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Week 4: Objectification of Women in the History of Art and Society (Part 2)

This is a follow-up article to my previous one about 'Objectification of Women in the History of Art and Society (Part 1)' In the 20th century, with the increase of women’s rights and equality in the society, women started pointing out objectification of women in art. Some female artists would try to transform the stereotypes.

The artist I would like to mention is Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010) – woman who turned her gaze on the male nude.

She painted nude men the way the old masters painted nude women. Not excluding their private parts – something unthinkable centuries ago for a woman to do! She is attacking the patriarchal (art) history by switching the female nude for male to reveal how sexualised the female nude really is.

Figure 20: Sylvia Sleigh, 1977, Imperial Nude

Figure 21: Sylvia Sleigh, 1971, Philip Golub Reclining

Figure 22: Sylvia Sleigh, 1974, Double Image: Paul Rosano However, in 1975 Owen McGivern, presiding justice of the Appellate Division of the state Supreme Court, First Department has asked the Bronx County Museum to dismantle art work containing explicit male nudity – including ‘Double Image’ by Sylvia Sleigh. Asked about the reaction to her painting Sylvia responded: “I wonder if the judge would object to a female nude? I don't see why male genitals are more sacred than female.”

I don’t see why they are either. Yet, seeing nude men evokes different reactions and feelings than seeing nude women. First of all it might be simply because people are not so used to seeing male nudes – as we know women are usually the subject. But the discomfort in this case might have something to do with the way how she portrayed the male models – in a feminine way. Such portrayal might disassociate the male models from masculinity and make them look more vulnerable. Kenneth Clark said in his book: ‘To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage no uncomfortable overtone.’ - Clark, Kenneth, The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form According to Clark, the nude is a form of art where we see no nakedness, discomfort, embarrassment or vulnerability. So why did these paintings cause such reactions? Some viewers perhaps were unable to see them as ‘nudes’ but saw them as ‘nakedness’ instead. Now the main question is: would these viewers be able to recognize ‘nude’ more easily in the nakedness of the subject if the subject was a woman? John Berger elaborated on Kenneth Clark’s thoughts by saying: ‘I would put it differently. To be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude.’ - Berger, John, 1972, Ways of seeing Perhaps this is the reason why some viewers struggled to see them as ‘nudes’, because they were unable to objectify men the same way they would objectify women. Why am I talking about all of this and who am I? I’m a female artist creating nude portraiture of myself. This would be unimaginable a century ago (maybe less)!

I have never really given a second thought to my photographic focus and style until I started this MA programme, where I was encouraged to think about my work more deeply. The fact that I, as a woman take nude photographs of myself is a novelty of the recent history and it is great to be aware of it.

As a photographer and director I have full control of how I portray myself – in other words I have control of whether I would objectify myself or not. In some cases I believe I’ve had tendencies to create cliché poses. Not deliberately but out of unawareness – I must have seen some similar poses in photographs or paintings on the internet or elsewhere, and they got imprinted on my mind. And later when doing a photo shoot I would subconsciously tend to replicate the poses.

But I always try to give my work a twist by using a lot of different techniques, like overexposure, adding textures, choosing unusual perspective, distorting the vision, merging the body with the surrounding and etc. The reason why I use these techniques is to draw the attention away from the subject itself and to focus on the photograph as a whole.

People always ask me though, what drives me to do nude photography and why I take nude photographs of myself. I have already talked about it in one of my previous articles (you can read it clicking on the link below). But, why not mention again.

I like nude photography for the same reason other artists like landscape or architecture photography for example – I find it beautiful. All artists must find something beautiful about the genre they focus on, otherwise they wouldn’t be drawn to it. I admire the human body and therefore I want to capture it.

I started taking photos of myself out of necessity because I didn’t know anybody who would model for me. At the beginning it was very convenient and it did the job, but later it became more than just a necessity. It became an obsession and life style. I feel that my photography helps me to define who I am as a person. I cannot imagine not doing photography as part of my life, or not taking photos of myself anymore. My work will be my legacy, regardless of whether it would be discovered by anyone or not. The way I direct my work has an effect on what my work reflects about me – especially when I’m the director and subject in one person. I hope my work will be able to say one day – this is not only how she was looking but also how she was thinking.

When I look at myself in (some of) my photographs I don’t recognize me for myself. I rather see me as a strange person or an element/fragment of the environment. This is where I don’t fully agree with what John Berger said about nudity and nakedness, or at least it doesn’t apply here. I’m nude (not naked) in the photos but I believe I haven’t objectified myself there.

I’m open to discussion, let me know your thoughts!

All of this is, of course, not to say that artworks should not depict naked women. It’s important to note, however, how naked women are depicted.

- Oredsson, Ellen

Lucie Nechanicka, 2020

Lucie Nechanicka, 2019

Lucie Nechanicka, 2020

Lucie Nechanicka, 2020

Lucie Nechanicka, 2019 Figures Figure 20:

Figure 21:

Figure 22:

Resources John Berger:

Kenneth Clark:

The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form

Ellen Oredsson:

Sylvia Sleigh:

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Lucie Nechanická
Lucie Nechanická
Nov 03, 2020

Thanks Owen! :)


Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Nov 02, 2020

Great insight. I liked the male nudes, they were natural and warm; i think as a society we definitely don't appreciate the male body as much as female. In films there seems to be an abundance of female boobs but a lack of male genitals. Probably because of the reasons you give, they are more forbidden in our society.

I think you're comparison between landscape and nude is brill too; yes, like a landscape photographer enjoys the beauty, you enjoy the nude beauty. Let's educate people that this is natural and shouldn't be taboo. Let's embrace nakedness and challenge the stigmas that surround us and on social platforms.

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