A while ago, a couple of life model friends and I planned a trip to the Tate Britain’s exhibition on the history between the artist and the model; Reception, Rupture and Return: The Model and the Life Room. We had decided that this (undeniably narcissistic yet mostly whimsical) outing would provide an opportunity to take turns recreating the poses of the paintings showcased and drawing each other; effectively turning the gallery into a living studio, and ourselves into living muses. For idle reasons we never went, but I was reminded of our intentions when I read the news report that performance artist Deborah De Robertis totally outstripped us, and was arrested and cautioned with indecent exposure for disrobing at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, adopting the confident pose of the prostitute in front of Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia.
Regretting our collective indolence and envious of her daring actions, I researched (Google-searched) De Robertis and discovered that she had provoked a similar reaction in the same museum a few years prior for exposing her genitalia in front of Gustave Courbet’s painting L’Origine du Monde as well as numerous similar stunts in various art galleries in Luxembourg and Belgium. De Robertis was surprised to be arrested, as was I to read it; for if gazing at nudity is socially acceptable in a museum, surely a female artist who strips within the context of an exhibition should ideally feel relevant, innocuous and just a little bit cheeky? The irony, of course, is that contemporaneously, Olympia, was deeply shocking for not portraying the wonted nymphlike iconography of nudes but instead depicting a real naked woman. Just over a hundred years of social development later and Deborah De Robertis achieves the same scandalous effect. What is it about the female form that has stimulated creativity but that, still now, in an age when even Playboy has dressed (albeit scantily) its models because nudity is no longer ‘progressive’, the sight of female naked flesh in public a cause for alarm? Especially in a supposedly libertarian city, whose icon is the bare breasted goddess triumphantly depicted in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading The Brave and whose cherished actresses from Brigitte Bardot to Eva Green display an effortless laxity in their approach to on-screen undress.
De Robertis’s arrest perplexed me, and got me thinking about the social limbo we find ourselves in when it comes to the disparate views of female nudity. Despite our purportedly liberal values in a supposedly post-feminist society, there still appears to be confusion engrained in our reactions to the naked female form in modern culture; at the same time applauding Lena Dunham for bearing all in popular TV show, Girls, and bemoaning Kim Kardashian’s nude selfies under the hashtag #liberated to celebrate International Women’s Day.
The concept of a muse has always been a feminine one, the roots stemming back to the ancient world where they were conceived as goddesses of inspiration – which is bizarrely at odds with the treatment of women then and through the ages. From the outset even I, who had shamelessly (but not exclusively) grown up on French nudist beaches, was startled by how empowering life modelling can be. It seemed to me that the study of the nude was art without the artifice, stripping back and celebrating simplicity and truth in nature. The muse has managed to uphold an elegant history tinted with glamour, eloquent madness and laudanum-laced love, but always ultimately resigned to the designs of the male artist. Are we as a society unable to comprehend our attitudes to our modern day muses that have broken with the patriarchal past? Are we still searching for the generic model of perfection in beauty or is it a preoccupation with prostitution and pornography systemically leaking from sexist attitudes that is compelling us to constantly criticise? While hardly academic in my approach, I offer up my own abstract musings on a seemingly mercurial and complex attitude to the status of the female nude and the female muse today.
Paradigms of bewildering attitudes to female sexuality hark back to the the Ancient Greek patriarchy, which accused all women of harbouring a dangerous wildness that men needed to be tamed. The hitherto civilised women of Thebes in Euripides’s play, Bacchae, demonstrate this fear to brutal effect. Driven mad by the playful demigod Dionysus, they desert the city and roam the surrounding hills naked and feral, purportedly making love with each other, suckling wolf cubs, tearing animals and, eventually, the judgmental yet prying protagonist, Pentheus, to shreds with their hands and teeth (a moveable feast few modern women would find more appealing in an age of spiralizers and gluten-denunciation). A similar fate befell Actaeon, who was also hunted and butchered for spying on the incensed goddess Artemis as she bathed. In Greek and Roman mythology there is a sense of danger in the female nude, a troublesome foretelling of violence for the prying and predatory male (I wish this myth had carried better through the ages. Florence, the city I live in, has an inordinate amount of troublesome flashers, lurking behind communal bins, poised for exposure, cross- eyed and semi-erect with an infuriating fearlessness of being karmically disembowelled by a wild boar). A bawdy take on the ancient world seems to have translated into seemingly obligatory harem scenes in films such as 300 and Alexander. The latter was slated by my Ancient History professor for these anachronistic inclusions, but I remain unsure what really irritated her most; classicist pedantry for authentic representation, or that the writer and historian Robin Lane Fox got to lead a cavalry charge for his contribution to the film, while she could only have been offered the thankless role of an antediluvian Babylonian whore.
Perhaps one of the reasons that De Robertis was detained for her performance was that of this lingering hangover of sexual repression and shame which has trickled ominously down through western civilisation. The exhibition she had chosen was called Splendour and Misery: Images of Prostitution 1850-1910 and the title could be a key to understanding a confused attitude to female nudity in artistic, literary and cinematic terms. Historically, obliging courtesans would have been moonlighting as artists’ muses. It could be that this association results in a lasting opprobrium for those who pose in the nude; a preoccupation stemming from the Renaissance that Freud later termed the ‘Madonna-Whore complex.’ I always felt this concept could well apply to whoever managed Beyoncé and Britney Spears in their early careers, encouraging them to publicly announce their virginal moral code while making sexually alluring music videos. This uneasy duality of opinion has, I feel, resulted in a sort of peepshow prurience our society inherited from Christian piety and manifested in its art, utterly at odds with, say, the joyously imaginative depictions of female eroticism in eastern art such as Japanese shunga. In this regard I am reminded of Roald Dahl’s dark short story, Nunc Dimittis, in which a rejected lover cruelly commissions a portrait of his paramour, knowing full well the artist insists on secretly painting the subject in the nude and layering the undergarments and clothes as the portrait progresses. Weeks of meticulous oil stripping allow for the ignominious unveiling of the woman in all her immodesty at a dinner party. This story, one of my least favourites of a fantastic collection, manifests a lurking voyeuristic undercurrent to repression. The ongoing debate over the EU recently reminded me of a similar inclination to the shaming women through exposure of their bodies. The tensions of war in occupied France during World War II had devastating after- effects of many of the women who had lived alongside the German soldiers for almost four years. Those who had had liaisons, love affairs and children with German soldiers were publicly punished for their transgressions by being stripped naked and tarred, swastikas scrawled in lipstick across their foreheads and paraded through the towns and villages. This torrid public punishment, though thankfully not one still practiced in Europe, has been endemic in a worldwide culture whose shared history almost always involved the rape of women during warfare. A modern equivalent of this sexual shaming is now seen in the cowardly rise of revenge porn, a despicable development I wish could be negligible as the pathetic vestiges of the un-evolved male psyche, were it not that it causes such indelible pain.
The supposed violent carnality inherent within ancient depictions of women transmutes to a somewhat less carnivorous and more tragic madness in a modern western culture of exposed anti- heroines at odds with their civilised surroundings. Isabella Rossellini as the traumatised cabaret singer Dorothy in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a pawn in the sadistic sex games of others, takes to roaming suburbia in the nude to the horror of her secret teenage lover and his wholesome girlfriend in her prom dress. The eponymous disenchanted housewife in Shel Silverstein’s fatalistic Ballad of Lucy Jordan spends the day ignoring the phone and ‘dreaming of a thousand lovers’ before totally losing it and running ‘naked through the shady streets screaming all the way.’ Even the beautiful and haunted Jane in Paris, Texas finds a tawdry refuge behind the peepshow window, thinking this sordid existence the only life she is worthy for after a bad love affair. Although these are perhaps reductive, random examples, they manifest to me an notable correlation between the loosening of garments to the loosening of societal morals and/or civilised behaviour within the female psyche. While a man may fight, lose his job or money, a woman will lose her clothes and thus her sexual morality.
A few years ago, Katherine Heigl, the star of Hollywood blockbuster, Knocked Up, dismissed the portrayal of her character as “sexist”and the women depicted in the film “shrews.” This seems to me to be also a common stereotype, but perhaps one that has legs. Feminism has often suffered a misconception as a humourless movement but considering the years of subjugation and misrepresentation, there is very little fun to be had in exacting the standards. (On a side note, Judd Apatow, creator of said film, has avowed to include more full- frontal male nudity in his films to redress the balance of on- screen female nudity, a promise I will endeavour to personally monitor). It is not merely misogyny that skews the perception of the female nude in modern culture however. Crippling pressure for body image to conform can be attributed as much to Page 3’s busty assertion of a desirable female as it can be to Vogue, the shrewd Cyclopean arbiter of taste who seems to primarily promote the lithe and petite. Frustratingly, despite our shared history of centuries of oppression, some well-meaning feminists can be myopic and vitriolic in their outlook to controversial opinion, a worrying need for uniformity outweighing an open minded approach to unity. The recent dispiriting attack on Picasso’s muse, the 92 year old, Francoise Gilot, for her advocation of indulging in the ‘eroticism of the streets’ in her co-authored book, About Women: Conversations Between A Writer And An Artist, showcases this. Although many may disagree with Francoise’s encouragement of flirtation to oil social wheels (no way would I personally wink back at the man who repeatedly yells “lucky saddle” at me as I cycle past on a London commute) she is undoubtedly an intelligent and considered woman whose alternative stance should not suffer a chokehold. I felt similarly uneasy about the deluge of female complaints against Helen Mirren and Chrissi Hynde for publicly discussing their respective attitudes to their own experiences of rape. Hounded by women for opening a conversation on a contentious subject felt like a silencing of female voices; an attack on one of the many sides of femininity. One of the most recently upsetting fictional examples of female disunity that stayed with me is Elena Ferrante’s rather harrowing novella, The Days of Abandonment, in which a forsaken wife in Naples must bear, amongst many indignities, the shift in allegiance of her young daughter to the young woman her husband left her for. The little girl who once saw her as a goddess, now describes how much prettier the new girlfriends breasts and pubic hair are. Not only does she suffer the rejection of her body from the man who used to adore her, but her daughter also. For me, it is the latter that really stings.
Despite this, it has to be understood that modern feminism is still a relatively youthful developing movement for resounding social change that, despite its occasionally fractious moments, is progressing at an inspiring rate. Last year my friend Isobel and I ducked into a Brighton Fringe production of a modern retelling of the story of Antigone, I Am Not Antigone. The chaotic yet profound play sees the titular protagonist strip and paint her breasts in black paint to rail against the authorities who killed her brother. Unlike her mythical namesake however, she is not brave enough to counter popular opinion and becomes apathetic and unmoored, the play a poignant commentary on our ability to turn away from what it right. It reminded me of the audacious, selfless and defiant political actions that catalyse the progressive flame within Femen, the topless protestors who, among many slogans aim to ‘promote new revolutionary female sexuality as opposed to the patriarchal erotic and pornography.’ Unlike simpering celebrity nymphets who dubiously pose naked for charities with little care other than their own self-publication, Femen are furious and their conviction in their cause far more fierce than fragrant.
There is undoubtedly an alluring and stirring power in the female form that art in its many guises seeks to discover and learn from, but the nude is clearly no longer simply a resplendent yet static model, a caryatid benevolently bearing the architecture of history and culture. There is a changing of the guards in attitudes to the muse, and it seems now that much of it is coming from the women themselves who want to be seen as powerful and relevantly influential – not just desirable. Deborah De Robertis expressed her artistic intentions to play with audiences perceptions by relinquishing the passivity in the muse – “In my work, the model becomes not just the subject but active – an artist in her own right” – and armed with her GoPro camera, De Robertis became more than merely a figure of inspiration; influential not as a result of her appearance but for ability to attain what she wanted for herself. The muse has redefined the limitations of her role, stepping out of the painting and, as a result, the male-dominated sphere of which she used to orbit, to claim what she is owed. It makes me think of Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox belting out the feminist idiom, ‘Behind every great man there has to be a great woman,’ in the song Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves. It makes me think of Grace Jones and Jerry Hall unapologetically and fearsomely topless dancing in Parisian nightclubs in the 80s. It makes me think of muses as no longer just full- frontal, but full- throttle, gunning for equality, artistic independence and, ultimately, respect.
Joanna Drot-Troha is an anxiety-ridden writer, cult-style enthusiast, inconstant gardener and aspiring feminist warrior based in Florence. She writes for Il Cartello and is currently working on a children’s novel about a truffle-hunting dog in the prospective manner of Elena Ferrante.