IN CONVERSATION WITH ASTRID KERCHMAN
When I encountered the Guerrilla Girls poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum (2012) (click here for the MOED X Guerrilla Girls exhibition) for the first time, many questions emerged, all centered around the following question: Why did the Guerrilla Girls specifically choose to appropriate the subject of the La Grande Odalisque? What is the story behind this painting, which has become one of the most famous images in the canon of Western art history, and simultaneously a symbol for patriarchal art that objectifies women? Who is this woman?
The appropriation of the odalisque by the Guerrilla Girls illustrates how history can be re-presented. By defacing an image that has been understood as one of the most classical symbols of patriarchal art that has been canonized by museums and art history, the Guerrilla Girls transform the odalisque into a critique on the institutions that represent such images. Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque from 1814 contains a symbolic language produced by the dominant (male) culture, which the Guerrilla Girls have enriched with a feminist symbolism. The group calls into question the construction of idealized femininity as submissive, critiquing the objectification of women’s bodies. The poster of the Guerrilla Girls makes us aware of what much feminist research of the 1970s has shown, namely that the female body in (Western) art history is depicted as an object ‘to be looked at’. Male artists have painted, drawn and sculptured naked women as passive objects for a primarily male gaze, rather than giving them the active position of the person who looks and creates. With their artwork, the Guerrilla Girls create awareness of this inequality and challenge the passive ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’ and classic beauty of the nude woman by giving her a gorilla mask, providing her with the strong colors of the purple sheet and the bright yellow shade, now refusing to look back at the spectator. The fan the odalisque is holding now starkly resembles an erect penis, including a sack-like shape that is attached to the fan.
However though, I aim to highlight, but simultaneously to complicate, this understanding of La Grande Odalisque as being a symbol of patriarchal art. Where does this image come from? In what kind of discourse and narrativity is the work produced and how has it been received in the early 19th century? An in-depth analysis of the work will place Ingres’ painting in its context. I will analyze La Grande Odalisque on two levels that the painting can be contested on through feminist theory, that are inevitably intertwined: firstly, as an image that reduces women to their bodies, and secondly as one of the first images of what literature scholar Edward Said influentially has called Orientalism. One of my starting points for doing so is the fact – that immediately goes against the mainstream understanding of the work – that the painting has been commissioned by a woman, Caroline Bonaparte Murat, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and Queen of Naples. An analysis of the narrativity and the discourse in which the painting was produced will focus on what it means that a woman has commissioned such a work. The existing research conducted on La Grande Odalisque barely highlights the commission story behind the work, let alone the Orientalist implications of the work. Things are more complicated than they appear to be. I argue how it is important to understand the contradicting situations that are at play inherent to Ingres’ painting in order to avoid totalizing, universalizing and ahistorical explanations on different (yet intersecting) patterns of discrimination such as gender, ethnicity and class. The recognition that gender, race and subjectivity are complex, plural and contingent, is substantial. Without it, it is difficult to find strategies with which to contest the naturalization of past power relations that merely analyze La Grande Odalisque as a painting produced from the white male gaze, while women’s positionings in these narratives have been very complex and ambiguous.
Contextualizing Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
The French painter Jacques-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (born 1780, Montauban, France – died 1867, Paris, France) has become one of the most famous Neoclassical painters. His work is present in every Western canon of art history and has been collected by the biggest museums in the world, such as the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York City and the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. However, it was only in a later stage of his life that Ingres gained great popularity and fame for his art. His paintings, especially his early work, have caused a lot of controversy during its time. Despite from being interpreted as a conservative artist, and after the 1820s has gained the status of one of the most influential artists of his time, Ingres painted in his early years notably what he wanted. His images were often met with derision; Ingres’ early work was highly unpopular and his style was not understood. 
As mentioned earlier, La Grande Odalisque was commissioned not just by any woman, but by Caroline Bonaparte Murat, the youngest of Napoleon’s three sisters and Queen of Naples from 1808 to 1815 under Napoleon’s regime. Several theories and speculations demonstrate that the painting was most likely meant as a present for her husband, Joachim Murat. This results in research that brings back the focus to the man – overlooking the agency of Murat herself in commissioning and enjoying the painting. The fact that a woman commissioned notably this painting, understood as a symbol of patriarchal art and the objectification of women, engages with and complicates notions of female spectatorship and the “feminine” taste. It dismantles assumptions about pleasure, power and the gaze. The historical case of women actively collecting and appreciating eroticized nudes in the early nineteenth century contradicts traditional feminist views on Ingres’ work (and, of course, work of other artists as well). It calls into question the assumption that erotic depictions always have been the sole arena of men and that the pleasure in looking has been a male-only prerogative and a heteronormative enterprise.
Female Spectatorship as a Result of Discourse and Narrativity
Focusing on the discourse and narrativity instead of the sex of the commissioner or artist and what this might say about the gaze, the feminist film scholar Teresa de Lauretis has coined the terms “double identification” and “narrative image”. De Lauretis stresses the (unconscious) role of discourse that every subject is embedded in:
We could say that the female spectator identifies with both the subject and the space of the narrative movement, with the figure of movement and the figure of its closure, the narrative image. Both are figural identifications, and both are possible at once; more, they are concurrently borne and mutually implicated by the process of narrativity. This manner of identification would uphold both positionalities of desire, both active and passive aims: desire for the other, and desire to be desired by the other.
In this process of narrativity, people are embedded in a certain semiotic history, personal and social, a series of previous identifications by which the person is somehow engendered. They are historical subjects, continuously engaged in a multiplicity of signifying practices. Hence, this creates a certain ambivalence in female desire and female appreciation, one that is often overlooked in issues of representation. Feminist art historian Carol Ockman complements this ambivalence by giving the suggestion of an existence of rivalry among commissioners in Ingres’ time, a rivalry that ran parallel to rivalries among artists. She outlines a model for a history of patronage predicated on female agency and suggests a “pictorial language”: a dialogue among works of art in which new commissions were planned as responses to previous commissions. Murat’s commission took place in the same time as for example Antonio Canova’s marble of Paolina Borghese (1804-1808) and Jacques-Louis David’s painting of Juliette Récamier (1800); all women from a similar social background who had close personal ties and commissioned highly sensualized imagery.
Reading these works together, they suggest being part of a deliberate iconographic dialogue, constantly trying to surpass their predecessor. However, though, there is one important distinction between Murat and her contemporaries: instead of commissioning an image in which she appears to define herself as a sexual object, Murat actually consumes this type of images of another woman, a woman from the Orient even. By actively producing a system of difference, a connection can be made between Murat and art historian Reina Lewis, who has highlighted the role of Western women and their cultural production in the way they understood themselves as part of the imperial nation. By creating or commissioning Orientalist paintings, they placed themselves as superior in the West/East divide of colonialism. However, there is no actual proof that this is the reason why Murat commissioned La Grande Odalisque and is therefore simply a suggestion.
The Oriental Gaze on Harem Women
The depiction of an Oriental subject was also another reason why the French Salon reacted with shock to Ingres’ painting. The female nude depicted was not a Greek goddess, but a prostitute, a “wild woman” from far away, depicted with attributes not very common in a European setting (a pipe, incense burner, fan, and turban). She was portrayed as an inhabitant of a Turkish harem. Simultaneously, however, the woman also recalls many European features: she is white, and her face and coiffure resemble the style of the famous painter Raphael. The image as a whole comes across as cultivated beauty, refinement and idealization, which almost seem Classical. The Romantic subject of the odalisque is depicted in an essentially Neoclassical manner. While depicting a harem woman, the idea of a pure and virtuous European woman stayed intact.
Harem women were a popular theme in Oriental scenes in Western art, literature, travel accounts and memoires. Also in Ingres’ other work was the harem a recurring theme (e.g. Odalisque with Slave (1839) and The Turkish Bath (1863)). Depictions of the harem by Western men often carried a double agenda: generally speaking, they were mixtures of righteous condemnation and longing. Harem women were depicted as prisoners of male lust and as beautiful women who were the willing sexual partners of their masters, to which these masters had a seemingly unrestricted access to their bodies. Simultaneously, on a more psychoanalytic level, the harem (similarly as how polygamy and veiling were represented in art) was deployed as a metaphor for longing: coming from societies that enforced monogamy and made divorce difficult (if not impossible), fantasies aroused about these seemingly unlimited sexual availabilities. These “realities” that traveled through Western art, literature, memoires and travel notes resulted in an understanding of the Orient that was a product of a citationary process. The Orient was (and arguably still is) something that is grasped in and by representations.” The Orient is not established by the truth, but rather by various writings that refer back and forth to one another, borrowing elements from predecessors. Through this system of citationary practice, they constitute a systematic body of knowledge about “the Orient”. New representations were built on the foundations of the old, whereby the actualities of the modern Orient were systematically excluded. Even though the Orient is created out of this reactionary process, the Orient is not imaginative. “The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture. Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles.” Because of Orientalism, the discursive construct of the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action, but rather a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and claiming authority over the Orient.
Hence, similarly to the pictorial language among female patrons mentioned earlier, Oriental cultural productions from the same time that might certainly have influenced Ingres and Murat. The general fascination and interest was, in part, sparked by Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in 1789-1799 as well as by the detailed description of the region, its culture and customs in a huge publication called Description de l’Egypte, which was published from 1809 to 1822. Lord Byron’s poem The Corsair, also published in 1814, featured a harem slave as well. Lady Montagu just published her travel narratives about her travels to Turkey.
Guerrilla Girls X Odalisque: Subversion and Critique
The complexities of the painting do not diminish the intention of the Guerrilla Girls. In their poster, the Guerrilla Girls appropriated the dominant cultural symbol of the La Grande Odalisque that upholds exclusionary mechanisms of patriarchy, heteronormativity and Orientalism. Deploying a comic politics and appropriating the highly visible visual language of advertisement, the odalisque has transformed from a symbol of objectification of women to a symbol of subversion and critique, disrupting the hierarchy of male power and star making enabled by canonization.
Astrid Kerchman is currently a second year student of the Research Master Gender Studies at Utrecht University. She is also MOED’s research intern. Her interests focus around the intersections of decolonial thinking, deconstructing “Western” discourses and modes of thinking, activism and (visual) art.
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