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Writing in The New Yorker about a Renoir exhibit up at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, art critic Peter Schjeldahl wants to make sure readers know he was not turned on by the nudes. You see, it’s very important for us to understand that when looking at the impressionist master’s stunning depictions of the female body that he was in no way horny. He writes: “Renoir’s women strum no erotic nerves in me.” It’s better that we know this up front, so that we can imagine the critic to be objective when he labels the women’s faces “dumb,” and points out their “rounded breasts and thunderous thighs.” He aligns himself with Martha Lucy’s catalogue essay on the exhibit, that Renoir is a “sexist male artist.” But, to be honest, the disparagement of Renoir’s nude women is not a result of the artist’s misogyny, but of our own.
In 1985, an exhibit of Renoir’s nudes at the Hayward Gallery, in London, came under fire as being a direct critique of the feminine trends of the 1980’s. Reviewing the show for the Oxford Art Journal, art critic Lynn Nead points out that “…Renoir is seen to offer his audiences a timeless ideal of feminine beauty. Fashions may come and go, but Renoir, it seems, offers a historical continuum based on the ‘natural’ male love of real, fleshy women. Of course, this particular model of femininity is constructed in terms of its difference from other images of femininity. In particular, articles [of the time] reminded us of the aerobic and anorexic women of the eighties, products of fashion as opposed to Renoir’s eternal beauties.”
Critics in the 1980’s took issue with Renoir’s women because they were in direct conflict with their own contemporary feminine standards. Between the 1980’s and today, the nudes haven’t changed, but our beauty standards have. Despite the continued and pervasive presence of the female form in contemporary imagery, from Kim K’s curves to fashion model stick figures, our culture is more uncomfortable with the expression of the female form, not less.
We cannot look at the artistically made nude female form without trying to assess the artist’s intention in portraying it. We dig into the artist’s psychology, his behaviour (if we have record of it) to discern for ourselves if it’s okay to think the work is okay. We look around to see what other people think before we even dare to think what we think, like Schjeldahl using Lucy’s catalogue essay as a guide for his own thought process. We don’t judge the work on its own merit, or our feelings toward it. We are too afraid of our own intentions, our own unconscious biases. First we have to establish what is allowable to feel and think, then we can feel and think it. It’s worth dwelling on this point: we need to consult the records of accepted thought in order to express what we think we’re allowed to think. Art criticism is dead.
We’re living in a weird time, where we don’t even know how to define the word “woman” anymore. She is not recognized by her shape or her biology, unable to be defined by language, and so indistinguishable from men that she may be a man, or a man may be she. We look upon classic renderings of nude women and we flinch, because they show us something about women that we have lost—namely, the ability to name them.
We, as a society, are the ones who hate women precisely because of our fear of desiring them. We are so anxious to redefine them as something both vastly different from men and exactly the same that their bodies, unless shown entirely and pornographically as objects for sexual penetration, are fearful to us. The female body portrayed in pornography is something we can access, but the female form shown with appreciation, to be gazed upon but not devoured, is something we simply cannot seem to understand.
Renoir’s love of the voluptuous female form was in the 1980’s shown in contrast to the feminine beauty standards of bleached hair, thin, toned, bodies, and is now considered derisive for completely different reasons. Schjedahl’s use of the term “thunderous thighs” could be looked upon as fat shaming. His classification of the women’s faces as “dumb” is surely some kind of slight against uneducated, working women who found a meager income in modeling for Renoir.
It is, in fact, the concept of misogyny that continues to shift. Contemporaries of the exceptional, seminal Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen thought he hated women, because he didn’t show them as exceptionally graceful, or adhering to the day’s standards of femininity. Instead he showed them as active participants in their own lives. This was scandalous, and instead of Ibsen being seen as progressive or ahead of his time, he was thought to be against women. Edgar Degas was deemed a classic woman hater for similar reasons. Degas showed women at work, or at their dressing table, he did not glorify them, he did not put them on a pedestal. Not showing women at society’s conception of their most ideal was considered misogyny.
Cataloguing a well-established great master as sexist is something we should be used to in our weird age, where contemporary values are thrown back the judge across the ages, but it is still maddening. Renoir didn’t fear women; he may have loved some and he may have hated some (like every person). Instead, he portrayed them in paint on canvas because to do so gave him pleasure. Renoir was simplistic in his approach, he painted what made him happy. He conveyed the human experience—exuberance, sorrow, hope, like all great artists do. He took joy in the female form and we would do well to do the same. Women can be the subject of art without that being an expression of hate.
What we forget in our rush to judge the past is that this judgment is not an expression of the past, but of our own insecurities. Schjeldahl looks upon Renoir’s female nudes and sees women disdainfully portrayed because he is told to disdain them, because he is told that the right way to think of these women, and the painter’s relationship to them, is to think it’s problematic. Instead of looking at our great masters as hateful bastards who hated what they painted, let’s reconsider, and believe that love is what spurs creation.