wow: free to art

Did you know that women artists in Europe and the United States were prohibited from studying the nude figure until the end of the 19th century? I certainly didn’t until I took a walk through the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC this week.

"Morning Toilette" 1930 Lotte Laserstein Source: https://theartstack.com/artist/lotte-laserstein/morning-toilette-1930

“Morning Toilette” 1930 Lotte Laserstein
Source: https://theartstack.com/artist/lotte-laserstein/morning-toilette-1930

From NMWA: “The Nineteenth Century in Europe and the United States: While a few women artists achieved great success in the eighteenth century, many struggled to find proper training. The nineteenth century ushered in radical social changes, including new educational opportunities and growing support for women’s rights. In both Europe and the U.S., women gained marginal admittance to art academies beginning in the 1860’s. Because of their gender, women were prohibited from studying the nude figure until the end of the century. This constraint limited their engagement with historical and mythological subjects, which were exalted by art critics of the time. Many women selected subjects accessible through their immediate experience: domestic scenes, still life, and portraiture. Like their seventeenth and eighteenth century counterparts, women who succeeded professionally often received training and support from their artistic families.”

It is both fascinating and alarming that men in Europe and the United States received acclaim and have remained pillars of art even today for studying our nude bodies, while we were not allowed to study ourselves. 

Since coming across artists such as Susannah Martin, Kacy Johnson, Martha-Anne and BFGF these two years of my clothes free life, I have been eager to learn more about how women artists treat the female nude. Now that we have the right to study ourselves and depict ourselves, what stories do we tell? And how? And why?

"A Little Taste Outside of Love" 2007 - Mickalene Thomas

“A Little Taste Outside of Love” 2007 – Mickalene Thomas

During my walk through the museum, I came across a 1930 piece by Lotte Laserstein of Germany called Morning Toilette. NMWA’s caption read, “This painting is typical of the straightforward, sober, and unflattering style known as German realism. Laserstein takes this venerable theme – a nude woman at her toilette – and exhibits none of the sensuality or grace generally associated with this subject. Instead, Laserstein gives viewers the neue Frau (new woman): physically powerful and independent, clearly a real person rather than a goddess. In keeping with the philosophy, Laserstein used her tennis coach, Traute Rose, as the sitter.” It was powerful that this artist deemed this woman worth painting, this story worth telling, this life as valuable and worthy of history without the embellishment of “goddess.”

Harper’s Bazaar assembled a slide show of historical female nude depictions. Of 10 pieces showcased, only the last one was by a female artist, Mickalene Thomas. Of her 2007 piece A Little Taste Outside of Love Harper’s Bazaar stated that this African-American artist created “paintings that empower their subjects by injecting African-American voice into art history. By painting a nude in the same pose as Courbet or Manet, but one whose black identity is readily on display, Thomas forces the viewer to confront the legacy of objectification and sexism inherent in the art historical narrative.”

"Compton Nocturne" 2012 - Alison Saar

“Compton Nocturne” 2012 – Alison Saar

I also encountered the work of Alison Saar, who had a special exhibition at NMWA during my visit. One piece, in particular, caught my eye and heart: Compton Nocturne 2012. The caption for this piece read, “This reclining female nude is based on a subject and format popular in Western painting since the Renaissance. Saar uses the nude figure to refer to black women’s historical struggle to reclaim their own bodies. She changed the body from an exoticized object into a critical subject by referencing a custom rooted in the African diaspora. The figure’s hair transforms into tree roots that support glass bottles. Traditionally, Congolese people created bottle trees to protect their homes by capturing or warding off evil spirits.”

Most, if not all, black women in the United States will tell you that hair is a very sensitive topic. Our natural hair was (and in some places, still is) deemed unprofessional and inappropriate, and a culture of shame around our hair grew. We engage(d) in very painful and expensive procedures to make our hair look acceptable. So, to stand before a piece where the artist depicted our hair as protection over our bodies (body as home) was incredibly powerful. I was nearly in tears.

It is important for us to look at these contexts when considering women and participation in naturism, nudism and clothes free living. So many men boil things down to women “naturally” being more prudish and lacking confidence and men “naturally” being more open, confident and drawn to naturism. Actually, there is nothing natural about it. These concepts were artificially engineered for centuries on end and had very real long-term impacts. We must look broader and deeper in order to understand where we are now in our societies, how we got there and how to move forward.

I’m amazed by how these women tell our stories. Their perspectives are multi-layered, multidimensional, fascinating. I can’t wait to learn more.

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