Art will always keep
its biggest secrets buried in mystery. But there's
a but. Throughout time, art's take on female beauty has
been unambiguous. The archetype of allure is the passive
nude: armless (as in Venus de Milo), or dormant (as in
"Sleeping Venus" by Giorgione).
In case you think this
ideal is the stuff of history, witness photographer Irving
Penn's current show at the Met in New York. If, as historians
tell us, art is a statement of a country, a culture and
a person, Penn's photos of nude females are straight out
of the Neolithic era. "Nude #1" shows a heavy-set model
with her arms behind her back, similar to the Venus of
The curator of the show,
Marie Morris Hambourg, recognized the similarity between
"Nude #1" and the Venus of Willendorf in Art News
this month. She called Penn's example a "timeless fertility
goddess." The artist, she said, is "in touch with the
same instinct that called forth that Venus from her Neolithic
recognition of the mysterious, procreative power of the
female body that has symbolized creativity since the dawn
To read Hambourg's words
and regard Penn's images, you'd think that the female
was a vessel without volition. One may wonder how an armless
Mother Earth could cradle the life she bears, let alone
nurture it. Fully acknowledging the absence of limbs and
heads in Penn's work, the curator added, "Penn's figures
are always complete in their partiality; although they
lack limbs and heads, they seem whole, like fragmented
antique torsos resplendent in the light."
What Penn doesn't know
about women could fill a Germaine Greer book on male chauvinism.
What Hambourg doesn't know about art history is a head-scratcher.
Between the two of them, you'd think that Edouard Manet
never painted "Dejeuner sur l'Herbe" ("Luncheon on the
Grass"). The painting defined the moment when traditional
art turned modern, and the passive woman stirred.
The painting portrays a
nude woman picnicking with two clothed men in a Paris
park. Nothing new there. Lots of Old Master paintings
feature clothed men and unclothed women. The difference
is that the female boldly stares back at you, as if you're
intruding. Her hand is tucked under her chin in a thoughtful,
questioning pose. "Yes?" she seems to ask over her shoulder,
her face direct and challenging.
Her active participation
in the painting rocked high Parisian society. Even Emperor
Napoleon III, himself no model of decency, called it "indecent."
But it wasn't the female's nudity in a public place that
offended. It was her face, which lacked the usual demure
reticence of naked females.
Another thing: Manet's
female model was neither allegorical nor mythological.
She was a well-known model of her time and a painter in
her own rightVictorine Meurend, who ran off to America
with her lover after Manet
finished the painting. Talk about volition.
The way Penn and Hambourg
think, you may imagine yourself back in the 19th century,
when everyone was reading a particular domestic guide.
"The Daughters of England: Their Position in Society"
warned a woman not to strive in any direction, because
it "would tend to draw away her thought from others and
fix them on herself (and) ought to be avoided as an evil
Penn's images, along with
all the passive nudes in historythose countless
unconscious women sprawled over time like so much spilled
paintcould be illustrations
for the domestic guide of two centuries ago.