Friday, February 10, 2012


This post connects to my discussion of "The Gaze" from last week:

A couple days ago, my sister brought to my attention an article on, an online magazine which features stories for women that, unlike the stories in so many women's magazines out there, try to be neither shallow nor misogynistic.  The article, "Photoshop of Horrors", presented a set of photoshop-paintings by artist Anna Utopia, showing famous Venuses from Art History whose bodies she had changed to better represent ideas about female beauty as promoted by the fashion and celebrity media of today.  Here is an example:

Anna Utopia, Alexander Cabanel -The Birth of Venus, part of her Venus series, 2010-2011, (project description on artist's website)(Cabanal's original painting is from 1863)

Anna Utopia's work brings up some interesting thoughts.  For one thing, we can see that fetishizing of women's bodies has been around for a long time, in places of both "high" art and "low".  For another, it is clear that the specific aesthetic ideal for a woman's body is not constant, but culturally dependent.

Cabanel painted his work, and displayed it at the Paris Salon of 1863, where it was received with the highest acclaim and soon purchased by Napoleon III (then French Emperor) for his private collection. His painting was erotic without offending anyone, since it showed a goddess and what could be less worldly than that?  Both male and female viewers saw the work, but overall, it was really a man's painting -moving from a male painter, through a male-run art salon, to end up in a male Emperor's private collection.

Images of models today, in contrast, can be found in many places, but a major one is on the pages of magazines marketed to women.  I'm not sure what to make of female interest in the fetishizing of the female body, but I certainly find it interesting, and a striking difference between the meaning of the nude female in Cabanel's Venus, and the meaning of nearly nude females in women's magazines today.  (It also seems to create an important complication for those Art Historians who want to criticize the male gaze as the only problematic one.)

But what I found most interesting of all about the article in, were comments readers had left.  A few of the comments were phrased rudely, most with great consideration, yet almost none of them related to the Venuses of this artwork as anything other than bodies-as-objects to be visually critiqued.  The comments mostly discussed whether the women were sexier in the original image or in the photoshopped one.  Some comments expressed horror at how the photoshopped versions looked like teenagers and not real women, and wondered when will our society learn to find curvier bodies attractive?

To me, whether or not the Venuses are sexy may be worth a moment or two of discussion, but it seems like focusing on that topic misses the far more interesting points of this art work.
- What does it mean that Venus is shown in such a helpless, passive position?
- What about the choice to make her skin look like marble, and to show no body hair, how does that change the meaning of the work?
- How did her identity as "Venus" and all the associations one makes with this mythological character affect the reaction of viewers to the painting in 1863.  How does it affect viewers today?
- and especially: When it is so evident that the specifics of the ideal are so variable over time and space, in other words, that thoughts about ideal beauty are not universal truths, but cultural opinions, why does the concept of an "ideal female body" exists in society at all?

P.S. Today "A New Art History" is one month old!  I've really been enjoying writing it; thanks for reading.


  1. Your inclination and ability to see incisively beyond the obvious is a major reason why I think you are well suited for a career as a scholar.

    Congratulations on your first mooniversary!

    - abba

  2. Glad you found that article interesting. While it is clear that the "ideal female body" changes over time, its interesting to think about what inspires the change. Historically plump and pale were attributes ladies wished for since only the rich (well-fed and spent time indoors) could achieve them. Now unusually skinny and tan seem to be the canon of beauty. But why? And when did this flip happen?

    1. Well, I came across this article about man's perception of educated women as wives over the past century in the Sunday NY Times. While, it does not have to do with body image or art, it does go through a shift in both a man's perception/expectation of a wife as well as a woman's expectations of herself as a wife. The way these two influence each other, and how the perceptions get changed is really fascinating. Also, despite a substantial change in what an 'ideal' wife is, we somehow still cling to some of the archaic ideals.

    2. I think the story about the ideal body is even more complicated than "plump and pail" versus "skinny and tan", when you think about, for example, the northern renaissance ideal (see Hans Memling's Eve as an example But the question of why these ideals are what they are is certainly an interesting one.

      I think your New York Times article is fascinating too. I can only hope that the rather odd desire of wanting to be weaker than one's husband on the part of some women is a holdover, which will be gone in a couple of generations.