When it comes to the beauty of a female body, many painters say the key to success in winning the battle against photography is nakedness, eroticism, and sex seasoned with glamour. Art galleries are jam-packed with paintings and collages celebrating fast cars, full lips, cup D size breasts. This desperate idea (that pornography can beat photography) is substantiated by the claim that while a photographed nude can sell only if it was signed by Helmut Newton, a painted nude is Art regardless of who painted it, so it can be sold to anyone not allergic to paint chemicals.
I could agree with this opinion, with a one-word reservation. It is the key to success for bad artists.
A good artist does not have to paint a naked body to send his male audience into blissful contemplation culminating in cash transactions. On the contrary, men have been intimidated into believing their interest in nakedness is immoral, and even a greatly executed nude (unless it was signed by Lucien Freud) is likely to be collecting dust in the gallery’s storeroom.
I don’t blame feminism for this depreciation of the Reclining Nude (even when she’s not actually reclining). Art critics have done more harm to the genre than all the feminists combined.
John Berger, one of the most influential art critics and thinkers (most BBC presenters tend to become icons at some point) should be the prime suspect in the dock for discrediting the beauty of a naked woman. He never hesitated to cut and then interpret artworks to fit his marxist theories.
In his book Ways of Seeing, he used the head of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque as a proof that the glamorous pin-up culture of the 1970s (very modern at the time) was keeping up with the quincentenary tradition of showcasing nudes for the carnal pleasures of male observers: he wrote that both pics were showing women posing “with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her—although she doesn’t know him”.
Poor Ingres must have turned in his grave the moment the book was published.
The Odalisque, in its full form, is detached from the viewer by smoking whatever substance she was enjoying before Louvre visitors started taking pics in front of her.
Her half-turned head shows a moment’s distraction, not full attention. I mean the Odalisque’s head.
You, the observer, might have stirred her curiosity. Not because you’re a man she doesn’t know and wants to charm. There’s only one man who can take her, and it is her sultan. Are you the sultan? Are you a sultan? No? Well then you must be one of the eunuchs, because if you are not, you are very likely to become one sooner than you can prove yourself to be a true gentleman by saying, “Oh, excuse me, sir, I must have dropped my spectacles somewhere around here”.
A French mind of the 19th century saw an Odalisque as a beauty one can only enjoy at a distance, but can never enjoy physically. Of course artists were exploiting this theme to create titillating erotic images that would sell like fresh baguettes at the time, but Ingres was not one of them. He wouldn’t distort the woman’s body as much as he did (adding three vertebrae at the bottom), were he intent on creating cheap thrills for his viewers.
But even if we assume that she was painted as a courtesan in odalisque disguise, we can’t say she’s looking back with calculated charm. She is so damn used to men looking at her body that she doesn’t care about “looks” anymore. Show me the money first. We’d talk seductive looks later.
I can offer Mr Berger a much better head and body. The Russian Alternative, if you want, even though art historians may argue that Leon Bakst spent more of his “productive” time in France than in Russia and is, therefore, a French artist. The lady, to whom you are about to be introduced, is also a perfect example of the Dressed Nude: a sexually arousing image without a single naked body.
This is the head of the woman from Leon Bakst’s painting, “The Dinner” of 1902.
Bakst’s lady, just like the girl in the photograph, challenges the viewer with direct and intense eye-to-eye contact.
Bakst’s lady has more clothes on. And yet, she’s much more seductive, especially if we look at the full picture. A good artist doesn’t just give you a sexy body to gawk at: he offers you the beginning of a story for which you can create your own climax.
Some observers fail to immediately notice a vacant chair at the bottom; along with the fact that the table is set for one more person. The inattentive blame the busy top half of the painting. It is not so much busy as distracting. It is about blunt flirtation with the eyes and the smile, and undisguised seduction with a push-up bra, which makes her breasts rhyme with the voluminous oranges. Those oranges beg to be taken. The breast-orange pun is obviously intended: her outstretched arms become a visual aid for those, whose observation power is paralysed by the low neck of her dress.
The folded fan in her hand is something that could make Freud’s bogey go boogie with excitement (it’s Zigmund this time).
I first wondered why Bakst chose oranges over apples that are instantly associated with sin, sexuality, and temptation.
No. That would be trite.
Comparison of apples to breasts was so common in art history, it became a bad-taste cliché when Cranach the Elder passed the torch to Cranach the Younger. Bakst must have opted for oranges, because he wanted to exclude the Adam-Eve associations (the flower of the lady’s innocence had been bruised long before she was seen dining, and the observer doesn’t look like an embarrassed Adam either), and because apples are consumed as is, while an orange has to be peeled first. I don’t have to add, “just like the lady in question”, but here you are, I said it.
And yet, were the idea here limited to a direct juxtaposition of oranges and breasts, the painting would slide down to a banal poem of two lines rhyming “bosom” and “awesome”.
Bakst’s Dinner (1908) goes beyond the trite two-liner, quadrupling it into a full-blown promise of sex.
Note how the lower parts of her figure are partially obstructed by layers of table cloth that is painted just like the skin of an orange. The artist indeed mixes orange with ochre to paint the stripe separating the vacant seat and the woman.
To cut the long story short:
The famous marketing model (today seen as outdated) that describes the workings of advertising as AIDA (awareness, interest, desire, action) was introduced by a US guy a few years before this painting was completed, and I seriously doubt the painter was aware of it. Yet, he came up with basically the same model.
This painting is a great example of creating an involving sex-story without showing any nudes. Bakst could go with a high-neck gown without rendering the picture less sensuous.
PS The small detail I also like about this painting is that the face is done in somewhat “mute” manner. It is not detailed, or specific, or exact and leaves space for imagination: the observer himself can “paint” the blueprint of the face the artist gives us in a variety of ways.
PPS Having visited an amazing exhibition of Renoir in Martigni today, I feel it’s time to talk more about nude paintings, tracing the genre’s history from Giorgione to Ingres, Renoir, Degas and beyond. It is time to win back the Nude genre.