sort of pink and white marzipan."
Controversial painter Édouard Manet's famous Olympia (1863) shook up the genre and scandalised contemporary polite society. Rather than a demure, anonymous nude, Manet painted his subject wearing nothing but a black ribbon choker and an unambiguously forthright expression. The painting unambiguously portrayed a well-known painter and life model, Victorine Meurent, who coolly regards the viewer without an ounce of shame. Olympia was slang for prostitute. Referencing and possibly mocking other works, Manet painted a cat into the picture. La chatte in French means a female cat, but it was (and is) a slang term with the same meaning 'pussy' in American English has today.
Nevertheless, old habits died hard. French painter Henri Matisse churned out a number of odalisques in the early 1900s. Societal attitudes had begun to change, however. Art historian and Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling observed:
"The conventional verdict dismissed him, at the time and afterward, as a kind of twentieth-century Fragonard, turning out saucy pictures for rich men’s Manhattan apartments and villas in the south of France."
-- Spurling 2005, accessed 26 February 2015.)
"‘I do Odalisques in order to do nudes. But, how does one do a nude without being artificial? And then I do them because I know they exist. I was in Morocco, I have seen them.’" (quoted in Flam 1995, p.86)."
It was up to other artists to show Matisse how to 'do a nude without being artificial.' By 1919 the doomed Italian-Jewish painter Amedeo Modigliani (he contracted tuberculosis at an early age) had revolutionised the nude in art with a new approach to the erotic:
“These were warm, living women, bursting out of the frame towards the viewer; women drifting languorously to sleep or writhing with pleasure. Naked flesh, captured on the canvas, would never be the same again.”
-- Banned by the police: the true stories behind Modigliani's languorous nudes, Lara Fiegel, The Guardian, Monday 13 November 2017
In the early twentieth century, artists began to present sexuality more frankly (even explicitly in the case of Austrians Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele), without the classical or orientalist trappings of their predecessors. French artist Suzanne Valadon (1865 - 1938), a rare woman painter of the nude, first posed as a model for the likes of Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec before she took up painting in 1893. Despite her many still-life and portraiture, Valadon is best known for her paintings of lively, self-assured, curvy female nudes. Pablo Picasso's female nudes were charged with physical energy. He portrayed young Marie-Thérèse Walter in a playful and unabashedly erotic manner. His later portraits of his wife Jacqueline Roque appear to confront his declining sexual prowess.
The nude female figure is one of the most volatile and charged subjects in art painting, and the reclining nude even more so. The artist’s treatment, the setting and the subject's pose dictate a reading. Is the subject's gaze, if it is directed at the viewer, address the viewer with a coy obliqueness or a confrontational directness? If her gaze is averted, is it coy or demure? Does the portrayal invite a voyeuristic or documentary reading? The image has the ability to shame, titillate, inform, arouse and inspire, often simultaneously -- and ambiguously. Then there is context, such as where the image is shown. Writers such as Zola, Clark and Castagnary argued that context demarcated the boundary between artistic merit and that which was objectionable. For example, one of most popular (or notorious, depending on your point of view) exhibits at one of Paris' most prestigious high-brow art galleries, the Musée d'Orsay, is a detailed and realistic painting of a woman’s vulva, thighs and torso. Post it on Facebook, however, and it may arguably get you banned.
Other aspects of context are today important. For example, does the artist's gender matter? In 2019 three contemporary women artists' work was gathered together (The Reclining Nude: Agnès Varda, Catherine Breillat, and Nan Goldin, by Wilson, Emma, Contemporary French and Francophone Cultures, 65, October 19th, 2019):
"The figure of a woman reclining, in repose, displayed, abandoned, fallen, asleep, or dreaming, returns in the work of women filmmakers and photographers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Filmmakers Agnès Varda and Catherine Breillat, and American photographer working in Paris, Nan Goldin, return to the paintings of Titian, Velázquez, Goya, Courbet, and others, re-imagining, and re-purposing, their images of female beauty, display, (auto)eroticism, and intimacy. This book, a sensuous evocation of these feminist works, claims a female-identified pleasure in looking. The artists explored align images of repose and sensuality with other images of horizontality and proneness, of strong emotional content, images of erotic involvement, of vulnerability, of bodily contortion, of listlessness, grief, and depression. The reclining nude is for all three artists a starting point for a reflection on the relation of film, projections, and still photography, to painting, and a sustained re-imagining of the meanings conjured through serial returns to a particular pose. This book claims that the image of the reclining nude is compelling, for female-identified artists – and for all allied in feeling and picturing femininity – in the sensitive, ethically adventurous, politically complex feminist issues it engages. The reclining nude is an image of passivity, of submission, of hedonism. It allows thought about passivity as pleasure, about depression and grief figured posturally, about indolence as a form of resistance and anarchy. Through this image, female-identified artists have claimed freedom to offer new focus on these extremes of emotion. They are re-imagining horizontality."
Art history is a useful lens with which to examine the photographic reclining art nude in the 21st century. However, photography as an art medium is distinguished by its clinical documentary realism and lack of artistic artifice (that is to say, before the raw image makes it into post-production). Some nude photos, in the culturally appropriate context, are read as art, whereas others, for a variety of reasons, are regarded as pornographic. Can we reassess today how we can address artistic representations of the reclining nude? Can we question them by presenting a variety of poses and moods that models elect to adopt? Can we adopt a process that gives the models themselves as much agency as is practical, and present a selection that fairly represents this variety? In these works I present a selection of images a model has created, and directed very little, other than to discuss a little about art history, sometimes, to better arm the subject with agency. The camera records. The model directs. I select, but only to discard those images that are too similar or if I have made a technical error. The works in this gallery are a little different in that they explore the reclining nude as a tradition, but the approach taken endeavoured to give the model subjects at least a degree of agency. I directed very little, I shot tethered with the model able to see the camera's image and I present images in comparative sequences, rather than in isolation. My intention was to record, and, in combination to yield control to the subjects. While curating this gallery, I wondered if there is there a way of seeing that goes beyond the male tradition of voyeurism and objectification, and whether a collaboration with a camera, which records what it is pointed at, and presentation in a set, rather than a single image, can yield at least part of the power and the agency to the subject.
Sources and further reading:
Should we fear or pity the sirens, the temptresses with the golden voices and malign intent? Their false promises of wisdom were recorded first by Homer.
“Then verily I spoke among my comrades, grieved at heart: ‘Friends, since it is not right that one or two alone should know  the oracles that Circe, the beautiful goddess, told me, therefore will I tell them, in order that knowing them we may either die or, I shunning death and fate, escape. First she bade us avoid the voice of the wondrous Sirens, and their flowery meadow.  Me alone she bade to listen to their voice; but do ye bind me with grievous bonds, that I may abide fast where I am, upright in the step of the mast, and let the ropes be made fast at the ends to the mast itself; and if I implore and bid you to loose me, then do ye tie me fast with yet more bonds.’  “Thus I rehearsed all these things and told them to my comrades. Meanwhile the well-built ship speedily came to the isle of the two Sirens, for a fair and gentle wind bore her on. Then presently the wind ceased and there was a windless calm, and a god lulled the waves to sleep.  But my comrades rose up and furled the sail and stowed it in the hollow ship, and thereafter sat at the oars and made the water white with their polished oars of fir. But I with my sharp sword cut into small bits a great round cake of wax, and kneaded it with my strong hands,  and soon the wax grew warm, forced by the strong pressure and the rays of the lord Helios Hyperion. Then I anointed with this the ears of all my comrades in turn; and they bound me in the ship hand and foot, upright in the step of the mast, and made the ropes fast at the ends to the mast itself;  and themselves sitting down smote the grey sea with their oars. But when we were as far distant as a man can make himself heard when he shouts, driving swiftly on our way, the Sirens failed not to note the swift ship as it drew near, and they raised their clear-toned song: “‘Come hither, as thou farest, renowned Odysseus, great glory of the Achaeans;  stay thy ship that thou mayest listen to the voice of us two. For never yet has any man rowed past this isle in his black ship until he has heard the sweet voice from our lips. Nay, he has joy of it, and goes his way a wiser man. For we know all the toils that in wide Troy  the Argives and Trojans endured through the will of the gods, and we know all things that come to pass upon the fruitful earth.’
-- 1 1, Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
The origin and form of the Homeric sirens is literally lost in antiquity. It is possible that the human-headed bird form of the siren originated with the Ancient Egyptians' Ba-form. Despite their fame -- and allure -- the sirens only appear in three major sources from Greek mythology, first The Odyssey, in about 675-725 BCE. Second, there is an image of what could be a siren on a vase dated to the 5th century BC in the British Museum. It portrays a winged siren apparently diving to her suicide on an Athenian red-figure stamnos (vase). Later, sirens appear in the third century BC epic Argonautica. It recounted Jason and the Argonauts' voyage to retrieve the Golden Fleece from remote Colchis. The Argonauts safely pass the Sirens, whose music however caused Butes to fall overboard in Book 4, which contains many parallels to The Odyssey. These sources dispute the sirens' from; they are either soul-birds or otherworldly enchantresses.
Also in question is the reason for the sirens' homicidal inclinations. In his seminal work Metamorphoses, the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC - 17 AD) cast them as young Persephone's companions or handmaidens. Ovid’s accounts frequently feature assaults on females who are violated and robbed of agency by the gods, and the sirens were no exception. They were doomed to search for her by her mother Demeter, Olympian goddess of the harvest and agriculture, after she was kidnapped by Hades, who made her queen of the underworld:
"… But why have you, Sirens, skilled in song, daughters of Acheloüs, the feathers and claws of birds, while still bearing human faces? Is it because you were numbered among the companions, when Proserpine gathered the flowers of Spring? When you had searched in vain for her on land, you wanted, then, to cross the waves on beating wings, so that the waters would also know of your trouble. The gods were willing, and suddenly you saw your limbs covered with golden plumage. But, so that your song, born, sweetly, in our ears, and your rich vocal gift, might not be lost with your tongues, each virgin face and human voice remained."
-- Bk V:533-571 Calliope sings: Persephone’s fate, Metamorphoses Book V [A. S. Kline's Version].
The sirens' allure has echoed down the centuries, even if they have been condemned to the role of dangerous succubus.. In the Sirens chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, he writes about barmaids' “longingdying call.”
Flood of warm jamjam lickitup secretness flowed to flow in music out, in desire, dark to lick flow invading. Tipping her tepping her tapping her topping her. Tup. Pores to dilate dilating. Tup. The joy the feel the warm the. Tup. To pour o’er sluices pouring gushes. Flood, gush, flow, joygush, tupthrob. Now! Language of love.
And Margaret Atwood still casts them as temptresses with malign intent:
BY MARGARET ATWOOD
This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see the beached skulls
the song nobody knows
because anyone who has heard it
is dead, and the others can't remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
I don't enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don't enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song
is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique
at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.
-- Margaret Atwood, “Siren Song” from Selected Poems 1965-1975. Copyright © 1974, 1976 by Margaret Atwood. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Houghton Mifflin Company. Source: The Poetry Anthology 1912-2002 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)
What manner of crime would provoke such inchoate, indiscriminate rage?
It seemed to me that the sirens should emerge as unique individuals in their own right, fully formed and full of anger for the wrongs inflicted on them by the fates. Model Ivana Cermakova inhabited the concept and flew into a Homeric rage…