Department of Theatre and Film
A Woman's Perspective on the Female Nude as the Site of Modernity
Carolyn Sweet received a Bachelors of Art with a specialization in Art History from The Ohio State University in 2004, a Masters of Art with a specialization in Art History from Bowling Green State University in 2006 and is currently working towards a doctorate in American Culture Studies at BGSU. She has taught in the Humanities department at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor Michigan since 2006.
Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), a female artist and nude model featured in the modernist works of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and others, makes her an interesting case study when considering modernist male artists’ representations of the female nude and when reflecting on accounts of the modernist art movement. For example, Valadon’s dual role as artist and model falls outside the framework of Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon’s analysis in Modern Art: A Critical Introduction. While their chapter on “The Female Nude as the Site of Modernity” is an enlightening discussion of the female nude’s place in representations of modernity, the authors defer a discussion of women artists to the section on post-modernism. Importantly, that decision reflects the tradition of omitting women artists from discussions of modernist art. Such an omission raises the question of whether women artists have been omitted from the history of modern art for the simple fact that they did not exist in a great enough quantity or quality to be acknowledged, or whether they have been so consistently suppressed by the patriarchal art world that they are still not seen as significant enough to warrant a mention in the history of modernist art. In response to that question, I would propose that there were women painters whose work can and should be seen as an integral part of art in the modernist period. This essay looks at a few paintings by and of Suzanne Valadon to begin illuminating the radical, oppositional representation practices used by female artists in the modernist art movement.
Paintings of female nudes were a particularly significant aspect of modernists’ response to the past and their surroundings. As Meecham and Sheldon explain, “The nude became, on one level, deeply implicated in the politics of representation and, on another level, a metaphor for the modern artist’s own sense of alienation” (85). One could argue that this complex nexus of associations was especially relevant to Valadon as she explored the use of the female nude in art and struggled for recognition in the patriarchal art world of the early twentieth century. Because she was an integral part of modernist art as a female nude model and a female artist largely dismissed in accounts of that movement, Valadon’s nudes complicate assessments of that male-centered modernist art movement.
Valadon as Model
The examination of a female artist/model’s efforts to function against the odds to gain acceptance reveals Valadon’s somewhat paradoxical perspective. As Meecham and Sheldon notes, even as a model Valadon’s role is multidimensional for “The female sitter fulfills a triple role as model, mistress and muse but, in addition she becomes an important sign of the male artist’s modernity” (85). In Renoir’s Bather Arranging her Hair (1885) (figure 1), Valadon sits in an idyllic impressionistic landscape dominated by Renoir’s beloved pastels. Her back is towards the viewer, thus obscuring her face and allowing the (male) audience to function comfortably as the voyeur. Renoir’s choice to position Valadon in this way allows (male) viewers to guiltlessly engage in the act of “seeing without being seen” (Meecham and Sheldon, 96). Valadon is partially disrobed as her chemise rests across her thighs, revealing her buttocks yet avoiding exposure of her genitals. The chemise appears as if at any moment it could fall to the ground, exposing the model in a complete state of vulnerability. Though (male) viewers can assume that the model is unaware of their presence, Valadon seems to be frozen in mid strip-tease, thus denying the audience total access to her coveted body. The conventions of this work are typical of representations of nudes within the realm of the modernist art movement.
As a model for Renoir’s painting, Valadon had very little control over her representation. When she does have full creative control, the results are quite different. In her Nude Self Portrait (1924) (figure 2), Valadon stares out at the audience, her gaze, like that of the Mona Lisa seems to lock onto the viewer’s gaze. This gives the work a confrontational aura. In addition, her body has a corporality that evades sexuality. Her breasts and nipples are obliterated by broad brushstrokes. Her skin exudes not the soft milky texture of Renoir’s representation but the severe coarseness of the bristles of a brush or perhaps the edge of a palate knife. Like Manet’s Olympia (1863), Valadon refuses to be sexualized as she gazes out of the canvas, her thickly rendered eyebrows raised in skeptical contemplation. Her hair, an attribute often considered symbolic of a woman’s sexuality has been depicted not as long and flowing, but rather severely pulled back and awkwardly plastered to her forehead. She confronts the viewer not only with her alert eyes, but with the almost violent corporality of her discolored and misshapen flesh. This is not a body to be coveted; the female nude in this case acknowledges the viewer’s presence and, by returning the gaze, denies her audience the ability to function as voyeurs.
There is also very little depth in the work and the figure dominates the foreground of this shallow composition. To the right of Valadon, the background is a mass of multicolored brushstrokes. To the left there is a bowl of fruit sitting on a crudely drawn table. This still life has been pushed into the background by Valadon’s bulky, rectilinear presence and painted haphazardly, as if an afterthought. The bowl of fruit, as simple as it may seem, can be interpreted in several ways. Valadon could be commenting on the conventional use of fruit as a symbol of fertility in portraits of women. Making a statement as a modernist artist, Valadon might also be metaphorically forcing academic traditions of fine art into the background. Such interpretations may be reaching beyond all possible knowledge of the artist’s intent. Yet if we see Valadon as representing a first wave of modernist, feminist painters, it is possible to imagine the artist commenting on traditional representations of women.
It is clear that whereas in Renoir’s idyllic nude Valadon was contained in an ethereal landscape, Valadon’s nude self portrait has a presence that is neither innocent nor a “carrier of overwhelmingly male signs” (Meecham and Sheldon, 88). Interestingly, when Valadon depicts other female nudes, the figures’ subjectivity and presence is somewhat different from that
suggested by her nude self portrait. For example, Valadon’s Reclining Nude (1928) (figure 3) resembles the artist’s self portrait in that the figure acknowledges the viewer’s presence. However, rather than face the viewer with a confrontational stare, the model acknowledges the audience with a gaze that suggests that she is reluctantly showing her stripped body. The figure is clearly conscious of her nakedness and is someone that critic Kenneth Clark would likely describe as “huddled and defenseless” rather than “balanced and confident” (quoted in Meecham and Sheldon, 87). In this painting, Valadon’s nude conceals her genitals through the placement of her legs, partly obscuring her breasts with her left arm as she tensely grips a stark piece of white drapery with her right hand. The woman appears extremely uncomfortable about posing this way. The unease depicted here is seldom seen in the female nudes by modernist male artists.
In Two Bathers (1923) (figure 4), Valadon’s depiction of women presents the audience with yet another form of presence and subjective experience. Here the women seem far more nude than naked. The two figures are disinterested in their audience. However, instead of giving viewers the impression that one has access to a voyeuristic eroticization of flesh, Valadon makes them feel like they have stumbled upon a private, thoughtful exchange between the two women. While voyeurism is certainly an option here, as the gaze of the (male) viewer is perpetuated and left unreturned, the painting creates a barricade to erotic access. The women do not seem poised to engage in sex or sensual activity. Instead, the dark-haired woman in the foreground gazes into space as if lost in thought while the red-haired figure in the background looks forward as if reflecting on the thoughts that are occupying her companion’s minds. The concern that the red-haired woman feels for her companion’s emotional well being is conveyed through the gentle gesture of braiding the other woman’s hair. This simple, caring, essentially distracted gesture de-eroticizes the work and offers a glimpse of female companionship. Rather than presenting the audience with objectified images of women’s sexuality, in Valadon’s work, the figures are humanized by their interaction with one another in much the same way the Reclining Nude is humanized by her unease. Compositionally, Valadon uses elements of modernism present in the work of her male counterparts: the draperies and patterning give the work the kind of “oriental” or “primitive” feel one might find in paintings by Kirchner or Matisse from this period. There is, however, is a significant difference between the disengaged nudes in painting by male modernists and the sentient, self conscious, and aware female nudes represented by Valadon.
Although Valadon’s work needs further investigation to support definitive conclusions, this short analysis indicates that Valadon’s nudes are both relevant to the history of modernism and groundbreaking in their embodiment of the female perspective. The examples also suggest that Valadon’s female nudes are as radical as the ones created by male modernists and are a reminder that “it is not until traditionally marginalised groups represent themselves that their practice exposes the power relationships implicit in mainstream art” (Meecham and Sheldon, 93).
Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art and Society, 4th edition. London: Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Crary, Jonathon. “Unbinding Vision.” October Vol. 68. Boston: The MIT Press, 1994.
Meecham, Pam and Julie Sheldon. Modern Art: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2000.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Rosinky, Therese D. Suzanne Valadon. New York: Universe Publishing, 1994.