If you were accompanying your daughters as they walk through a museum, how would you answer their questions? What was your intent in bringing them to a museum, which may expose them to gender biased images?
Here, a pre-teen is beginning to question the motif of the female nude in painting. Her young sister is being exposed to the gender bias of the collection, while consciously oblivious to its existence.
In earlier times, Greek and Roman male bodies were the focus of much figurative art. As Italian Renaissance painters, almost exclusively male, became the arbiters of figurative beauty however, the nude became almost exclusively female. If you do an on-line search of “nudes” you are likely to find images of only female bodies.
As an adult, how would you answer this child? What is going on here? What happened to the central figure’s clothes? The woman is shown in lighter, almost luminous shades, and is totally nude, while her male companions are fully dressed. In addition, she is looking at the audience, while the men are talking to each other, seemingly ignoring her.
Children learn gender bias from images they see in museums and public galleries. This famous painting by Édouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, was considered shocking when it was first shown in public in 1863. Women in society at the time found it scandalous. Manet wanted to expand the artists’ repertoire of what could be displayed in visual form, at the same time that he wanted to depict a familiar scene — a picnic— in an unusual way. The image still stuns.
If you were the father, how would you reply to your five-year-old daughter about this revered painting of Adam and Eve in their nakedness?
Many artists have depicted the exit of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the Biblical tale of the couple’s sinfulness. Masaccio’s painting, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, was among them. Adam is holding his head to express his feelings of sin; Eve, however, is covering her women’s body to illustrate her shame as well as her sinfulness.
As a father concerned about his daughter’s self-image, how would you address the display of images in this museum? Why are men shown in vertical, athletic stances, usually clothed, while women are shown in reclining poses, often undressed? Why are female bodies more likely to be shown in idle poses and naked instead of dressed and engaged in purposeful activity?
Works of art are assessed by arts administrators who buy, curate, and display the objects in their institutions. Many of the images are women who are partially or totally naked, called “nudes.” Few pieces on display as art are of naked men, especially exposed frontally.
A young woman gives up her clothes and briefcase to clothe the female sculpture before her. First she covers the statue’s nakedness with her business jacket, then she forfeits her briefcase, and finally gives up her skirt.
Why would the woman react this way to the sculpture? Does she want to insure the sculpture’s privacy? Is she embarrassed by the nakedness of the image, the only one in the public space that is unclothed? Why are there no men without clothes? Did she identify with the naked young figure and consider it exploitative of the female body?
How might the museum staff react?
arrest the visitor for handling museum property
leave the clothes on the figure?
remove the sculpture from the museum floor?
place a caption near the sculpture discussing historical gender bias in the depiction of women in art?
There is no curatorial explanation of the work on this wall, discussing the history of the painting, its setting and interpretation in time, and how it depicts the customs and values of another century, which differ considerably from ours. As a parent showing young children this painting, how would you explain the meaning of a totally naked woman on public display and looking so different from the women they know and see in their daily lives?
Two 4-year old boys are giggling under the massively huge painting, poking fun at the pose and gestures. They are already aware of the sexual overtones of the art as they mimic the gestures of modesty by the woman. At least unconsciously, these youngsters are already aware of the different treatment of the sexes in art. There are no similar coy, provocative paintings of male for them to mimic.
The painting is The Birth of Venus, popularly known as “Venus on a Clamshell.” The ethereal figure of the woman surrounded by pastel creatures on clouds was the work of Sandro Botticelli, a Florentine artist of the late 15th century. Art historians believe that Botticelli was representing the idea that divine love was best captured in the image of a nude Venus. This was likely a male-only (“HIS-TORY”) point of view, not a female (“HER-STORY”) point of view.