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What Are You Looking At?
Allyson Clay and Eliza Griffiths, Encounters with the Gaze
by Dee Gibson
Given the legacy of women’s objectification throughout art history, how can artists engaged in the representation of the female body avoid complicity in this patriarchal practice? As Jo Anna Isaak notes in her article, Art History and Its (Dis)Contents, the image of ‘woman’ as body has historically signified material wealth and sexual pleasure, man’s power to transcend the material world and nature, and simultaneously ... functioned as a cover-up, concealing a void, allaying his fears, his sense of lack.1 Images of women lounging naked, offered up for visual (presumably male) consumption abound in the annals of art history. The odalisque, in particular seems to have been most prevalent in the nineteenth century, as seen in Manet’s Olympia (1863)2 and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863)3, as well as in Ingres’ The Grand Odalisque (1814)4, though may also be traced back to Titian’s Venus d’Urbano (1538-39)5 and Giorgione’s Venus Asleep (1510)6. In her seminal essay, Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema7, Laura Mulvey engages with the Freudian concept of women as castrated or lacking the phallus to analyze how cinema positions the viewer as male in voyeuristic relation to the image of ‘woman.’ According to Mulvey, this male gaze employs two strategies to escape the anxiety of lack: voyeuristically observing the image of woman from a distance and passing judgment, or fetishizing parts of the image such as breasts, legs, or feet, so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. If the dominant viewing position tends to devalue or fetishize ‘woman,’ how are women artists to (re)present their own corporeal experiences?
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1. Jo Anna Isaak, “Art History and Its (Dis)Contents,” in her Feminism and Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 48-50.
2. Edouard Manet's Olympia (http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Manet/Olympia.htm). Last verified: 15 October 2005.
3. Édouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur lherbe (http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Manet/Lunch_on_the_Grass.htm). Last verified: 15 October 2005.
4. Ingres’ The Grand Odalisque (http://web.archive.org/web/20010622064902/www.theartcanvas.com/ingres.godal14.htm). No longer online.
5. Titian’s Venus d’Urbano (http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Manet/Olympia_in_Juxtaposition.htm). Last verified: 15 October 2005.
6. Giorgione’s Venus Asleep (http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Manet/Olympia_in_Juxtaposition.htm). Last verified: 15 October 2005.
7. Mulvey, L. "Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema." Screen. 16.3 (1975) : 6-18.