Turning the tables on “the ideal nude”

Paintings of nudes by women artists such as Suzanne Valadon often have an entirely different feel about them. These nudes are said to be distinctive because of their lack of pandering to the male spectator’s gaze, instead being more empathetic with the subject of the painting (de-objectifying the nude).

Other female artist have even gone so far as to use poses for male nudes that were traditionally used for female nude. A subtle example of this is the painting “T.B. Harlem” by Alice Neel. Here the artist has produced a moving portrait of a young Puerto Rican man suffering from TB, and although her original aim was to create a political statement on poverty-derived suffering, a striking point about this picture is its unusually passive pose by the male nude.

Alice Neel (1900-1988). T.B. Harlem, 1940. Oil on canvas, 762 x 762 mm.

Another of Neel’s male nude paintings actually parodies the so-called male potency of its sitter and perhaps of all men, by adding extra genetalia ad nausium to the painting. This repetition of the phallus together with the lavicious expression on the mans face gives a comic representation of male vanity and virility. The exaggeration of the totem of men’s power is particularly telling as the sitter was an eccentric homeless bohemian.

Alice Neel (1900-1988). Joe Gould  1933. Oil on canvas, 990 x 790mm.

  • “One of the qualities that makes Neel’s work so powerful and difficult is the combination of a deep physical empathy with her sitters, an almost animal awareness of their tensions; and a vision so unsentimental and unsparing that it verges on brutality. The Joe Gould, painted back in 1933 though not exhibited till 1971, shows him skinny, devilishly grinning, delighted to display himself without clothes. But Neel gets a surreal effect by loading his body with genitals; he has not just one, but three sets, their formalized shape mirrored again in the cut of his beard. Moreover, his sitting figure is flanked by two standing images of his belly and genitals, this time described in disconcerting detail-the foreskin is pushed back on the right but not on the left. The painting-its dazzling wit hovering on the edge of cruelty–is a biting comment on exhibitionism, arrogance and impotence”  THE NUDE MALE: A NEW PERSPECTIVE by Margaret Walters (New York: Paddington Press Ltd., 1983)

The Whitechapel Gallery recently held an exhibition of this artists work, albeit concentrating on her portraiture, which closed in September 2010, although several pieces belong to the Tate Collection.


About clairezammitart

Multi-media fine artist Based in London
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