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An Unprotected Woman at the Museums:A Female Body on the Female Body in Picasso and Modern British Art at the Tate Britain
There is always something a bit disconcerting, about being a woman in an art exhibition: particularly an exhibition of an artist like Pablo Picasso, whose ability to atomize, reduce, and re-arrange the female body has rendered him one of modernity's most influential artists. Women's bodies – from the smooth curves we find in Botticelli to the luxuriating voluptuousness of Rubens' women to the delicate forms of Degas' dancers – are more than simply a treasured subjects in Western art. It is, rather, so often its object – the possession and delineation of the female form by the male painter: a legacy of both adoration and resentment that juxtaposes the (disengaged, rational) figure of the artist, standing outside the world of his canvas, with the (female, embodied) figure whose flesh has become the raw material out of which the artist constructs his fantasy – or in Picasso's case, nightmare – women. This motif is far from a universal one – after all, Classical sculpture and Michelangelo alike provide us with images of the objectified male body, while even notorious misogynist Picasso is willing to subvert his own trends in the Minotaur works in his Vollard Suite. But standing among the pieces comprising the Tate Britain's curiously shapeless, yet ultimately satisfying exhibit of Picasso & Modern British Art, I found it difficult to avoid separating the treatment of the women's bodies I saw encased in glass or painted on the walls from a curious navigation of my own.
The Tate Britain seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to sabotage its own exhibit. The rather bland set-up – a sequential comparison of varied works by Picasso with the titans of modern British art ranging from Wyndham Lewis to Francis Bacon – belied any attempt at thematic storytelling; the curatorial notes seemed intent on delivering a wealth of minute detail about the pieces' myriad collectors (stressing, to an almost parodic degree of paneygric, the prescience of the Tate Britain in acquiring many of the works) at the expense of insight about the works themselves. An inexplicable half-sized reproduction of Picasso's Guernica managed to transform one of the twentieth century's most influential works into an awkwardly situated footnote to Francis Bacon; one of the central leitmotifs of the exhibit – a series of Picasso's recasting of Grunewald's Crucifixion as a bag of bones, published in the Minotaure – is alluded to constantly throughout the exhibit's first few rooms, but displayed only in the final one, prompting me to run back and forth between rooms in order to gain any sense of contextual clarity.
Despite its best efforts, however, the Tate Britain has managed to put on an exhibit that is as striking as it is shocking, albeit not for the reasons it seems to think. The surface comparisons between Picasso and Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, and others are never sufficiently explained to be interested. But the works themselves – standing, like so much good art, on their own merits – tell a story all their own: a negotiation and re-negotiation of how the body – whether in the interlocking bones comprising Picasso's response to the Grunewald Crucifixion or its responses in the works of Bacon and Sutherland – interacts with its space.
Reclining Figure 1936
The Hepworth Wakefield
Reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
It is, predictably, the female body that gets the most attention. Henry Moore's series of Reclining Figures – wood sculptures that manage to suggest female pliancy and sexual availability with a few well-judged curves and recesses – raises an unsettling prospect: to what extent, his pieces ask, do the very shapes we associate with the female body (the curve, the hole) carry with them by their very nature the cultural promise of sexual invitation? So too Picasso's 1905 Salome, who presents the viewer with her considerable rear while reserving the sight of her genitalia – and with it the audience's sexual fulfillment – to Herod: the piece's strength lies in its teasing combination of invitation and rejection.
Smiling Woman Ascending a Staircase 1911
© Wyndham Lewis and the estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis by kind permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity)
So too Wyndham Lewis's 1911 Smiling Woman Ascending a Staircase – easily the most disturbing piece in the exhibition – uses the female body as metonymy for a wider vision of the world. Here, he presents us with an image of female flesh, and with it, all of modernity, entirely at odds with its legacy in the classical tradition. Curves and breasts give way to straight lines; the round face of the prototypical artist's model gives way, in the Joker-like smile of the Woman, to an angular grimace: the sublimation of the receptive classical body into the harsh, unforgiving, masculine figure of the modern world. A woman's body, he suggests, is never just a body: rather, it tells us something about the men who behold and surround it.
It is impossible, standing before these pieces, not to wonder if my feminine presence is itself a kind of transgression: if, in gazing upon the “beauty bare” of these sprawled not-quite figures, I have entered a reflective space designed, at least implicitly, for heterosexual men. And so I cannot help but become aware of my own body as symbol. After all, I – unsurprisingly – possess the primary and secondary sexual characteristics Moore, like Picasso, seems willing to treat as vehicles of sexual meaning; does the very fact of my breasts, my hair, or my hips signify that I, too, inhabit not merely a body that is mine but a body that, like the ones I see around me, is a thoroughly public work? Is its meaning, too, not self-generating but rather ascribed to me by centuries of cultural meaning-making?
Girl in a Chemise c1905
© Succession Picasso / DACS 2011
Here, it is Picasso – over and against many of the less interesting modern English artists, perhaps unfairly suffering by comparison – who offers, if not an answer, then at least some measure of complexity in the relationship between the male artist and his female subject: his 1940 Woman Dressing Her Hair at once invites and subverts the male gaze: with skeletal ribs and enormous breasts, eyes whose shapes distinctly recall female genitalia even as her nipples take on a decidedly ocular quality. Misshapen and yet fetishized, combining the contradictory ideals of slenderness and fecundity so fundamental to our standards of female beauty, the Woman reveals in her anarchic being the degree to which the woman, on canvas, serves as the receptacle and the standard for male desire. So too Picasso's rare naturalistic Girl in a Chemise (1905), a haunting study of a waif-like girl surrounded by a nebulous blue background, the uniformity of which highlights her artistic purpose as the sole object of our gaze even as her expression – her elegant profile turned just slightly from the viewer – speaks to an autonomy the painter can never quite delineate with his brush: she sees what we do not; her gaze – a gaze as powerful of our own – extends beyond the borders of the canvas. It is in Picasso's ability to at once embrace and subvert the phenomenon of the female body that raises him above the majority of the other artists on display. It is in the girl's mysterious stare, far more than in the pieces of Moore, that I – as a woman unaccustomed to looking at other women's bodies as a source for my sexual gratification – am able to find not attraction but identification.
Yet Moore, Lewis and Picasso alike raise a valuable question – one that, more than any other, comes to characterize my experience of the exhibit. Do shapes themselves carry meaning? Moore's most engaging piece, after all, is not one of his nudes but rather his Three Points – a bronze sculpture depicting the intersection of three needle-sharp points that manages to hint at the promise of future chaos, capturing a concrete sense of terror through its abstract shapes. The idea that shape and suggestion alone – particularly when those shapes comprise a human body – can convey a truth more palpable than any mimesis can reflect is far from a novel one; it is Picasso's use of what Graham Sutherland called “paraphrase,” far more than any formal relations, that link Picasso to the seven artists highlighted in this exhibit, and lend it some sense of a unified theme.
Green Tree Form 1940
British Council Collection
© The Estate of Graham Sutherland
Thus do Graham Sutherland's distorted, even monstrous, depictions of trees and birds (such as his 1940 Green Tree Form) present us with a view of nature as not merely dangerous, but indeed sadistic, while Francis Bacon's hauntingly spectral crucifixions, along with the terrifying primal (and indeed primate) scream of the disembodied head in his 1947-8 Head II, manage to link the cultural tropes we hold most dear to the power of seemingly simple shapes and lines. The male body, here, is also called into question, as we wonder whether and to what extent its shape, too, tells a story.
Head I 1947-1948
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
© The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2011
These questions – questions about life and our own being-in-the-world – are far more interesting than questions about the artistic lineage (and the vague creation of a British canon) that the exhibition layout implicitly raises. But it is impossible to be querulous about the choice to bring these extraordinary pieces together. Like all great works, they tell their own story. And leaving the Tate Britain last Monday afternoon, I found myself question, too, the story told – with or without my consciousness or consent – by my own body as well.
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