Department of Theatre and Film
Enslavement by the “Male” Gaze: Female Depiction in Modernist Art
Heidi L. Nees
In their analysis of “The Female Nude as the Site of Modernity,” Pam Meecham and Julie Sheldon propose that the female nude is a “crucial element” in modern art (85). Using their discussion as a foundation, this essay looks briefly at Paul Poiret’s “Oriental” fashion designs for women, selected depictions of the title character in Oscar Wilde’s symbolist play Salome, and the social commentary that emerges from Charlie Chaplin’s performance in a scene in City Lights to show how the female figure is often shaped by an imperial or deceptively disinterested gaze in modern art. By looking at fashion, theatre, and film one can see the extent to which the “male” gaze permeated modernist expression; the three case studies allow us to consider representations of women in different mediums and at different points in the modernist period. As the examples will show, depictions of women designed to satisfy “male” desire persisted well into the modernist period. The discussion of fashions for women, certain stage and silent screen depictions of Salome, and the act of “disinterestedly” gazing at a female nude parodied by Chaplin’s performance should suggest that Meecham and Sheldon make a useful point when they argue, “Naked or nude, semi-clothed or fully clothed, the female body [in modern art is not] an innocent category [but is instead] a perpetual carrier of overwhelmingly male signs” (88).
Meecham and Sheldon outline the ways in which male artists’ depictions of the female figure signal the transition into modernism. Prior to the nineteenth century most nudes were depictions of the male body. Moreover, they were representations that emphasized a heroic figure. To break with the past, modernist artists focused on representations of the female form. However, what is significant is that while the statues and paintings of the male figure were “accurate, if idealizing representation(s),” the female figure featured in modern art is often distorted; examples include Matisse and Picasso’s treatment of the female nude (84). While artists such as Matisse and Picasso manipulated the female form in non-realistic depictions of the female body, modern designers like Poiret altered perceptions of the female form in ways that replaced one conventional vision of female beauty with another conventional, equally confining vision.
In Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture, Peter Wollen discusses an instance of the modernist choice to de-form and re-form the patriarchal and imperial version of the female figure. Wollen sees fashion designer Paul Poiret as a modernist who broke with previous depictions of the female form. While corsets that created an idealized hourglass shape for a woman had been en vogue before the modernist era, Poiret’s designs deviated from this idealized image, rejecting the corset and later taking “a crucial further step implied by the abolition of the petticoat and the wide skirt” (3). Poiret replaced the traditional idealized female form with a look that “stressed bright colours, physical movement, [and] a reduced and unified body image, with clothes that hung from the shoulders” (2). The silhouette of his designs erased the curves that the corset had so painfully aimed to create. While his sculpting of a new silhouette for females may have liberated the actual body from the unnatural curves created by the corset, his designs continued to trap the female form into depictions of cultural fantasies that pleased “male” desire. His fashions illustrate that the bending and even perversion of earlier idealized (male) visions of the female form is a central feature of (male) modernist art.
Poiret’s designs did not abolish or deter the “male” gaze of the female, they merely altered the associations. Describing the debut of Poiret’s new designs at the 1911 soiree in celebration of a new translation of The Thousand and One Nights Wollen writes:
Poiret himself was dressed as a sultan, lounging on cushions under a canopy, wearing a fur-edged caftan, a white silk turban, a green sash and jeweled velvet slippers. In one hand he held an ivory-handled whip and in the other a scimitar. Nearby was a huge golden cage in which his wife, Denise Poiret, his ‘favourite’, was confined with her woman attendants. When all the guests were assembled, dressed in costumes from tales of the Orient . . . Poiret released the women. . . . The whole party revolved around this pantomime of slavery and liberation set in a phantasmagoric fabled East. (1, emphasis added)
Poiret’s performance at the party is the imperial male gaze materialized. For his designs that distorted the previously-favored female figure might have liberated the female body from the corset, but given their association with regimes of domination they effectively served to re-enslave the female figure. The symbolic strength of Poiret’s imperial power is conveyed by the implication that he could send women back into the cage, both the golden cage of the party and the cage of the corset. As the sultan wielding an “ivory-handled whip” and confining his wife in a cage as if she were a bird, Poiret presents the female as the little more than object of male fantasy. And though they are released from the cage, the women are still contained in “Oriental” fashions and are therefore subjected to an imperial, patriarchal gaze. The entrapment of women into forms that appealed to the “male” gaze continues, of course, far into the twentieth century; one needs only to think of the brassieres that created the 1950s “sweater girl” look to recall the persistent engineering of the female form to conform to an era’s conventional visions of beauty.
During the modernist period, the “Orient” continued to be identified with the “feminine,” especially when juxtaposed with Western notions of the “masculine.” Discussing those connections in Gender in Modernism: New Geographies, Complex Intersections, Bonne Kime Scott proposes that “gender, colonialism, and modernism [are] inextricable” (5). Referencing the work of Sonita Sarker, Scott explains that modernism in art is best understood as “the face of modernity at the turn of twentieth century – the late colonialism – the political infrastructure of modernism that provides material resources as well as particular forms of the racialized, sexualized and gendered ‘other’” (5). In this context, then, by using colonial tropes of the Orient in fashion designs for women, Poiret effectively shackled the female form in a new exoticism that invited and sustained a modern, imperial male gaze.
In a photograph of his wife taken at the Plaza Hotel, Denise Poiret reclines on a low couch covered with pillows that suggests an Arabic inspiration for the décor. Dressed in his “Oriental” fashions, she wears a turban-esque head dressing as she relaxes with her legs daintily crossed at the ankles, her hand lightly upturned, and her gaze demurely looking down. The picture is at once exotic, inviting, and feminine for modern male viewers. An image such as this gives credence to the view that modern visions of the female form involve the stylization of the female body to invite a gaze that is not only gendered but also imperial.
The power of an imperial male gaze on the exoticized female form is also found in Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Written in 1891, this symbolist play proved controversial for myriad reasons, from its treatment and presentation of a Biblical story to the sexually-charged dance performed by the title character. The idea of gazing is explicit in the play. It opens with the Young Syrian exclaiming how beautiful Salome is, but his comments are met with a warning. The Young Syrian declares, “How pale the princess is! Never have I seen her so pale. She is like the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver”; admonishing him the Page of Herodias states, “You must not look at her. You look too much at her” (Act I, scene 1). Herod, however, does not heed warnings. Relishing the prospect of seeing Salome dance, he cries out, “Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet. ‘Tis well! ‘Tis well. Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees” (Act I, scene 1).
Echoing the Young Syrian’s equation between Salome and “the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver,” Herod’s description of Salome’s “naked feet” as “white doves” and “little white flowers” underscores the degree to which they see her as a non-sentient object that exists only in relation to their pleasure. However, while she is powerless to turn back the modern, imperial, male gaze, Salome finds power in being subjected to the gaze, for it is by dancing at the request of Herod that Salome gets what she most desires, the head of Jokanaan. Yet it is, of course, a very qualified power, for although she is momentarily “liberated” through the power her dance has over Herod, she is still enslaved by male privilege because it is only in her entrapment within male fantasy that she finds any agency. As with the scenario played out by Poiret, in Wilde’s depiction, the female becomes visible as a reflection of male and imperial privilege.
This depiction of Salome extended beyond Wilde’s play. Fascination with the character filled pages of literature, canvases of paintings, and screens of early films. Megan Becker-Leckrone notes that Salome signified “European Decadence as a representative myth of eroticism, taboo, and transgression” (239). The figure of Salome was well-known and widely disseminated during the early years of modernist art and came to represent the exoticized object of the male gaze. Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” was at once enigmatic, erotic, and exotic to the characters of the play and the members of the audience. In the play, Wilde does not need to describe the dance and instead merely states in the stage directions, “Slaves bring perfumes and the seven veils, and take off the sandals of SALOME” (Act I, scene 1).
When performed by Maud Allan in her 1908 dance piece The Vision of Salome, Salome is presented to audiences attired in an intricately-beaded, yet minimal costume that is distinctly non-Western. The costume suggests the same type of exoticism featured in Poiret’s designs for women. In one publicity photo of Allen reprinted in William Tydeman’s and Steven Price’s Wilde Salome, Allan can be seen from behind, her back slightly arched, arms raised with hands daintily lingering above her head, and her bare foot exposed beneath the skirt of beads. She glances slightly behind her shoulder, suggesting a coquettish awareness of the gaze imposed upon her. The image depicts the enigmatic, erotic, and exotic nature of Salome, a female figure emblematic of the objectifying imperial, male gaze in modernist art.
Allan’s minimalistic costuming, especially the transparent quality of her skirt, verges on nudity, and the pose of her body exudes a sexuality connected with that nudity. This depiction reflects modern art’s reliance on a tension and slippage between representations of the female nude that are influenced on the one hand by the previous era’s conventions for representing heroic male figures and on the other patterns found in pornographic depictions of naked women. Meecham and Sheldon point out that in the modernist era, ideas of nude versus naked become complicated. Modernist depictions of women require people to ask: what makes a female figure nude, what makes her naked? Is it the visibility of pubic hair in the image? Is it the spatial position of the model, or the social environment in which she is shown? Noting that art has traditionally equated the nude with a “‘disinterested’ connoisseurial gaze,” they suggest that depictions that invite a brazen gaze belong to representations of the naked woman (92).
John Berger takes up this issue in Ways of Seeing. He recognizes the conventional association between “nude” and art, but suggests that the relation between the two arises actually from the objectification of the female in artistic works. For Berger, nakedness is “to be oneself,” whereas nudity is an act of display, usually sexualized display (54). Like Meecham and Sheldon, Berger would likely see Maud Allan’s embodiment of Salome as a representation that is near-nude. While there are slight differences between Meecham’s and Sheldon’s and Berger’s use of the terms “nude” and “naked,” they agree that the modernist display of unclothed female figures consistently invites a brazen “male” gaze.
Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s observations about City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931) suggest ways to think about the modernist male gaze and its relation to representations of female nudity and nakedness. In the film, there is a scene in which Chaplin’s character stops outside a store to look at a statue of the female statue in the window display. Baron and Carnicke discuss the play of gestures that alternate between Chaplin’s use of conventional gesture-signs that reveal his awareness of social conventions, and his individual gesture expressions that disclose the tramp’s sexual arousal that is sparked by seeing the statue. At first, Chaplin tries to use a “disinterested” gaze to follow social decorum; he “scratches the left side of his head so that he has a legitimate reason to turn his head and look over at the nude sculpture. Carrying the act of good breeding one step farther, Chaplin stands erect, his chin down, his hand pressing down on the top of his cane as he leans on it to assess the nude statue” (105). Chaplin also alternates his gaze from the nude to a nearby horse sculpture to display his “disinterest.” His performance, however, also reveals the anti-social physical desire that is aroused by the sight of a “naked” female, for he gets so wrapped up in eyeing her that he does not even see the danger nearby; just behind him there is a hole in the sidewalk for an underground lift. Baron and Carnicke describe the change as his enthusiasm takes over: “Tilted back with his right leg held up off the ground and his hand on his hip, the Tramp’s sexual excitement starts to dominate the dignified mood of the gesture-signs he has been using to assess the art” (106). Chaplin’s performance represents one of Berger’s points, namely, that “Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own” (55). Here again we see an example in which modernist art serves to satisfy the “male” gaze. Treated with a parodic humor, however, the scene pokes fun at the conventions of social decorum that legitimize the gaze of those in power. Chaplin’s performance echoes and comments on the modernist shift to depictions of the naked woman, a move that Meecham and Sheldon explain served largely as “an act of male artistic rebellion” against existing social norms (91).
As these brief examples perhaps suggest, the imperial, “male” gaze and objectified depictions of the female figure have played a part in (male) modern art. Meecham and Sheldon describe modernist representations of women as a paradox of modernism, for there is a simultaneous representation of liberation of and enslavement by the modernist vision of women. I would argue that the continued misrepresentation of women’s experience and subjectivity long into the modernist period is a consequence of the representations being designed in one way or another to suit the gaze of power. As modernism gives way to post-modernism, perhaps the centrality of the “male” gaze in the representation of women is more contested. Works such as Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus participates in this negotiation, questioning the privilege of male gaze cast upon an exoticized, displayed, nude female. Furthermore, the characters of her play, notably the lead character, Saartjie Baartman, are based on actual figures. In the play and in the actual past, the Hottentot Venus (Baartman) signifies a female figure subjected to the “male” gaze in life and death. Parks’ work, however, aims to reclaim agency for Baartman and turn back the modernist imperial, “male” gaze on the female form. Given the depictions of women in modernist (male) art, it seems clear there is value in representations that make visible or circumvent the objectification of women by the modernist “male” gaze.
Baron, Cynthia and Sharon Marie Carnicke. Reframing Screen Performance. Ann
Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. Print.
Becker-Leckrone, Megan. “Salome (c): The Fetishization of a Textual Corpus.” New
Literary History. Vol. 26, No. 2 (Spring 1995) pp. 239-260. Print.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books & BBC, 1972. Print.
City Lights. Dir. Charles Chaplin. United Artists, 1931. Film.
Kime Scott, Bonnie. Gender in Modernism: New Geographies, Complex Intersections.
Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Print.
Meecham, Pam and Julie Sheldon. Modern Art: A Critical Introduction. London:
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Tydeman, William and Steven Price. Wilde Salome. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1996. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. Salome in Five Plays by Oscar Wilde. Introduction by Hesketh Pearson.
New York: Bantam Books, 1969. Print.
Wollen, Peter. Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture. London:
Verso, 2008. Print.