Respectable Women From Art History – Yes, Most Of Them Were Naked. A Short Comment To Burkinis.

Magda Michalska 1 September 2016 min Read

I want to add my personal voice to the debate about burkini and whether it enslaves women or the contrary. The creator of the burkini, Aheda Zanetti, clearly said that she had designed it to give women freedom. And I agree.

Female body has been subject to male gaze for centuries and painting has always reflected it. In the prudent times when women couldn’t even show an ankle, painting was crammed with naked women. In order to make such a painting appropriate, it was enough to add a mythological or exotic association to it. This is why we have so many lying odalisques or Venuses. Male connoisseurs of art and female bodies, or rather, female bodies and art, excused their imprudent lusts saying that they admired mythological stories instead of fulfilling their secret desires.

A respectable 16th century woman

Titian, Portrait of Isabella of Portugal, 1548, Prado, Madrid.
Titian, Portrait of Isabella of Portugal, 1548, Prado, Madrid.

As you can see, she’s fully clothed, even her neck is protected by a tight collar. As the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Isabella was probably the most important woman in the world back then, and therefore it was required of her to behave properly and modestly. She set the example for all her court and thus all other women in the empire.

A no less respectable because mythological 16th century woman

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538, Uffizi, Florence.
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538, Uffizi, Florence.

This is a good painting to contrast our Isabella with. It was painted just 10 years earlier and it also shows two clothed maids in the background who are wearing a contemporary dress. But our Venus is in the foreground, stark naked and exposed to the eyes of everyone, that is all the male viewers since women wouldn’t be allowed to gaze at anybody’s naked body in public. Men had to argue somehow the commission of such a bold painting: it was said that it was d i d a c t i c , meant to instruct a young wife of the commissioner.

Respectable women of the 18th century

Jean-Baptiste Pate, Les Baigneuses (Women Bathing), 1695-1736, The Hermitage, Petersburg
Jean-Baptiste Pate, Les Baigneuses (Women Bathing), 1st half of the 18th cent., The Hermitage, Petersburg.

Nothing had changed for two hundred years. Women still had to dress modestly and they couldn’t show their bodies in public. Even bathing. As you can see here, these bathers are fully clothed but despite that they still attract two guys peeping at them from behind the bushes (Hey man, I think I just saw an ankle!). Girls seem not to be noticing, they are having too much fun to care less about the intruders.
Look at the nude sculptures: they emphasize how decent our women are and at the same time they are the evidence of how much art differed from real life.

An (un)respectable woman of the 18th century

Francisco Goya, Maja nude, c. 1797–1800, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Francisco Goya, Maja nude, c. 1797–1800, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

This painting was a real scandal in Spain. (A naked woman with pubic hair? Outrageous!) It was the first time in history of the European painting that a female nude had pubic hair – all the Venuses and Danaes always modestly covered their genitals… And she did not lower her eyes or coyly looked aside- Maja (her name comes from the name of the traditional dress she was wearing in a second, clothed version) challenged the lustful viewer with her direct gaze. People felt too uncomfortable with her to let Goya go freely. He was summoned by the Inquisition on a charge of ‘moral depravity’. Yet when he answered that he was following the traditional nudes by Velazquez and Titian, so adored by the church, he was acquitted. Ah, tradition.

To make my point clear

Jean Leon Gerome, Phryne Before the Aeropagus, 1861.
Jean Leon Gerome, Phryne Before the Aeropagus, 1861.

Hundred men are watching a single woman who is being unveiled like an object. She feels humiliated and unworthy, she hides her eyes away. Men are in their environment, they discuss her and analyze her as if she was not a real human being with her own free will and emotions. What counts is her body and their intellect.

The debate about burkini proves that nothing has changed since then. Men still want to dictate women what to wear and when, and it seems that the world is still shaped only by their eyes. Women are there to be looked at. And if something they’re wearing is too revealing or too unrevealing, they are in trouble…

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