Is The Relationship Between Male Artist And Female Subject Always A Destructive One?

Illustration for article titled Is The Relationship Between Male Artist And Female Subject Always A Destructive One?

Lucien Freud's painting of Sue Tilley, called "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping," has sold for £17.2 million — reportedly the highest payday for a living artist in history. For Kira Cochrane at the Guardian, the portrait brings up a bunch of issues about the relationship of artist to subject, specifically when the artist is male and the "muse" is female. Cochrane references radical feminist artists the Guerilla Girls, who asked on a poster in 1989, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?" and found that 85% of the nudes at the Met were women, while only 5% of artists represented in the museum were women. It's one thing to discuss the power dynamics between an artist and a muse with whom he is sexually or romantically involved, but what about women who act merely as models, like Tilley? What are the power dynamics implicit in that relationship?


Cochrane shows Tilley as anything but a shrinking violet. "There is something so active and punchy about Tilley's language, that it seems very difficult to imagine her doing anything that she didn't want to do," Cochrane writes. But what about Freud's children, whom he painted in the nude as teenagers? His daughter Rose said of posing in the nude for her pops, "People think there must be an Oedipal thing because of Sigmund Freud, but there isn't." You're right, it's an Electra thing! Freud's other daughter, Esther, who posed for him at 16, said she got to know her father through his painting her. "We'd never lived in the same city before…I simply took my clothes off and sat on a sofa when he asked. It never occurred to me to be ashamed."

There is something to be said for not being ashamed of one's nudity, but in the context of a father gazing upon his offspring's naked flesh for hours on end, it must be said that the matter is a little more complex than Esther is allowing. Just as the recent Australian scandal over nude photographs of young girls shows.

Here's the story: Police shut down a Sydney art exhibition of photographer Bill Henson's work because it featured naked photos of 12 and 13 year old girls. Even the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, came out against Henson, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. "I find [the photographs] absolutely revolting…Whatever the artistic view of the merits of that sort of stuff - frankly I don't think there are any - just allow kids to be kids."

Rudd's assumption is that there is something sexual or at least sinister going on between photographer and subject that robs the subject of her innocence. Again, I don't think the matter is that cut and dry. Though it is undeniable that there are power dynamics at play, it remains to be seen whether those dynamics are necessarily destructive.

[Photograph of Lucien Freud's "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping" by Martin Goodwin]

The Eye Of The Muse [Guardian]

Rudd Revolted [Sydney Morning Herald]

Earlier: Being A Muse Kinda Sucks



First of all, everyone should read The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and The Body by Lynda Nead. It's from the 70's now, but it pretty aptly dissects what's going on here.

To explain a little, what we're talking about here is the difference between being naked and being nude. And the difference between whether an unclothes body is just unclothes, or unclothed for the sexual gratification of the viewer. In art, this is a blurry line. A lot of it has to do with the pose, the awareness of the subject, and the purpose of the piece.

Awareness of being viewed changes a nude from being a self-contained figure that just happens to be nude, to a naked subject there for the purpose of being looked at.

Anyone familiar with the term "the male gaze"? This is what it's referencing. The only way the subject of the female nude is not a version of the male gaze is if the artist is female.

I could go on about containment and other areas of this discussion(and it's been going on for a long time) but check out Nead. It's an incredibly important work on women, our bodies, and how art reflects the very complex relationship we have in our culture.