Beauty Is the Enemy of the Woman: Do Women Have to Be Naked to Appear in Museums?

28 February 2018

By Robin Roos - Recently, I came across an interesting article in Der Spiegel, asking the reader why women on paintings always seem to be naked. Thinking about it, I could not remember a famous painting of a woman that was not focused on her appearance. Whether appearing in luscious dresses, adorned by jewellery, or painted with a lustful gaze on her nakedness, women do not seem to be painted in the same way men are. In paintings, men take action, they are being celebrated for their victories, they are fighting battles, they are preaching in front of the masses, they are kings, heroes, poets and politicians. Women, in essence, almost always seem to be ‘beautiful’; a beautiful wife, a beautiful princess, a beautiful milkmaid, but always just that: pretty and harmless. Even looking at paintings of Joan D’Arc or Boudica, they are pretty, dressed in dresses and not actually engaged in the fight.

Famous English art critic John Berger put the state of the female in art as this:

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”

Another important quote from his book Ways of Seeing:

“One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

And what he says is true. As a woman, you are not allowed to forget about yourself. How you look to the public is everything. In this way, beauty becomes the enemy of the woman. You are to be looked at, and this experience should be deemed enjoyable, or risk getting negative attention for not looking like the ideal of beauty. On the other hand, if you put on too much make-up or wear too much jewellery, or wear revealing clothes, you risk getting catcalled and assaulted even. In this way, you are constantly being surveilled for anything you choose to do with your external appearance.

Luckily, we live in the age of the woman. In 1985, an anonymous group of New York feminists started the Guerilla Girls. They wear gorilla masks to protect their identities and are known for their controversial statements and art pieces.

However, has the situation changed all that much? Looking at the statistics for one-person exhibitions in NYC since 1985 there have been a grand number of… 5 exhibitions in 30 years.

So, basically, we haven’t progressed like we always think we have. Why is it that a woman can be the subject, the thing that is painted, and attract viewers, but if she creates something herself, museums aren’t interested?

Here in the Netherlands, however, things are a bit better (of course they are!). In the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, there is an exhibition by Catherine Christer Hennix, famous Swedish sound componist. In the Jewish Historical Museum, exhibitions by Maria Austria and Charlotte Salomon are open to the public. But in Rotterdam, there is nothing (well, except for the super awesome DIVE Festival featuring talented artists of whom many are women).

Still, the fact that after doing research into the most well known museums in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, I can only bring up 3 solo exhibitions at this moment, is a bummer.

To all the young female artists out there: go and paint and sing and be yourself, most of all. Do not work around the expectation that you should be pretty and harmless and nice. You are a human, most of all, and deserve to be everything you can and want to be, and not only in the positive sense. You can be as grumpy and offensive and weird as you desire.  

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