Edgar Degas, The End of the Arabesque (Dancer Bowing) / Fin d’arabesque ou Danseuse saluant, 1876-1877 oil and pastel on canvas Paris, Musée d’Orsay Isaac de Camondo bequest, 1908 Photo: © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Last week I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery with a visiting artist friend to see The Modern Woman: Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. I wasn't sure what to expect, having read some reviewer responses to the show, in particular Robin Laurence's assertion in the Georgia Straight that "The Modern Woman explores the male gaze." (Given the time period in question, how could it not?)
However, what stood out to this non-art expert was that in contrast to the current cultural representations of woman - see The Porning of America: The Rise of Porn Culture, What It Means, and Where We Go from Here for one analysis - the images on display at The Modern Woman were far more respectful, less graphic, less objectified and less obscene than what is on offer on television, online and on billboards, or to be more precise, what we are bombarded with every waking second. This might simply be due to a natural progression of bodily representation, as what was once titillating becomes commonplace and quotidian, or as the representation of the domestic/private space becomes unremarkable. Certainly we who haven't studied French society circa 1850 would be unaware that some of the women pictured in this show were prostitutes without the accompanying gallery text to enlighten us. Though I did wonder, as a woman, do we women have any more agency in 2010? Do we have any more choice as to how we are portrayed?
For the majority of the pieces I viewed, the male gaze did not cross my mind at all. Rather, I was caught in the movement of the line and brought back inside my own body, remembering my past dancer training and finding my weight shifted to the balls of my feet and my steps lilting and lighter as I moved from painting to painting. The Modern Woman tackles the question / problem of embodiment, and I believe it does it quite well. In my notebook I wrote
We cannot deny the joy of movement
(I also wrote: Oh, shut up Baudelaire, but I neglected to copy down the quote that had so irritated me. I might have to swing by the gallery this week and get back to you. Tuesday postscript: It was: "...What poet in sitting down to paint the pleasure caused by the ight of a beautiful woman, would venture to separate her from her costume?" Like, puke.)
That I saw the show with a woman artist friend whose focus is figure drawing was a blessing, as I was able to coast on her excitement and learn that today's figurists themselves ask what they are doing in a medium that was so effectively captured 150 years ago. Are they regressing, or are they bringing something forward to approach in a new way? She told me that figure drawing brings her back to her own body and her own humanity:
When I draw a nude, it's always me. I am looking at myself. Even when I am drawing a man, I am looking at myself.
She also mentioned that drawing the nude has erased all of her body issues.
Call me a Philistine if you must, but to me the works in The Modern Woman are grounded in a socio-politico-cultural context that put the lives and representation of women into (pardon the pun) stark relief.
Nikki Reimer is the author of [sic] (Frontenac House, 2010).