Naked Men and me – Woman Gaze
100x80 cm' oil on canvas
120x90 cm oil on canvas
110x90 oil on canvas
100x90 cm oil on canvas
120x90 cm' oil on canvas
80x60 oil on canvas
Who’s afraid of the male nude | Dr. Tal Dekel
Dr. Tal Dekel is an art historian at the Tel Aviv University
The works of Israeli artist Ora Ruven are large or medium scaled paintings of male nudes. The works portray the naked men as subjects of voyeurism and seduction – thus reversing the gaze, traditionally obtained by the male artist and turned towards the female model. In one of the paintings in the series, a naked man is described wrapped loosely with a lace cloth, lying on soft golden sheets, the intimate parts of his body peering at the viewer while his face veiled. In another painting a man is looking directly at his partner-painter, sharing with her the erotic adventure they both embarked on. The men who are modelling for Ruven are not practicing as professional models and do not comply with standard ideals of the beautiful male specimen.
The works of Ruven reflect the long and curvy path in which feminist artists walked upon since the 1970s, and until this day, in regard to the portrayal of the male body.
The pornography industry is a case study from which much can be learned about mainstream’s attitude towards the female body – which is very different from the way women usually depict men’s body: Male-oriented mainstream porn mostly depicts the woman’s body fragmentarily, in extreme close up, while objectifying the woman and eliminating her individuality. It is no more than functional representation for effective sexual arousal.
Man as a subject of female eroticism, as portrayed by Ruven, is an act of role reversal. Over the past four decades, with the growing of feminist awareness, many women artists have began to deal with reversing traditional gender roles. During this quest, some feminist artists addressed the issue of sexual relationships between the genders, placing themselves as powerful subjects against a weakened man, and often depicting sex as an evil or destructive force. However, other feminist artists, such as Carolee Schneemann, have concentrated on the new ways from which an egalitarian sexual relationship could be re-built by men and woman, as a joint venture. In the work of Ruven the reversal is of that nature: the man is the subject of the woman’s desire. Instead of addressing the charged dynamics of man/woman relations which produced countless ill-balanced images during the centuries, we find here a motion for the agenda where a woman treats her object of desire with a combination of authentic sexuality and reciprocity, hoping to offer an alternative, corrective and optimistic future for women/men relationships. Ruven does not feel the need to represent a woman who is trying to take the man’s place or power, since she is powerful as is – as a woman and as an artist. She does not try to prove her own strength to him or to the viewer. Rather, she is a woman striving to formulate a way to express her authentic femininity in relation to her man/men. Ruven is clearly a product of what some call “third wave feminism”, now prevailing the West, through which countless women (mainly white, middle class, educated women) are addressing new issues, which are sometimes very different from those of the “second wave” feminism’s concerns (or of contemporary burning issues of feminists in other parts of the world).
Ruven’s paintings, in which aged men appear, could be called realistic in style. While the method of painting is traditional and the scenes “classical” – a nude model sitting before a painter – the accumulated substance of this arrangement is not traditional, to say the least. The works are authentic representations of ordinary men, a far cry from the appearance of the young muscular, shapely and handsome male model common in contemporary mass media. At times their nudity is overt and direct to the extent of awkwardness. Most of the men are depicted sitting on a sofa, in a classic form of the “Reclining Venus” pose, or laid on a bed, looking straight forth at the painter. At other times, a man is “caught” while sleeping, oblivious to the fact that he is being looked at; whereas in yet another painting a man stands, hiding his face in the palms of his hands, his genitalia exposed to the viewer.
One would think that images of male nudes would not be problematic to digest; as such representations are already prevailing for some decades throughout the mass media. The global audience is used to watch maximum exposures of naked bodies, men’s as well as women’s. Nonetheless, further examination will reveal that even though the male nude may be found in many male artist’s work (filmmakers, sculptures, painters, etc.), it is absent almost completely from the work done by female artists, up to the early 1990s.
Looking at the past thirty some years, as women fought their way into the canon of art history, the feminist era brought forth new spirits of sexual freedom and equality in the West, allowing women artists to express their heart’s desire. And still, very rarely did women use this freedom to depict the male nude, and when they did so, it was their revolt which was at the heart of their work: many of them painted distorted, horrifying, pathetic or repulsive naked men, at the beginning of the feminist revolution of the 1970s (one exception which can be mentioned are the paintings made by Joan Semmel). By so doing they expressed their hardships throughout patriarchal history, a history which did not leave much room for reciprocity, empathy, sensuality, eroticism, or love between the sexes, and especially for expressions of the love of a woman to a man.
With time all this is changing. “The Women’s Liberation Movement”, founded at the end of the 1960's, opened up a vast discourse about female sexuality and the right of women over their own bodies, through issues such masturbation. Since the 1970s and on, many critical theories were formulating in regard to representations of women and their sexuality, starting with Berger’s assertions in 1972 that “men act and women are watched”: The man’s gaze has the power to establish his own status as the subject and the woman’s status as the object to the male gaze. According to Berger, the woman embraces the male gaze, and can only see herself through his eyes – as a sexual object. As Tanya Augsburg wrote in the 2011 catalogue of the exhibition “Man as Object – Reversing the Gaze”, Berger’s text paved the way for the theorization of the gaze within feminist film theory, beginning with Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” from 1975. Mulvey expanded upon Berger’s ideas, drawing from psychoanalytic theories to assert an active/passive heterosexual division of labour controlling the narrative structure of film". Augsburg explains that “for Mulvey, women are depicted as sexual objects intended for the male gaze, as spectacle and as icons. Men are bearers of the look of the spectator, but cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Other critics followed this line of thought, among them E. Ann Kaplan, in her book from 1983, "Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera”.
However, few theoretical writings or artistic examples from the 1970s and 1980s gave guidelines for feminist women who wished to continue having relations and sexual intercourse with the men in their life. Few answers or ground rules were given to early feminist women who wished to maintain a relationship and live as sexual equals alongside their men partners. It was hard to find, back then, books or articles dealing with the female sexuality as adjacent to that of a man’s. But this question is now raised in the work of contemporary Israeli artist Ora Ruven.
It should be mentioned that there could be several reasons which prevented women artists from dealing with the subject of male nudes in the past (and to a certain extent, up to this very day). One of the reasons may be that this topic is still subject to taboo, under which male nudity that is portrayed by women is band. Perhaps the prevailing concept of a woman who expresses sexual interest in a man, especially naked, is still in danger of ostracism, still cautious of the social finger pointing, categorizing her as promiscuous, as wanton. Perhaps many women of the twenty first century, also still see themselves as “adequate” only through the eyes of the hegemonic male perception, which dictated the “proper” characters and virtues they must have – as a woman and as a potential wife, as a sanctified image, the mother to the man’s children, practically an a-sexual being and not as a “light hearted” artist who paints nude images of men. That is to say, many women have yet to free themselves from the male dictated perception of them. Berger’s insight from 1972 could therefore explain the differences between the saint and the harlot, a categorization which some women artists still hold today, resulting with an unsympathetic attitude in culture towards male nudity depicted by women.
Ora Ruven has reclaimed the gaze. Yet in her paintings, in which she studies and paints man’s body and genitalia with the same amount of potency and bluntness, there is no sense of aggression, nor possessiveness or objectification – as found in countless portrayals of female nudity made by men throughout art history.
The gaze, one of the main instruments of objectifying throughout visual culture, is used by Ruven to look at the male nude, while positioning herself in the position of power. But does she in fact make her perspective and her position of power into a control mechanism? In her paintings, the men are portrayed in various performative masculinities. Using warm colours and realism, these paintings respect the men, showing them as agents, as (sexual) subjects.