Review and Graphic by Ana Isaacs
No Such Thing As Too Many Boobs: A Feminist Review of “Matisse & Picasso” at the NGA was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
CW: mentions of rape and sexual assault, suicide, misogyny, Orientalism, and toxic masculinity.
As a twenty-first century lesbian, the overrepresentation of naked women in art and media both delights and infuriates me. On one hand, the overuse of the female body as an object of spectacle objectifies, sexualises, and reinforces dangerous notions of female passivity. On the other, the raw, undeniable beauty of the female form ought to be celebrated, and makes for some breathtaking art. Is it, then, simply too lovely to censor?
At the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) latest exhibit, I find myself at an impasse. Faced with one of Matisse’s “Seated Nudes,” I am unsure whether to revel in the beauty of the form that the sculptor has constructed, to relish each sharp, sudden angle and generous curve – or to fume with indignation at the sight of a woman stripped of her identity, of her autonomy, of her name. The exhibition “Matisse & Picasso,” which opened in December 2019,
explores the complex – and often competitive – relationship between two masters of modern art and defining figures of twentieth century Europe. Beyond the phenomenal use of colour, the volatility and intricacy of the artists’ relationship, and the remarkable talent on display, what stood out to me about this carefully curated exhibition was the sheer number of bare, bulging breasts that made an appearance in the gallery – there were no less than seventy-two. Is it appropriate for male artists to make such prolific use of the female body in their art, especially if they are known to be misogynistic? Does the intention of the artist make a difference here? How do the subjects of the art feel about their exposure? And just how many is too many boobs?
Although Picasso’s misogyny and sexual aggression has been apparent for decades, his actions were only recently brought to the world’s attention when comedian Hannah Gadsby excoriated the artist in her fiercely moving stand-up performance “Nanette.” Picasso soon became associated with the #MeToo movement of 2017-18, and the world finally began to realise the extent of the artist’s depravity.
Picasso’s most notorious misdemeanour was his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter (and the art that it inspired). For Picasso, Marie was just one of many muses: he painted Marie; he had sex with Marie; he painted having sex with Marie. At the time, she was just seventeen. At the exhibition “Matisse & Picasso,” I came face to face with the young Marie-Thérèse Walter for the first time in a sketch titled “Minotaure Caressant une Dormeuse:” she is asleep, being raped by a bull. This bull (a half-human minotaur, in fact) is representative of Picasso himself, as disclosed by the artist. The intent is to depict masculine sexuality; the result is to humiliate and disempower. It is not surprising that three of Picasso’s muses committed suicide as a result of their relationship with the artist. These women include Germaine Gargallo Pichot, Jaqueline Roque, and Marie-Thérèse Walter herself.
“He submitted [women] to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them into his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.” – Marina Picasso
While the same cannot be said about Matisse (no such allegations have been made against him), much of his art, when analysed through a feminist lens, is troubling. Matisse’s much-loved ‘odalisques’ – richly coloured paintings of female slaves or concubines, often with strong Middle Eastern influences – are lauded by critics as some of his most beautiful work. And indeed, as I discovered when viewing the exhibition at the NGA, they are beautiful. In “Odalisque couchée,” a woman reclines on a bed of blankets and cushions wearing nothing but jade-green harem pants and a beaded anklet to match. Matisse renders the silk pants perfectly: they are voluminous, airy, they rise tantalisingly up the woman’s legs. Behind her, the wall is a gorgeous mosaic of tangerine-orange and a deep, enamel blue. The woman, herself, is beautiful, in a Snow White sort of a way. Her skin is milky-pink and her hair charcoal black. The only true touches of colour on her body are her deep red nipples and lips. Adjacent to the painting is “Odalisque assis,” where a different woman sits on an ivy and mustard coloured armchair wearing a sheer, loose-fitting shirt. Her breasts are clearly visible through the misty fabric, with nipples like cherry blossoms. The use of colour is spectacular, and no one can deny that the delicately balanced composition of each piece is perfect. Faced with these two paintings, I am breath-taken, but troubled.
These pieces are inspired by Orientalism, a nineteenth-century movement in which European painters created romanticised images of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa with the intent to depict exotic, often sexual, fantasy scenes. This movement served to justify Western colonialism and imperialism in the “East” – a historical reality which transformed and devastated the lives of millions, with dangerous ramifications that persist in the present day. Matisse’s odalisques are typical of the “harem picture” – a genre of Orientalist painting that portrayed an imagined form of the Turkish seraglio (the women’s living quarters in an Ottoman palace), wherein the European artist eroticises and objectifies the female subject. Women of colour are hence depicted as exotic, beautiful, yet ultimately passive creatures from the perspective of a European man. These paintings are problematic in that Matisse capitalises on both the femininity and the ethnicity of these women for the sake of the white, male audience’s enjoyment. But after bringing me such artistic joy, how can I spurn Matisse and his paintings?
While the paintings, aesthetically, are heavenly, their implications are dangerous and, in their current context, unforgiveable. However, given that Matisse and Picasso have passed away, how can we, as feminists, express this frustration? How can we ask artists who are no longer with us to repent for their crimes against femininity? There are many answers to this question, but I believe that when an artist who has depicted women misogynistically has died, the responsibility falls to the gallery that is displaying their art. Specifically, it lies with the curator of the exhibition in which the art is displayed. In order for art that has misogynistic undertones (or overtones) to be appropriate, it must be recontextualised in a manner that demonstrates awareness of the mistakes that have been made, and an intention to rectify them through engagement with intersectional feminist discourse. Had the gallery included an explanation of the significance of Orientalism alongside the paintings, as well as a discussion of the dangers associated with it, I might not have left the exhibition feeling so frustrated. It is important when presenting art that is problematic to contextualise it in a way that educates its viewers and prompts us to consider the potential implications of the art for the groups which it depicts.
If Picasso’s and Matisse’s nudes need to be recontextualised, what does this mean for other art which features the female body? Must every painting, drawing, and sculpture that depicts a set of bare breasts be accompanied by an explanatory paragraph? Not necessarily. The problem with the nudes on display at the NGA’s exhibition is that the artists who painted them were, themselves, misogynistic, and that the art depicts naked women with the intention of pleasing a primarily male audience. I believe that it is perfectly possible for an artist to create a female nude in a respectful, and even empowering way – given that the intention of the piece is to specifically empower rather than objectify. For example, Melbourne-based artist and Archibald finalist, Prudence Flint, paints women stripped down to their underwear in intimate, bedroom settings. The intention of the work, however, is to give glimpses into the everyday experiences of women in a manner so brilliantly mundane that they do the very opposite of sexualise. One of Flint’s paintings shows a woman in her bra spitting into the sink after brushing her teeth. Another shows a woman breastfeeding, a bored expression on her face.
Kim Leutwyler is another Australian artist and Archibald finalist, who has exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on a number of occasions. She predominantly paints queer* women – sometimes clothed, sometimes not – as a form of celebration and recognition of women in the LGBTQIA+ community. Her subjects have included openly gay soccer player Michelle Heyman, Australian media personality Faustina Agolley, and American drag queen Trixie Mattel. Her paintings are gloriously colourful and optimistic portraits of queer* women, whether they have their clothes on or not.
Anyone looking for some artistically rendered boobs that won’t get their ears steaming in feminist fury should also check out the following artists on Instagram:
- Follow Sofia Salazar @__hiedra__ for some beautiful embroidery, sculpture, and prints of the female (and sometimes male) nude. Ironically, her prints are highly reminiscent of Matisse’s later (non-Orientalist) work! She also does some great Cubism-inspired portraiture.
- Explore Sally Hewett’s feed @sally_hewett for unbelievably realistic textile work that captures the beauty in bodies that are often considered to be flawed (think along the lines of mastectomies, stretch marks, and body hair).
- Check out Stephanie Deangelis @steph_angelis for fun-filled illustrations featuring plus-sized women of colour (and lots of dogs!).
- Have a look at Robin Eisenberg @robineisenberg for quirky illustrations of all-too relatable, bare-chested alien women watching Netflix, eating pizza, and chilling with their girlfriends.
- See Débora Iglesias @deboraiglesias__ for mind-blowingly creative sculptures of the vagina (and lots of tattoo art, so you might need to scroll a bit to find them).
While the NGA’s “Matisse & Picasso” exhibition was stunningly beautiful and displayed extraordinary talent, as well as complex histories and relationships, it is flawed in its presentation of the female nude. The appropriateness of the female form in art depends on the artist’s identity and intentions. If the artist is known to be misogynistic, or if the intention of the art is to please a male audience rather than to celebrate the woman who is depicted, then it ought to be recontextualised in a manner which recognises, explains, and rebukes these shortcomings. The National Gallery of Australia failed to do this, disappointingly perpetuating a dangerous societal norm where misogynistic artists are given a pass due to their perceived talents.
As it turns out, there is such a thing as too many boobs after all.