Nudity has long been a subject of debate, entangled with notions of fetish, character, and morality. The nude body is often perceived as a commodity rather than a vulnerable and authentic manifestation of human flesh and blood. The inherent egalitarianism of nudity, where all individuals are equal in their nakedness, is overshadowed by the need to maintain socially acceptable forms of display. This article examines nude paintings across different historical periods, drawing comparisons to feminist artist Sylvia Sleigh’s reinterpretations. Additionally, it explores the gaze that evokes the essence of nude paintings.
Nude paintings are a historical commonality. It was predominant in Ancient Greece, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance age. Nude paintings have long been associated with fertility and wellbeing. Naturalised American painter Sylvia Sleigh painted nude art and created gender reversed versions of classic works where men were models and it was a woman who painted them. For a woman artist to even create art that displayed male artists from their perspective was instrumental when the great connoisseurs of art like Giorgio Vasari, did not think it was natural for women to be artists. Sleigh reverses the traditional gender roles in her paintings.
In the paintings of American realist painter Sylvia Sleigh, the male nude is used as a vehicle to express erotic feelings, just as male artists have always used the female nude. Sleigh’s portraits of nude men have them looking tender and soft.
“Her young men are soft and vulnerable, with heavy lidded eyes and manes of curly hair falling around their shoulders. They take the stance of Kouros figures while also recalling the youthful gods of Egypt.”
In Sleigh’s Philip Golub Reclining, a teenage boy’s slender nude is projected to us with his ass exposed for everyone to see. The mirror reflects the face of the subject, and of the artist with her canvas. The model is away from the viewer. The male artist –female subject dynamic was altered in Sleigh’s recreation of famous nude paintings like The Turkish Bath by painter Jean Augusto Dominiques Ingres’s The Turkish Bath and even Philip Golub Reclining, whose posture is very similar to Diego Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus.
Sleigh also reverses the older male artist and younger female subject dynamic in her paintings. In Paul Rosano Seated Nude, Rosano’s posture is not passive since his expression is intense, and he is directly gazing at the spectators and the painter, which breaks away the one sided gaze. The gaze is reciprocal and the setting is an echo of Renaissance aesthetics. Rosano’s hairiness could suggest masculinity in conventional terms. His phallus looks strong, possibly suggesting phallic majesty that is associated with strength and beauty.
Rosano does not emulate shame or unhappiness, and the voyeuristic tone of the portrait is diluted by the reciprocity of Rosano’s gaze. Unlike traditional nude paintings depicting women looking away or looking down, Sleigh’s male models like in Figure 7 looked straight, maintaining their calm and authority and lacked coyness. This is a recurring theme in Figure 7, where Rosano lays leisurely on a fluffy looking pink quilt and is glancing at the artist in a partial smile, as though it is a playful invitation to the painter or spectator to relish in the intimacy that he is comfortably sharing to the onlookers.
By doing this, the subject affirms the power of the gaze through consciousness and choice by re-enacting his own gaze. By giving permission to the painter, Sleigh or the onlookers to be a voyeur he is consensually eroticising himself as compared to paintings .The setting also reeks of intimacy and proximity since he is posing in a reclined manner. Sleigh, has time and again claimed that she hardly ever paints people unless she is in love with them.
Rosano’s sharp features also play a part where his Afro frizz and sharp physical appearance add on to his attractive demeanour. His penis visibly is not completely drawn back which shows the presence of desire of the subject as well. By giving space for the subject to express their desire in the paintings, Sleigh not only eradicates any doubt about her intent of revenge in portraying gender reversed dynamics in her paintings she also does not deduct Rosano’s nudity to simply meet fetishism.
Ingres’s The Turkish Bath depicts nude women who are represented in a highly erotic fashion which is primarily synonymous to Eastern cultures. Ingres was fascinated with oriental culture and the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon. The painting is a product of Ingres’s interpretation of female baths that took place in Adrianapolis. Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt influenced the neoclassical French painter’s interest in representing oriental culture. The subjects are passive and female. The female body is mostly exposed in most Western art. John Berger in The Ways of Seeing, stated that the ideal spectator is mostly considered male and the image is considered female.
In Sleigh’s The Turkish Bath, the domestic interior provides a luxurious style which is reminiscent of the original Turkish Bath. Rosano sits on a dark blue towel baring his buttocks and playing the guitar. This image may refer to the mandolin player in The Turkish Bath. It has Sleigh’s friends and interestingly, her husband Alloway who is seated on a rug where there is a star beneath. The other figures were handmaidens to Alloway and Rosano. The sensuous bodies are positioned along with symbols of turbans and Turkish rug. There were more than twenty nude women.
“Unlike women, who are seen primarily as sexually accessible bodies, men are portrayed as physically and mentally active beings who creatively shape their world and ponder its meaning.”
The exotic harems represented in The Turkish Bath by Ingres have the East-West narrative inherent in them. Mayda Yegenoglu , in her complex study on modern subjectivity, and desire involved in Western reproduction of the veil in art and writings, writes about the sexual difference and culture which are mapped onto each other. The misconceptions and cultural ambiguity seen in harem portraits is reflective of the politics and ideological institutions that the West had for the East. John Berger, in The Ways of Seeing, writes about how the representation of nudes in oil painting has changed from how Adam and Eve were represented to Renaissance paintings. The first nudes of Adam and Eve focused on the nakedness that was a result of doing the forbidden, i.e. eating the apple.
“In the Renaissance period, the shame was displayed where the shame was projected onto the viewer who was looking at the nude paintings. The woman in Renaissance paintings, according to Berger, was painted so as to adhere to the male gaze, ‘she was not naked in her own right but naked as the male viewer saw her.”
Traditionally, according to Berger, mirror has been used to indicate vanity in nude portraits like in Figure where the naked woman who has been painted to please the audience is morally condemned in Vanity. The real function of the mirror is debatable considering it was reasserting their existence as a sight degrading their humanness and their natural anatomy.
“Sleigh speaks of a desire to conceive of painting as a record of, and perhaps even a trace of, or substitute for, an imagined love affair. However, this affair bypasses consummation for a never-fulfilled and therefore perpetual longing in which the eye gazes upon its beloved.“
This desire Sleigh shows in Philip Golub Reclining, reverses the pattern beautifully, where her husband holds the mirror. Not only does Sleigh not take a radical step at doing what the male artists do to nude paintings of women, which is carve them according to their whims and fancies, she also makes sure her voice does not silence other semiotic factors of her paintings. She portrays her male subjects in a relaxed manner where most of them are either gentle or indulging in their hobbies, like playing the guitar in The Turkish Bath. The exposure Sleigh deals with is almost maternal.
The nakedness in most paintings by Ingres, Renaissance painter Titian and Diego Velasquez were an expression of the painter’s feelings as a man and were based on his gaze. The paintings did not reflect anything about the women in the paintings but more so, reflected on the submission of identity from the subject in the painting to the creator who is biased to his inherent gaze. The spectator also, in ignorance of a different gaze looks at nude paintings from the male gaze and strays away from what their core views would have been on seeing a nude painting of a man or woman.
The same can not be said about Sleigh’s portrait (see at the beginning of the piece); it is like that of a lover stroking their lover’s skin. Sandro Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, which shows the Goddess of love, Venus and the God of war, Mars wide and close, is an ideal overview of sensuous love with lance and conch shells which have been widely associated as sexual symbols. Sleigh’s rendition of the same painting as Mars and Venus has Maureen Conner and Paul Rosano who are dressed in typical 1970’s contemporary clothing. ‘The two most gendered Olympian deities (Venus being the quintessence of femininity, Mars of masculinity) have just made love.’
(L) Figure 8: Mars and Venus by Sandro Botticelli; (R) Figure 9: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso
Rosano is caught in sleep and his face looks satisfied, whereas Maureen Connor looking beyond the portrait is a less satisfying way as compared to Rosano. Both the paintings highlight male egoism in heterosexual encounters. This shows that male egoism has been a continuing behaviour pattern since the Early Renaissance period when Botticelli painted Mars and Venus. A star beneath Alloway’s foot catches the gaze of the audience, the positioning of the star right below Alloway’s foot could suggest the subject’s importance in Sleigh’s life.
“This is exemplified in the figure of Scott Burton (second from the left) who is kneeling on a fake fur tiger skin rug. He is very still-looking and has a neutral facial expression, but the orange colour of the rug draws the eye to his groin. It is possible that Sleigh is quietly playing with the idea of him being a tiger, alluding to his animal sexual nature. While the figures are all treated as distinct personae, her particular favourites are lovingly outlined and carefully resolved each time she works with them. Alloway in particular, at the forefront of the painting, is looking at the artist in a rather “sloe-eyed” way, exchanging some especially piquant looks with the artist.“
In Figure 4, Sleigh recreates Ingres’s painting where she transposes men in a scene that has been taken by women since time immemorial and makes it her original by giving voice to her thoughts and ideas. Not only Ingres, even Spanish cubist painter Pablo Picasso, objectified women in Figure 9, Picasso painted the five women the way we look at it, the conception of the painting itself is from Picasso’s point of view. These women symbolise the disease and suffering that might be transferred onto him if he engaged with them. There is little difference in the naked fruits lying on the tray adjacent to the naked women and the way they invite the spectator’s gaze. Sleigh’s art was contemporary to the second wave of feminism which focused on asserting agency by women socio-culturally. Her works vocalise female desire but in a different language than that of artists like Ingres or Picasso.
In Paul Rosano, Philip Golub and Lawarence Alloway, Sleigh’s pleasure in depicting the beautiful male body is evident. Sleigh, according to Berger, does the same as Remebrandt does in portraits of his wife where the possessiveness and belongingness of the relationship overpowers subjecting the subject to gaze. This is because if the painter and the subject are in a romantic relationship or affectionate friendships, they tend to not objectify the subject’s nudity. The exposure in Sleigh’s nude painting is done with sensitivity and care. In the paintings where she is not using her husband Alloway as her subject, she manifests the sexual tension and longing in her brush while painting them. Her exposure of her male muses is somatic and realistic.
Ananya, 24, is an avid reader, theatre practitioner, researcher, and enthusiastic cinephile. She completed her Masters from the Department of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU. Ananya has a passion for photography and enjoys capturing various subjects, especially herself (smirks). She embraces her identity as a black sheep without any attached shame. She is deeply enthusiastic about feminist art practices that have influenced our understanding of the past, present, and future, and this reflects in her approach to life. Her feminism extends beyond writing and encompasses activism, filmmaking, and acting.