Objectification in Art: a brief essay

The following essay provides a commentary on the negative impact the male gaze has relating to objectification of the female nude, and oppression of women. The male gaze is provided through various Art movements; including Fauvism, the Brücke, and Cubism.

30 March 2017

The Artistic Oppression of Women

The study of art history provides a strong argument in proving controversial perspectives surrounding the role of women. The various art movements which have transpired during the reign of mankind depend heavily on the depiction of the surrounding environment. The forms, or lack of forms, captured by the artist become a representation of their modern world. In recent times, Modernity brought fourth the study of nude models and the female form. Male artists become the venerated figures of the History Cannon – thus, they are worthy of the title ‘genius’. Women were left to the side, and for many years, were rejected the opportunity to study art academically. The female nude – representing the respective cultural growth in prostitution and courtesan women –  is designed for the eyes of male artists to feast upon and reproduce. The changing world reflects its values through the physical representation of the oppression of women captured by the male gaze of the artists amid the Twentieth Century. Notable figures of the History Canon who depict the oppression of the female form include the Fauvist pioneer Henri Matisse, the Brücke artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and the Cubist genius, Pablo Picasso.

The female nude – as a representation of the prevalent prostitution – becomes a common theme in the works of Twentieth Century artists. The Fauvist movement is noted to be one of the first to make the radical change of portraying women less as goddesses that walked amongst the heavens, and more like the societal provocative figure that was trending. Fauvism is a term given to address a group of five men: Henri Matisse and his colleagues Charles Camoin, André Derain, Henri Manguin, and Maurice Vlaminck. The artist are pioneers of the new Avant-Garde movement because their works are considered to be bold and extreme in content and imagery – thus the term remains in use and expanded to address not only the artists, but the style of art that is created as well. The female nude remains a common theme in terms of subject matter. She is depicted with harsh perspectives, distortions, brushstrokes, and positioned in a submissive demeanor. The depiction transforms the form into a valuable example of the Fauvist aesthetics and content; after all, the term ‘fauves’ is derived from the French word for ‘wild beasts’. Fundamental qualities of the style are untamed, instinctive forms of expression executed through use of colours and line left behind with crude brushstrokes that left traces of the unprimed canvas. The strong work of hand is described by a few critics as being similar to an eager child opening a set of paints and applying the colours carelessly. The childlike characteristic can be synonymously compared to primitive art with the noted disregard for artistic convention. The combination of hard brushstroke and the harsh depiction of the female nude “speaks not of universal aspirations but of the fantasies and fears of middle-class men living in a changing world” (Duncan 294). The aesthetics of Fauve paintings are suggested to be influenced by the masculinity of the artists. The form captured is manipulated by the male eye, and reproduced for the adjacent male gaze.

The forerunner of the Fauvist art movement, Henri Matisse, emphasized heavily on the aggressive imagery. Matisse relied greatly on the abrupt brushstrokes, which is best executed through Fauvist production in his work titled The Blue Nude (Souvenir de Biskra) (1907). Matisse illustrates the use of pure, vivid colours which are applied with a bold, distinct brushwork. The abrupt work of hand of the artist is valued as an experience in sexualized nature because it creates an atmosphere to allow the viewer to react to the painting outside from themselves. It becomes apparent through the male gaze and lack of women in the studios “that in a patriarchal world ‘ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (Perry 74). Yet, surprisingly Matisse has a tendency to desexualize the female body with the work of active brushstrokes. The model becomes more human than the classical goddess representations, which leads to controversial arguments about the juxtaposition of a savage painting style and the imagery of a sexual metaphor. Nonetheless, the trend of desexualizing the body through active brushwork, and the sexualization of the emphasized distortions of the breasts and buttocks of the female nude equally relate to dehumanizing the personhood of women.

The art of oppressing women and objectifying the female nude through subjectivity of the male gaze is not contained to one style of art. The male gaze continues to tamper with sexual, metaphorical imagery through the Brücke art movement while using similar content and aesthetics as Fauvism. It is imperative to note that the Brücke movement seeks to cross into a new future with a youthful eagerness, yet the adventurous ambition is also accompanied by a symbolism where men occupy the role of the dominant archetype. The Brücke was founded by leading members: Erich Heckel, Max Pechstein, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The term is derived from the German word for bridge, which represents the aim to separate from the past and present society. Acknowledgement is rightfully given to the preceding art movement because it is an influencing factor to a revolution resulting in a reaction. In other terms, artists began to distance themselves from Symbolism, and turned to Brücke artwork to express their content.  The main goal for Symbolism is often compared to dreams through the exploration of emotion, dreams and spirituality, yet “symbolist artists usually portrayed not women but one or two universal types of woman. These types are often lethal to man. They are always more driven by instincts and closer to nature than man, more subject to its mysterious forces. They are often possessed by dark or enigmatic souls” (Duncan 296). The extraction states that Symbolist art depicts a relation between man and woman where she plays the aggressor that men fear. Meanwhile Brücke artists began to illustrate the opposing perspective: one of which men become the dominant force, and women are belittled to fragile, sexual subjects.

The forerunner of the Brücke art movement, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, adheres to the stereotypical role of the dominant male. His works, in particular Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella (c. 1909), define the life fabricated under the male perspective. Kirchner attacks his subject with aggressive brushstrokes which appear large and spontaneous in style. The conscious colour scheme chosen reveals a raw and intense palette. The carefully chosen aesthetics plays into the oppression of women in relation to the submissive pose of the model. The artist is comprehended to be in close proximity to the model, and with a horizon line giving hint to a raised perspective which suggests that Kirchner placed himself and his canvas above the lying form;

The artist, in asserting his own sexual will, has annihilated all that is human in his opponent. In doing so, he also limits his own possibilities. Like conquered animals, these women seem incapable of recognizing in him anything beyond a sexually demanding and controlling presence (Duncan 297).

The female model becomes a naïve force, contrary to the irresistible, seductive force previously portrayed. The nude model sprawled on the bed before Kirchner becomes submissive and powerless. The referred positions regarding power and sexual roles respectively address the notable male dominance within the artist’s surrounding society. The male artists take control of their personal, sexual will through the pressure of the newly established perspective of the male gaze.

Male dominance continues to be prevalent in varying art movements, including Cubism – which is manifested by the primitive style. Cubism itself represents a radical turning point in art history. The art movement rejects the pictorial illusionism which was previously the established practice in the Western world since the Renaissance. The dismissal of naturalistic depictions allows for the emergence of compositions consisting of abstracted shapes and forms, which are inspired from the conventionally perceived environment.  Cubist artworks depicting the female nude reference the female form through reduced basic shapes resembling primitive masks. The primitive aesthetics involves “a relationship of power; (…) for example, that those within Western society who analyze, teach, paint or reproduce a view of the ‘primitive’ would, by this activity, be dominating, restructuring and having authority over that which they define as ‘primitive’” (Perry 4). In relation to the female form, figures are captured through Eastern style figures with mask-like, or even beast-like features. The Cubist approach of painting simplified figures creates a distinguished difference between Western and Eastern societies, wherein the primitive Eastern society is understood to be less civilized by the interpretation of the viewer.

The leading figure in Cubism, Pablo Picasso, created a series of paintings which are considered to be primitive in style. The strongest artwork to follow the aesthetics of primitive art while depicting the female nude is recognized by the title Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Picasso did have a collection of African masks, although he states that he was not exposed to them prior to this painting. Thus, he attempts to dismiss the influence of the mask-like portraits, and yet it does not dismiss the fact that the five depicted forms are easily compared to African aesthetics. The forms appear to be naked, some covering up slightly with the illustrated curtains. Their poses vary from squats, to seductively inviting the viewer in as if waiting for their next client. Through the portrayal and composition of the five forms, it becomes apparent that the women are prostitutes, and the viewer is suggested to be the client himself. The women are not idealized like the aforementioned goddesses; the distorted faces parallel to primitive styed masks re-enforce the trend of dehumanizing the female subject to please the male gaze. The two figures on the right of the canvas evidently are distorted at greater length because “they seemingly reference African masks and, to the painting’s few first viewers, their faces must have looked distorted almost beyond recognition, an effect highlighted by their poses” (Ratman 176). Picasso inconsistently depicts the figures with the combination of side, three quarter and frontal profiles observed in one form alone. The body also become victims of hard shapes and defined, sharp edges. At the end of its production, the public attempted to tear the piece down from the gallery walls because of the anger it stirred in the experience of the viewer. In result, Picasso rolled up his piece and abstained from showcasing it in gallery exhibition for a few decades. Nonetheless, the piece is presently admired for its aesthetic and content in terms of studies relating to the Cubist art movement.

In Conclusion, the female nude brought forth many controversial criticisms, including the dispute debating the true symbolic meaning represented by Modern art. The viewer received unspoken, yet understood permission to question the power of the male artist and respective male critics over the female body. The morals of the male counterpart were also brought into question by the raising feminist movements. The underlining problematic concern in relation to the human existence is determined to be the relationship between men and women as depicted through the cultural artistic expression.  The male perception regarding femininity is portrayed symbolically through the paintings The Blue Nude (1907), Girl Under a Japanese Umbrella (c. 1909), and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The female subjects raised attention to an environment of prostitution in relation to clients; wherein the clients are the male viewers of the canvas itself. Thus, the female body is determined worthy of objectivity through the oppression of the male gaze.


Works Cited

Duncan, Carol. “Virility and Domination in Early Twentieth-Century Vanguard    Painting.” Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany. By Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. 293-312. Print.

Perry, Gill. “Gender and the Fauves: flirting with the ‘wild beasts’.” Art of the Avant-Garde. By  Steve Edwards and Paul Wood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. 63-81. Print.

Perry, Gill. “Primitivism and the ‘Modern’.” Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early      Twentieth Century. By Charles Harrison, Francis Frascina, Gill Perry, eds. New Haven          and London: Yale UP, 1993. 1-6. Print

Ratnam, Niru. “Dusty Mannequins: Modern Art and Primitivism.” Art of the Avant-Garde. By Steve Edwards and Paul Wood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. 157-181. Print.


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