Nude or Naked?

Nude or Naked?

When I went to New York City over reading week, my favourite part of the trip was without a doubt the Met. I’m a museum geek, to be sure, but being amongst some of the greatest paintings ever made sent me into a geeky tizzy. While some works were exciting to see, when I accidentally came across Balthus’s “The Mountain” I became a little uneasy. A young girl, looking to be around the age of 14 stands in the middle of a field surrounded by other figures. While the painting is innocent enough it is the artist that makes me apprehensive to view his works.

Balthus is also the painter behind the now-controversial “Therese Dreaming,” which shows a 12-year-old neighbour’s daughter, Therese, with her leg up and skirt hiked up to show her white underwear. What makes me uncomfortable with works of art like these is not the subject matter but the context—the fact that Balthus, a grown man, had a fascination with painting young girls, asking them to undress to different degrees. It begs the question of whether these girls could really consent to this and how that is an assertion of an abusive, sexual power structure where a man can assert more dominance over an adolescent girl to gain his wants.

 

What makes me uncomfortable with works of art like these is not the subject matter but the context.

 

When a petition began in late 2017 by Mia Merill to have the Metropolitan Museum of Art remove or re-contextualize the painting, many were on board, citing that they did not believe this “perversion” had a place on gallery walls. While others stated that to remove it would be to censor art, and ignore the historic and artistic value in the work. Others protested based on different interpretations of the painting they had.

Characteristic of art, there is always multiple sides or interpretations of a painting. Post #MeToo, the art world has had to grapple with reconciling the artistic value of a work with abusive power dynamics at play in its creation. A world that has museums filled to the brim with paintings by white men gazing at women and little with paintings by the woman herself.

In an article by HuffPost, discussing “Therese Dreaming” and whether paintings like Balthus’ still belong in museums, Priscilla Frank cites not female nudity as the cause for disruption, but the “imbalance of power behind many of those paintings, a dynamic that positions woman as the eternal object of beauty and man as the genius creator and authority of it.” She goes on to cite critic John Berger, who says that her nudity is not her own “expression” but a “submission.”

The depiction of a woman’s own celebration of her body, having her permission for it to be viewed and the viewing of a woman’s body according to a male gaze, which typically fashions her body erotically and as a fantasy. Her body is not her own but a depiction of someone else’s desires. The distinction makes all the difference.

 

Her body is not her own but a depiction of someone else’s desires. The distinction makes all the difference.

 

Lauren Elkin, in her article on “Therese Dreaming” for Frieze, states that if we only see the painting in terms of abuse then, “the men have won; art history is His story, same as it ever was.” She points to Therese and the fact that she is at ease with her legs spread, in a society that tells women and girls to keep their legs firmly shut. She also sees in Therese’s facial expression and position the same “diffused desire” she felt at 12 or 13 and states that she is not the only woman who sees the painting this way.

We do have to question whether Therese was positioned this way according to Balthus’ own fantasy, however.

And again we are brought back to the merry-go-round of reconciling both sides of art. Balthus was morally-corrupt, so why should his paintings hang in the Met over a well-deserving woman or POC?

The only way I can reconcile both sides is recognizing the importance of the debate and conversation. Yes, his paintings still hang in the Met, and they’ll probably keep hanging there, but viewers are now seeing his paintings differently and with discomfort. We’re taking steps forward in our conversation about women and consent, questioning the motivations and intentions behind these paintings and realizing how young girls are too often sexualized and what the negative implications of that are. The recognition that something has been wrong and needs to be changed is a part of the process of moving forward. This comes from situating ourselves in history, seeing what has changed and what still needs work.

We can look back on “Therese Dreaming” and see how a muddled sense of consent around a sexualized image of someone so young is wrong. We then take this and work towards a world where girls’ and women’s consent in art is ensured and her image is one that isn’t a woman possibly dreaming of a less-taboo sexuality, but one where her sexuality is her own and realized.

 

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