My worst trait, biggest fault, most flawed characteristic, is that I stare.
It makes people uncomfortable. I get it. I understand. It’s rude. I apologize. I’m sorry.
It’s like I got x-ray vision. I get fascinated by what I look at and I obsessively observe what I see. This is harmless and blameless when it comes to landscapes like Grand Canyon and Devil’s Tower, or monuments like Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame de Paris, or paintings like Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet, unless I linger too long at a prime vantage where someone else would like to view and I inadvertently inconvenience a fellow gazer. The beauty of nature compels me to contemplate what it is that makes a view a vision, just as art inspires visual fixation for the sake of beauty. It’s when real people come into my fascinated line of sight my habit can be considered intimidating and even provocative. Offensive, especially to women.
I objectify what I see, you might say. I used to justify my staring as subjectifying, as if the semantics legitimized my defense. I acted defensive when I was younger, as if the Right to Look were written into the Constitution. Now I accept criticism as advice and concede an observer of me could feel watched and not like it. This does not usually stop me from looking, I just adopt a more furtive technique. Unless, of course, I want to get caught.
I have always looked people in the eye. This is because I not only stare at people to study their physical attributes and features but also to examine their character, and no other feature projects character than eyes. If you and I were face to face sharing a conversation right now I would be studying you, your face, your eyes as much or more than listening to your voice. So you would feel at ease I might glance away at the room furnishings, another person in the room, a video screen on the wall. I might look at your hands, your coat or your ear, but unless I’ve seen enough of you I will return to you and resume my study, eye to eye. I blink, of course.
My eyes are penetrating blue. Like beacons. To help conceal my conspicuous stare I like to wear sunglasses. As the song says, future’s so bright… I’m very nearsighted, so I wear prescription shades. I like to think of myself as that emoji of the smiley face in shades. Nonthreatening and kind. Maybe it makes me all the more sinister. Without corrective lenses what I see is very much like Impressionist paintings, and for the most I like that, the details only matter when I’m driving, my mind can assemble a coherent vision of what I see. Not wearing glasses may cut down on instances of blatant staring because I have become more self-conscious — self aware — at my advanced age of the effect my naked eyes can have on another self-consciously aware subject who feels treated as an object. That and without glasses I can’t see far enough to distinguish individual faces, though that does not stop me from looking.
Up close my vision is very good, which means I prefer no lenses at all when reading, especially fine print, or when I’m studying pictures, like Impressionist paintings.
In intimacy especially.
Anyway, I cannot trace back to the origin of my staring. I cannot help what my eyes are, I was born this way. Somehow, however, I learned to use these eyes to maximize my visual gratification. Early on I was drilled to pay attention, so maybe I grew driven to keep observing to keep from being punished for failing to see and to figure things out. My parents and teachers expected a lot from me so I felt compelled to stay alert for their expectations. I say to them now, in severe retrospect, be careful what you wish for, it isn’t all innocent fun to produce a precocious kid. The American culture of the 1950s provided primal earth to grow and nurture a visual attraction for beauty, and girls and women were powerfully beautiful.
In 1951, the year I was born, an American photographer named Ruth Orkin framed her camera and made a picture called American Girl in Italy, 1951, a candid shot of one Ninalee Craig, age 23, dressed in a modest calf length dress, sandals, clutching a shawl over one shoulder and a sac purse in her other hand, walking to the corner curb of a street in Florence at the foot of a formidable classical building where the sidewalk for half a block is populated by fifteen men, all but one (and he’s obscure) looking her direction. One old guy in the foreground is absolutely transfixed. The guys down the block in the background (except the one tall swarthy guy in the middle of the shadow arch of the first doorway) gaze after her from behind, still parted on both sides of the sidewalk from where she came, savoring her fleeting presence. She is beautiful and this is after all Florence. Nearer to Ninalee Craig in the center of the picture approaching the curb, the guys are identifiable and leering. Young, about Ninalee’s age or so, they are dressed for business, nobody looking like thugs or degenerates. This is Italy, after all, the birthplace of sharp clothes on average men. Check out the shoes. One guy straddling a motor scooter leers after her with hideous lust, and another juxtaposed by her and the corner of the building at the edge of a sidewalk cafe in a suit and tie grabs at his crotch and you can practically read his lips saying whatever it was in Italian for I’ll give you some a this. Ninalee walks by with her head up, keeps her eyes to herself, takes a full stride, confident, modest, absolutely aware of her surroundings.
I bring Ninalee Craig and Ruth Orkin into this because it was photographed the year I was born, which is as good as any turning point in history, and as good a reference point as any to benchmark the tide of women. There are no other women in the picture, just Ninalee, and no other woman’s presence on the street scene but Ruth, behind the camera. Critics who suggest it was staged fail to deconstruct it enough to realize the variables of the fifteen other personalities in the frame are way too random to stage, even if Ruth knew the territory enough to virtually predict what would happen. Ninalee for her part must have known what she was in for and she keeps her expression sincere and serene. The result is a classic photograph of black and white elegance and a prophecy of the century to come.
Testimony to centuries and millennia gone by.
I only rather lately came across this photo and it’s now one of my favorite images of all time. I am there. I want to look her in the eye to acknowledge the power of her beauty. It’s as if she’s been coming towards me my whole life.
It’s the essence of “Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison — not at all the stupid movie, but the song. The man sings his heart out in admiration of the beauty of a woman he sees walking down the street, someone he would like to meet. A man with bad eyesight, prescription lenses and shades. He sings, I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth, no one could look as good as you. Mercy.
That’s right. Mercy.
I’m a cisgender hetero male guy from the middle of America in the middle of the 20th Century, a man by admission and by definition. At some young age I found an attraction to girls — women, ladies, female people. Perhaps it was early exposure to Wonder Woman comics. My mother was a beauty and worked as a local fashion model. My mom had younger sisters, my aunties who babysat me, who had girl friends. Ultimately my mom blessed me with seven younger sisters. Maybe you would think all that would have numbed me or inured me to the feminine side of life but I guess it actually unwittingly may have sparked my lifelong fascination. My younger brothers were seven and fifteen years behind me. I hung with guys, knew crotch grabbers and motorbike sex hecklers among decent dudes trying to find our way in a world of Doublemint gum and Juicy Fruit. I watched American Bandstand after school live from Philadelphia. Girls dancing in their swirling skirts and tight sweaters. As a little kid I wanted to grow up and be a teenager. I imagined having a girlfriend like Diana Prince, Wonder Woman’s secret identity. I noticed breasts, nose cone, pointed bra breasts — the likes of what Madonna caricaturized thirty years later were high style when I was a kid, I know because my mom modeled them and wore them. At a young age I was familiar with the vocabulary of lingerie, and for a while as a grown-up I subscribed to the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. As a boy I liked to look at cleavage whenever we went downtown or to church, wherever ladies dressed up.
I knew guys who knew guys who sold second and third hand Playboy magazines, sometimes over a year old. It didn’t matter as long as the pictures were intact, the centerfold unadulterated. In my life there was nothing more beautiful in this world than the naked female human body, photographed, or drawn by that Vargas guy, and I would have collected at least the pictures if I would have had any privacy to hide them long term. Alas, at least until high school age.
Yes, surely the easy access to pornography incepted the allure to my passion for naked women. This was before the internet, and so I can only imagine the scores of naked babes out there on line I can gawk at if that’s how I want to spend my cookies and attract spam and phishies, and I’d rather not. Truly, there’s enough true beauty in everyday life to look at even if it isn’t always the naked truth.
Even so, Playboy and other photo magazines served as gateways to other prurient interests. Culturally it was a time of shedding inhibitions that kept people uptight. It seemed to be in my interest to side against shame of the human body when it meant more nudity for me. More exacerbation. I graduated to harder stuff: Fine Arts.
Art history classes gave me permission to formally study pictures of naked women. Art enabled me to stare without guilt and admire without shame. The education of history gave context to the genre. Education raised more and more curiosities and questions about the very structure of reality and the mediating roles of symbolism. It was an exciting time to get educated. I never knew how much I didn’t know. Art enabled me to see what I was seeing.
Slides, color plates in books and in films acquainted me with the classics. My home town museums and galleries offered good examples of marble sculpted breasts and hips, paintings of elegant poses, Egyptian glyphs of stony tits, and bronzes of goddesses from the Renaissance in the local collections, if not any big name nudes like Renoir. I wrote a paper on an oval 1799 French oil on canvas at the Institute of Art by a guy named Anne-Louis Girodet called Portrait of Mlle Lange as Danae which inasmuch accused the artist of sexual blackmail for rejecting his advances by characterizing a popular entertainer, Anne Francioise Elisabeth Lange, as a slut for gold, while all in all painting her as an immortally gorgeous nude. I got a job at the Institute giving me unfettered access to view not only its art collection but also its libraries, including its immense and comprehensive slide library of 35mm slide photos of works of art in other museums all over the world.
This before the internet, with help of a Kodak projector and a crisp screen I could stare and study paintings and sculpture housed in collections thousands of miles away, where I could just dream of ever going to look at in person. Botticelli. Bernini. Ingres. Rembrandt. Velazquez. Titian. Goya. Manet. Picasso.
I learned a new word, odalisque. A French word, of course, it derives from a Turkish term for a harem sex slave or concubine. French painter Henri Matisse called the Turkish meaning obsolete and redefined it to mean any full portrait of a reclining nude woman, after La Grande Odalisque, an 1814 painting by a guy named Dominique Ingres. Odalisque paintings would include Venus of Urbino, 1538 by Titian, Olympia, 1863 by Edouard Manet, Naked Maja, 1797 by Francisco Goya and the Toilet of Venus, 1647 by Diego Velazquez, just to name drop a few of the most famous enduring images of the form according to Matisse’s definition. Girodet’s Mademoiselle Lange would qualify, along with another French painting at the MIA called Nude on a Couch, ca 1880 by Gustave Caillebotte, although the couch all but dominates the picture.
I married an odalisque, Roxanne, my wife, beautiful reclining nude, together 46 years.
She’s no concubine. And if you wonder how she’s coped with my propensity to stare at people in public, she’s endured a life guiding my light away from boundaries of impropriety and inappropriate acts, insinuations and embarrassments. She keeps me under-the-top. She knows I like to people watch but she’s wary when I give the hairy eyeball and she’ll catch me before she thinks somebody sees me giving the stink eye. She knows me. She knows I’m not a stalker.
I’m not sexist, I used to say, I’m a sensualist. I’m not judging a woman against her intellect or professional integrity, I would say. I don’t discount women as inferior people or deny their human rights. I support feminist principles and stand up with respect for equality. Some of my best friends are women. I belong to the YWCA. Nine out of the top ten students — let’s just say the top nine — in my high school graduation class of 1970 were girls. Since then I have had countless women bosses. I am not prejudiced against women, I would insist, and vigorously defend myself against sexism citing all kinds of lame proof just to insinuate myself on the right side of history and the bend of justice.
In my persistent defense I would confess instead to being a sensualist, like pleading guilty to a lesser charge. I freely admit I take sensual pleasure from admiring female form, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s not all I look at and it’s not all I see. It’s not all I am. And I would deny my staring studies treated women as objects. To me they were subjects. All with personalities, back stories, histories, responsibilities, real lives beyond a fleeting vision. And here I would add that not only did I not view women as sex objects but as sensual subjects, it was not true I undressed them with my eyes. I see women as they are and neither strip them down nor dress them up in my imagination. At least not always.
Go ahead several decades and I’ve given up arguing defensive excuses, but I seem to keep mansplaining why. I haven’t been to a strip joint in a long long time. I used to find them very very sad, like casinos. I’ve never engaged sex through prostitution but I used to think it was a victimless crime of lonely people until backstories came out about the sex slave trafficking of the women. The biographies of most strip club dancers aren’t probably any more romantic. These odalisques of underground sensualism. What remains of first amendment right to vice.
There was a song on the radio in the 1980s with a catchy chorus of Na-na na-na-na-na na na na na-na-na-na-na by J Geils Band that outs a home town girl named Angel as a Playboy centerfold. I could once appreciate the young woman’s utter self-confidence and lack of shame in her body to offer herself nude to a Playboy camera. It’s a shame J Geils calls her out like the guy on the scooter to Ninalee Craig, not like a gentleman such as Roy Orbison would sing.
It makes me think of the models who posed for Titian, Velazquez, Goya, Manet. Picasso. I thought of them on Mediterranean beaches where some women bathe bare breasted as naturally proud as the Birth of Venus. The past fifteen years, mostly the past ten, Roxanne and I have gone to Europe several times. All those slide pictures and color plates from art history books? I’ve said before, when I go places I like to go to art museums to see what the community holds dear. I hold myself to this and have spent ages wandering and meandering through the most fabulous art collections in the western world, seeing in person and up close where I can take off my glasses and look at the strokes on the surface of the canvasses, the paintings I’ve adored from afar.
I’ve come across some truly awesome obscure treasures I didn’t expect to see or wasn’t looking for. At the fine art museum in Dijon, France in the old Duke of Burgundy’s palace, the collection is rather bland and predictably French neoclassical until you round a corner of the chateau and gaze down the corridor to a wall at the end where there’s a startling large nude painting by James Tissot called La Japonaise au Bain, an 1864 canvas almost seven feet high and four feet wide, of a naked lady of vague oriental face with a classical Tissot expression of dubious bemusement, wearing red flowers in her lavish hair and a gregariously oversized lavish embroidered floral bath gown, open up and down the front. Totally floored and unprepared for this, I felt so self-conscious whenever somebody else came into this gallery I walked all the way around the floor several times to break up my viewings so nobody would accuse me of fixated perversion.
I still feel shy at Musee d’Orsay in Paris standing in front of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, the origin of the world, which is a glorious study in gynecology.
In the European painting tradition, nudity was taboo except for depicting classical myth figures or religious themes, presuming I guess, in heaven nobody needs clothing and the divine are perpetually shameless. Call a nude female subject Aphrodite or Venus and an artist could produce a figure erotic and prurient and get away with defiance of moral codes of chastity and modesty promoted and enforced by popes and kings. Paintings illustrating the Old Testament treated naked views of figures such as Judith, Salome, Ruth, and of course, Eve. Hence the Vatican instituted the fig leaf to cover the taboo body parts of secular figures after the Renaissance to try to cover up a rampant popularity of nakedness seen as a revival of amoral paganism.
Michelangelo in his ceiling of the Sistine Chapel not only portrayed mortals nude but God too. God of course is male. Michelangelo’s female nudes are remarkable for their stockiness, seriousness or sadness and not at all for profound erotic emotiveness. His genius for constructing human anatomy in his art is unsurpassed in its audacious frankness. Nothing in his canon can be called cute, except perhaps God’s Heinie in the Sistine ceiling.
Michelangelo supported the Church, its core teachings and philosophies regardless of avante garde revolutionary trends stirring in his Renaissance times, so he can be named among the hard core male establishment. A full wall giant fresco mural in the Vatican painted by Raphael (another ninja turtle namesake) portrays a vast vaulted room of twenty one individuals considered a pantheon of great minds of the day, 1511. All men. Raphael, a mere painter, adored Michelangelo, architect, sculptor and painter, and there in the School of Athens, front and just enough off center to create a pathway to the guys in the middle is Raphael’s hero, reclining on a step at some random platform, drawing on a sketch pad, unconcerned with the activities of the other twenty guys in the vast room, creatively painted on a real Vatican wall looking like an extension of the real room, a scene that centers on a walk-in chat between Plato and Aristotle — Plato painted as the visage of another of Raphael’s heroes, Leonardo Da Vinci — and Michelangelo, crayon in hand, jots away in his own mind, is the only one in the picture wearing boots, everyone else wears sandals.
Michelangelo in his day was considered a man among men. A pillar of Rome, he designed the very pillars supporting St Peter’s cathedral. Pope Julius commissioned Michelangelo in 1508 to decorate the ceiling of this vast seemingly-windowless inner private papal chapel, and much as he preferred sculptural work to mere painting, he took on this commission with intense professionalism and dedicated four years of intense perfectionism to paint this monumental fresco illuminating a pageant of Genesis, creation through the near destruction of creation through the flood survived by a drunken Noah. Michelangelo filled the ceiling, every vault and arch, with bible visions as he saw them. Mostly the visions conformed to scripture, and where Michelangelo’s interpretation orbited towards fantasy it was tolerated for aesthetic purposes or because Michelangelo insisted it be so. In the ceiling panel illustrating the creation of the sun and the moon, God is pictured twice, coming and going, on the right of a great orange ball of sun advancing into the blue sky, and on the left flying away in retreat, the robes of clothes parting from the back to the thigh plainly exposing God’s Hinder. Michelangelo’s symbol of the moon.
Legend says one of the pope’s Cardinal henchmen objected to God’s exposed butt as sacrilege and asked Pope Julius to order Michelangelo to cover it up. Michelangelo refused to do so saying the bible says man was created in God’s own image and likeness.
About twenty five years later Pope Clement VII enticed Michelangelo to come back to the Sistine Chapel to paint the Last Judgement mural fresco on the front altar wall. The vast mural shows a tableau of all kinds of anguish and turmoil among throngs and throngs of nudes, many of which were fig-leafed years after. It’s a grand finale to the previous ceiling, the wall completed when Michelangelo was my age.
We call Michelangelo a Renaissance Man. As was Leonardo Da Vinci. It is interesting to observe Leonardo devoted copious calculations, sketches and drawings to the study of human anatomy, and yet he produced no nude paintings. As much if not more than his contemporaries and succeeding artists who study the human form to record how fabric drapes and falls along with poses of the body, Leonardo painted some of the most compelling fully clothed portraits of women ever seen, including Mona Lisa Joconde, and the lady with the ermine, Milanese entertainer Cecilia Gallerani.
Note neither Mona Lisa nor the Ermine Lady are purported to be Venus or any biblical character, both private commissions though Mona Lisa never left Leonardo’s possession in his lifetime. Mona Lisa is enshrined in the Louvre in Paris while the Ermine Lady resides as a national treasure in Krakow, Poland. They are both anonymous beauties recorded for beauty’s sake and not for selling a message. Leonardo’s innocence sets him apart from artists sublimating grand scale with morality pageants featuring Venus or the cult of the Virgin Mary.
On a walk with my grand daughter Clara through the Impressionist gallery at the MIA she looked at the Caillebotte nude on the couch and said, “Grandpa, why are there so many pictures of women naked by men artists? Why are all these artists men?” She was about ten years old, about five years ago.
I explained then that throughout most of history art was controlled by men, just like every other thing in human activity. That seemed wrong to her, and I totally agreed. It wasn’t her first awareness of girl power overdue or my first endorsement of her inquiry into gender justice. The part that confuses her the most is that all her short life she’s been convinced by examples of successful women and girls and the positive attitudes of her supporting culture that girls and women have it equal to boys and men, and it is a paradigm shift of a major mind comprehension for her to think there was a time until recently when women and girls were not certain of equality and were oppressed beneath men. Her limited concept of history acknowledges endless, continuous, nameless wars, a holocaust, a time before inventions such as the iPhone and television, an era when African Americans were slaves and Native Americans were chased off their land, but it’s hard for her to accept there was a time just a few generations ago when women could not vote or run for President of the United States.
It’s unthinkable to her that men controlled civilization for so long, but she’s slowly learning. How she processes and what she’ll do with this knowledge as she matures will somewhat rely on me and the example I set as my generation sunsets the planet. For the day Clara laments to me the overwhelming list of famous artists who are men, I am compiling a list of known women artists and thus far I have 79 names. They range from sculptors to architects to photographers but most are painters. I have found them in museums and galleries in America and Europe. Some like Frida Kahlo are famous and popular. Most of them are obscure. The vast numbers are modern, reflecting the boldness and transformation of this age since about 1901, but I found at least two who overlapped the turn of the 1600s, Sofonisba Anguissola of the late Renaissance, and Artemisia Gentileschi of the Baroque, both exceptionally gifted at rendering human figures. And even if Clara doesn’t need my list to help her feel confident that women and girls are not fairly counted in world history but from now on they matter very much, I keep the list to remind myself to keep growing the list.
I am grandfather of three girls, two teen and tween age, the third an infant. I have a daughter, a wife, seven sisters, at least fifteen nieces, far flung cousins and so on, and friends, and in-laws, and co-workers, and I used to have aunts and grandmas and a mom, lots of women whom I owe respect and support. My daughter Michel grew up doing whatever she wanted in the world and I never said she couldn’t. The teen and tween grandchild sisters suffer me as an overachiever granpa who dotes and indulges in delusions of exceptionalism. And the poor baby, she’ll grow up alongside this weird doddering old fanboy who remembers nothing if not her birthday.
My legacy to them, to all women in my world but especially to Michel, Clara, Tess and Neko, seeks a reverent balance and serenity in a world of perpetual tension and strife. This knowing I’ll never solve all the world issues for them to inherit sublime bliss, much as I wish I had that kind of power. I owe them to stay out of their way and not embarrass them for posterity and not leave them with messes I am empowered to prevent, so they can all progress in this life and not have to turn around to solve something my fault.
While they are left to make up their own minds about shame, modesty, excess and appropriate regard for the human figure, I have my own issues to reconcile with the truth — the naked truth — about beauty.
Faced with a lifetime of hindsight I’m seeing an opportunity to get pious about my false humility. For me the past is not past. In my mind’s eye I can see me peeking down the blouses and between the buttons of the uniforms of my favorite girl schoolmates at St Simon of Cyrene. In eighth grade there was a nun who taught music and math who had oversized breasts such that they pressed the bib of her nun’s habit up like a convex dome her heavy crucifix could not weigh down. I never reported any of this within the confessional — I didn’t trust the priests, and even then I had a cynical view of common sin. Thinking impure thoughts? Not really, not really thinking at all, mostly looking.
If it’s a sin to look then why did God create sight? It’s a lot more than just sensing and sorting light.
Some cultures deal with the matter of men ogling women by disappearing women. Women in public wear shrouded gowns to cover their skin and to obliterate their shape and figure and cover their hair with veils and sometimes their entire faces, and thus deprive men from looking at them to stimulate their sinful male lust. That’s one way to deal with it, surprisingly effective. Women in a paternally protected society may enjoy certain benefits a more liberal minded society might not see, but most modern societies rely on freedoms and rights most women prefer not to surrender or trade off for phony protection.
If they weren’t so good looking I wouldn’t look. My crude philosophy all these years is if a woman is beautiful in any way she will be seen no matter what she wears. I feel sad for women uncomfortable with their beauty and sympathize with their attempts to hide or deflect attention, even as I find them. A beautiful woman in public always knows she is watched, has learned to sense it all her life, and comes to any scene prepared to be noticed. It’s not my fault they’re beautiful. It’s not my inclination to look away. There they are. I prefer they act like they are unaware I know they are in the room, at the plaza, school, church, wherever, and another moment passes, a vision of beauty seen, no kismet, no destiny, simply au revoir, adios, have a nice life. Nice seeing you. If our eyes meet we’ll look away, both aware more or less of what I’m up to, and maybe there will be a teaching moment for at least one of us, but as events go, once again an encounter like this goes by, maybe repeats itself a little, and passes into that subether of nice memories that keeps a serious mind amused amid the chaos of everyday reality. My friends used to tease me about staring at waitresses, and they were right, I would follow them with my eyes as they worked the room. I like to observe women as they work. I found Roxanne working at a Target store, the prettiest girl I ever saw.
Venus was born from the misty foam of the sea. It’s an origin metaphor as dreamy and vague as the male libido. Venus was the original cover story for nude women in art. Men sublimated their adoration of the female body by creating images of veneration of their favorite anonymous females under the classical alias of immortal moral exemption. Venus got a free pass in the Christian era because she was a virtual brand name of a fantasy figure from antiquity who pre-dated baptism and chaste behavior, tolerated in some circles as an example of what to ignore.
As art became more secular, and away from censorship by the churches, and then less under the sway of royal patronage, more democratic, pretense of tried and true pagan mythology gave way to contemporaneous views of undisguised mortals such as Olympia and the odalisques. French painter Edouard Manet in 1863 gets credit for exposing the hypocrisy of sexism in nude painting with Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, Luncheon on the Grass, a big almost 7 by 9 foot oil on canvas painting of two nicely dressed, fully dressed guys in coats and ties, of a mature age by their manicured beards, engaged in a serious manly discussion at barely arms length over a picnic in the shade of a forest glen near a pond, in the company of two women, one wading and dipping her hand in the pond wearing a greco-roman tunic like a nightgown, the other woman, in close company of the men, is all naked. The naked woman, calm as can be, sits full profile, legs reclined, upright with her elbow resting against her knee and her chin resting against her fingers, she looks this way and she alone meets the eye of the viewer.
The picnic basket is spilled of croissants, plums and red grapes. A glass decanter is empty. A rumpled blue dress lies under the basket on the grass, with a blue sash and a woman’s straw hat and blue bow alongside on the ground. The naked woman sits on a rumpled blue cloth, her dress or the picnic cloth maybe, alongside one man and facing the other, looking at neither, looking at the viewer. Her mouth looks a little bemused. Her face and hair resembles Ninalee Craig in Italy, 1951.
Manet’s painting, so large on the wall in person in Paris, stuns the eye for its forceful photorealistic precision conveying a scene so frankly inexcusably erotic as if it were another day at the academy.
It is so much more in person than what it looks like from a slide or a color plate in a book.
They say it caused a sensation when he exhibited. Art historians tell us this work marks a turning point in modern art because after this no artist could argue seriously that pictures of naked women were inspired by anything more symbolic of a higher meaning than any excuse to put a naked woman in a picture.
Art for art’s sake. I come along about a hundred years later but never too late. Privy to thousands of years of scholarship and preservation, with an educated eye and a privileged view, Supreme Court decisions upholding my right to look at about anything I would want to see — drawing a line at child pornography, but I’m not that interested in cherub art — it’s been a golden age of opportunity to study nude women. Studies usually lead to conclusions, but I still don’t think I’ve seen enough to conclude.
My self-conscious observations lead me to be aware of being on the periphery of popular taste in my personal verve for nudes of women. Grace has come to feminism in my lifetime and with it illumination of real no-kidding-around-it sexism everywhere you look. There’s a palpable transformation going on in describing what is sexist and what is sexy, or sensual as I used to say, and styles reflect trends of modesty of the body. Cleavage covered or slightly accidental. It’s no longer shocking to show full frontal nudity but sometimes very mundane, too common. Literally vulgar. Those who preach against naked pictures have a point when it’s said they are used to exploit and oppress women. Nudie pictures aren’t politically correct.
It takes away some of the joy when there’s no one around to share the verve.
In truth the production of quality nude images of any originality has declined since its exposure to mass audiences the past 150 years. An abstract colorist painter I admired from the pop op 1960s named Hollis MacDonald never painted a human figure I ever saw. In a 1965 interview he was asked about nudes in art. “They’re over worked,” he said. “Everybody’s using them, but few artists are saying much with them.”
Another sign of the demise of the genre could have been foreseen in the career of Jerry Ott, a photorealist painter who, like MacDonald, happens to be from Minnesota, where I come from. Jerry Ott painted two of the most gorgeous nudes I ever saw. Both are huge canvasses boldly holding presence like murals. One is owned by the MIA as part of its contemporary collection. The other is owned by the Walker Art Center, the other big time art museum hereabouts.
The one the MIA acquired in the 1970s at the height of Jerry Ott’s fame. The Institute, known for its great collection of all past eras, acquired the Jerry Ott to herald its vision of contemporary in the future continuum. Airbrushed acrylic on canvas, it’s called (Untitled) Blood on my Hands and it shows a beautiful, graciously endowed woman, fully nude, in a studio setting against a wall of sheer plastic where a poster sized sheet of coarse paper is held in place by one of the woman’s hands, and on this paper is a reddish handprint matching the size of the woman’s hand.
In the lower right quadrant of the scene is a poster sized self-portrait of Jerry Ott, shirtless and holding a camera like he’s looking above a mirror.
My favorite Jerry Ott nude is the other one, owned by the Walker, Carol and the Paradise Wall, also acrylic on canvas, of a reclining odalisque across a richly upholstered brocaded chair horizontal against a photographer’s studio background of woods and trees. I think I like it better than the one at the Institute because it’s a more dynamic composition with straightforward impact whereas Blood on My Hands loses its visual narrative with ambiguous testimonial symbols until the viewer rests upon the naked woman and gives up on guessing what the title means.
Today neither museum exhibits either painting.
The Byzantine ways these institutions keep their secrets, it’s hard to know if it’s due to an undergroundswell of public protest against conspicuous displays of gratuitous nudes in contemporary art, or a curatorial decision to protect the public from being offended at a time when even university students get easily upset by perceived microaggressions. Minneapolis may be a city mobilized to proactively defend itself from snowflakes of all weather. In any case this disappearances of the Jerry Ott nudes coincides with the decline of the utility of the nude in art. Ten years prior to Ott’s Paradise Wall and Hands, the abstractionist and fellow Minnesotan Hollis MacDonald had said all that could be said with a nude has been said, so Hollis was a bit wrong by at least ten years. Jerry Ott seemed to himself sense what Hollis had meant. Ott continued to paint large airbrushed photorealistic canvasses, exploring vivid tints but no more nudes.
I recall seeing an Ott painted later than the two 1970s nudes, of goldfish in tied-up little plastic bags for sale and shipment on a countertop, and I remember thinking to myself at the time, it’s come to this, to survive Jerry Ott has given up tits to paint goldfish. To his credit he never gave up visual art.
The desensualization of the nude in graphic art, as I said, came of age in the 20th Century along with all the great decadent practices brought about through technological transmission and reproduction. Pablo Picasso broke the picture plane with cubist boobs and vaginas that didn’t look realistic enough to embrace and call honey. Picasso denuded everybody enough to say this is how we clothe ourselves with canvas.
Picasso cracked the visual plane. Guys like Matisse turned skin wild and blue and red and yellow. Guys like Salvadore Dali melted her. Guys like Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, Charles Biederman, Robert Motherwell, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Hollis MacDonald, Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and Marsden Hartley skipped past altogether.
The nude medium was shattered beyond reassembly when Nude Descending a Staircase 2 by Marcel Duchamp came out at the Armory show in New York in 1913. As unsexual as a crash test dummy it is viscerally sensual in its technological grace, dependent fully on the hard-wired human response to the retina and the optic nerve. It’s a sucker punch to the gut and a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Like Manet’s picnic picture it was heralded as prophetic, which means at the time of its first exhibition it was reviled. Now it’s the Eiffel Tower of nudes.
Of the privacy of others there is a censorship we all practice to keep ourselves from seeing more than what we deserve to know if we can help it. It’s hard to accept that Ingres’ The Source inspired the rape and murder of a lonely French girl, but if it had would we be surprised to learn that the painting had a bad effect on a bad man’s tormented mind, and is that the tolerance a free society has and the risks we accept to guaranty free rights?
Perhaps an algorithm calculated by Millennial generation actuaries will predict future liabilities caused by what people see. This could determine future limits of exposure to proven prurients, governed by insurance not by government.
Before that time comes I mean to keep looking. It serves no point to renounce or regret what I’ve looked at or seen. Somehow I think it’s all added up to a montage of experiences comprising a charmed life. In the autumn Roxanne and I plan to return to the Old Country — to us the whole continent of Europe is the Old Country — where we’ll cruise the Aegean and Adriatic seas on a large tour. It will be interesting to have my first look at the greco-ancient world in this context. I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but it makes sense to me that if I have spent so much energy and time in my life to looking I must be looking for something. I must not have found it or I would not continue to look. If I find it I would know it, and then I hope I would go on to look for something more else undefined.
Like finding Roxanne.