top of page

Week 5+6: Gazing, Nudity and Fantasy

This week we were discussing gazing at photographs. There are a few directions which I could take when talking about gaze, but because my work is revolved around the human body I have decided to focus on male (and female) gaze. I would like to start with painting again. In the European oil painting the ever recurring subject of the great masters was the female nude. It is well-known that there have been more Old Masters than Old Mistresses in the past due to the fact that women were inferior to men and their traditional and expected role was to be rather a housewife than an artist. However, there has been a large amount of female nudes. In other words, women were mainly painted by men for men – by the male painter for the male owner. In the average European oil painting of the nude the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture, and he is presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there, it is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity. But he, by definition, is a stranger - with his clothes still on.

- Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing

Depiction of the woman is designed to flatter the male spectator. These women are usually idealised, stripped off of their body hair and often portrayed passive and rarely looking directly at the spectator.

The passivity is signifying submission and looking away makes it ‚easier‘ for the male spectator to gaze upon them. Also by removing the body hair, we strip away what the hair represents – passion and sexual power. According to Berger ‘the woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator may feel that he has the monopoly of such passion. Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.’

The female form is often celebrated as an object of beauty, but when we look back on history, we see that women rarely have been in charge of how they are portrayed. When it comes to such representation, it is important to think not only about who is being represented but who is creating the representation. - Associate Professor of Art History at MU, Schwain, Kristin

John Berger also suggests that oil painting was a celebration of a private property – you are what you have.

Oil paintings often depict things. Things which in reality are buyable. To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your house. If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents.

- Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing

Let’s have a look at this painting bellow made by Peter Lely. In his book John Berger points out that it is nominally a depiction of Venus and Cupid, however, in fact it is a portrait of Nell Gwynne, one of the King’s mistresses. The painting demonstrates her passivity and submission – submission to the viewer, who is the owner of both painting and woman. Such a possession was to be envied by others.

Fig. 1: Peter Lely, Portrait of a young woman and child, as Venus and Cupid, 17th century

In order for painters to have their work publicly accepted the women depicted in the work had to look other-worldly, idealised and exotic. In other words, they had to resemble real (Western) women as little as possible. Therefore there have been a lot of Venuses, Dianas, Nymphs, Odalisques, etc. produced. Depicting women as unrealistic imaginations from dreams was a good excuse to gaze upon them, because they did not exist, and so did not their nudity. Therefore there is nothing wrong about staring at them.

One of the first painters who responded to this hypocrisy was Edouard Manet. With his painting Olympia, who is a Parisian prostitute in her apartment, he reminds us our own interests in looking at these images. The true interest here is a sexual one. Note how she looks directly and shamelessly back at the viewer as if to confront them.

Fig. 2: Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Manet’s work was influenced by the famous Titian’s painting Venus of Urbino (Fig. 3). However, note the difference between the representations of the subjects in the two paintings.

Fig. 3: Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

When photography was invented people realised it dealt with the actual. The depicted subjects were real women and not abstracted forms. The women in the photographs were too real to be Venuses. The sense of reality became an advantage and gave the viewer the privilege to fantasize over someone who really existed and once sat in front of the camera.

In old erotic daguerreotypes many nude women were depicted looking directly into the camera.

Fig. 4:Unknown, Standing Female Nude with Arms Outstretched, 1912c/1912c

Fig. 5: Unknown,Female nude, 1850s

However, later their gaze changed and the sitters were situated into more natural poses which made them look unaware of the viewer. Bob Guccione, the founder of Penthouse explains: ‘I started photographing girls as if they were impressionist paintings. I put lace and pearls and antique furniture into the tableau and I would put something between me and the girls. Because of the real allure of this kind of photography was the penetration of the privacy of the girl. This is what the voyeur is basically looking for, he does not want girls smiling at him recognizing the fact that he is there. They want to be doing something intimate, something personal that they do not want to be seen doing.’

Fig. 6: Bob Guccione, Lynette Asquith, Penthouse Magazine, 1974

Fig. 7: Bob Guccione, Angela Adams, Penthouse Magazine, 1972

On the other hand, Miroslav Tichý’s subjects would not have any idea they were photographed. Like a peeping Tom Tichý stalked the streets and swimming pools with his home-made camera that nobody believed it could actually work. A few of his subjects struck beauty poses not realising that the parody of a camera was real.

Fig. 8: Miroslav Tichý, Untitled, n.d.

Fig. 9: Miroslav Tichý, Untitled, n.d.

Fig. 10: Roman Buxbaum, Miroslav Tichý’s Camera no. 1

Even Eadweard Muybridge, a pioneering photographer in the studies of motion, also depicted nude women with a certain sense of fantasy. He added details such as a picnic basket, fishing pole, scarf, etc., details unnecessary for the scientific depiction of the movement. Professor Linda Williams points out that the reason why he is giving the woman a picnic basket is an excuse for the woman to be in the imaginary stream. He is giving a fantasy scenario to the viewer, something he does not care about with the bodies of the men he photographed.

Fig. 11: Eadweard Muybridge, Nude woman crossing brook on stepping-stones, 1884c/1886c Fig. 12: Eadweard Muybridge, Unmarried female (nude) throwing large handkerchief over her shoulder, 1872-1885

It is not new knowledge that women have been seen as a sight, an object to fantasize over. The way they have been represented (and by whom) shaped their relation to others and to themselves. I have already written a few articles where I discussed objectification of women. It is available to read here:

Completely different example of representing nude subjects in photography is Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. His controversial photographs mainly of male subjects explore his own sexuality but also sexual fantasies that were considered a taboo.

Fig. 13: Robert Mapplethorpe, Joe, N.Y.C, 1978

Fig. 14: Robert Mapplethorpe, Derrick Cross and Friends, 1982

Fig. 15: Robert Mapplethorpe, Dennis with Flowers, 1983

Other artist whose work was considered controversial is Sylvia Sleigh who turned her gaze on the male nude. She painted nude men the way the Old Masters painted nude women to show how sexualised men would look like if they were represented the same way as women. In 1975 her work had to be dismantled from a museum for showing explicit male nudity. Her response to that was: ‘I wonder if the judge would object to a female nude? I do not see why male genitals are more sacred than female.’

Fig. 16: Sylvia Sleigh, Imperial Nude, 1977

Fig. 17: Sylvia Sleigh, Philip Golub Reclining, 1971

Why are these images controversial? Perhaps for the viewer it is difficult to objectify men the same way they would objectify women and therefore they are less acceptable by the public. I explain it more in detail in this article:

Speaking of my own practice, am I a voyeur? My work mostly consists of self-portraiture, and as I have mentioned earlier it is not out of narcissism, but rather as an act of trying to identify myself. I get to see my body a lot and many times in a way I would never be able to see it in everyday life. When I strain my body in a difficult position, look like a sculpture or like a blurry smudge, etc. It is great to see my body (and myself) in all these various poses and situation because it shows me a different side of myself. I do not get pleasure from looking at myself, however, I feel pleased when I see myself in a photograph I consider a successful one.

I have been always trying to make my photos desexualised and rather convey the connection of human and environment , exploring identity, etc. However, I thought of going a bit out of my way by starting a project which would be slightly different to my usual work. I would like to make a project which would respond to the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer.

I was going through photographs I had taken in 2017 and stumbled upon this one (Fig. 18). I though this image had a different atmosphere than others and I (as a viewer) felt distracted by the penetrating look of the man (my partner) in the image. The man is looking back at the viewer while the viewer is trying to enjoy looking at the female body. In my opinion, the man’s presence and his piercing look make the photograph quite uncomfortable to look at and ruin the voyeuristic pleasure of looking. Because all I can suddenly see is the man staring at me.

Fig. 18: Lucie Nechanicka, Untitled, 2017 I thought it could be an interesting direction to go and I would like to explore the idea and elaborate on it. References: Figures: Fig. 1: Fig. 2: Fig. 3: Fig. 4: Fig. 5: Fig. 6: Fig. 7: Fig. 8: Fig. 9: Fig. 10: Fig. 11: Fig. 12: Fig. 13: Fig. 14: Fig. 15: Fig. 16: Fig. 17:

Fig. 18: Lucie Nechanicka, Untitled, 2017


Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing, p.54

Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing, p.55

Associate Professor of Art History at MU, Schwain, Kristin

Berger, John, 1972, Ways of Seeing, p.83

Guccione, Bob, (33:40)

Professor, Williams, Linda, (12:08)

Sleigh, Sylvia

123 views0 comments
bottom of page