The perception of the female body is one of the most intriguing and controversial questions of the modern age. Painters, sculptors, photographers have all tried to portray it in insightful and innovative ways: realistically, impressionistically, as an object of desire, as decoration, as an abstract idea; there are endless depictions of nude women, each unearthing a new, unfamiliar aspect. Strange that a thing so familiar – either our own body or that of a partner – remains a mystery that constantly requires explanation. What is it about a woman’s body that evokes this drive to interpret it?
Henri Matisse (1869-1954), a French painter and sculptor, was one of the artists who shaped twentieth century art. Active for nearly six decades, he left a huge and versatile body of work. His firm belief that art should constantly be changing made him explore with colors, shapes, light and shade. Often changing his style, and followed by other artists, he was a leading figure in modern art.
I admit I find his works rather intriguing; people are deeply impressed by paintings that seem to betray a conscious attempt not to gratify the spectators. His works are focused on the process of making art, and at times seem to completely ignore its viewers. They are very expressive, using colors in a unique manner, but not in ways that attempt to please the eye.
Sleeping Nude on a Red Background was created in 1916. Art historians divide his creative years into periods: the early years, Fauvism, the embattled artist, the time he spent in Venice, the Soviet Union, America, his last years. 1913-1917 were highly experimental years, during which he pursued a radically new and inventive approach to artistic production. It has been argued that during this time he made the most challenging experiments of his career. In 2010 the MoMA and The Art Institute of Chicago held a joint exhibition devoted to these years, titled “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917”.
Describing himself, he defined his artistic work as “the methods of modern construction”, not only in terms of experimental techniques but also as a way of defining modernity. What does it mean to be modern? In these experimental years he made various attempts to portray the unique qualities of the modern worldview.
There is something disturbing about Sleeping Nude on a Red Background. The model’s pose, a naked woman recumbent on a cloth, is consistent with the artistic tradition of a female body leaning against a fabric. Yet Matisse’s model has two conflicting qualities: on the one hand, parts of her are poster-like, lacking any depth. The black hair, the pubic hair and the black object in the back look almost as if they had been made with a black marker. Her body, on the other hand, is vibrant and realistic, in particular her abdomen, which may even suggest movement. But strangely, a careful examination reveals that the colors of her body “spilled” underneath her. It isn’t shadow but an extension of the body onto the sheet.
Students of Matisse often refer to the innate ambivalence of his work: the past blends with the future, the depth of traditional art is combined with the flatness of modern art, figures of the past mix with the decorative nature of contemporary art. The art historian Alastair Wright argues that “his work sat on the knife-edge between the representational tradition of the nineteenth century and the formalist abstraction to come.” His attempt to define modernism can be extended to include an examination of the modern perception of the female body.
On the one hand, the sleeping woman is merely an object: the hair and the pubic hair are of the same quality, like something placed there, in the background. She is very beautiful, but still, an object. On the other hand, her body seems so real, almost like an untouched photo of a woman her age, sleeping on a couch. In fact she is so ‘real’ that her vitality seems to spill beyond her contours. The fleshly aspect is very authentic, so sensual that it overflows her body. She is the embodiment of the modern dual view of the woman’s body: as both a sexual object and a liberated person, physically and emotionally.
I wonder if this ambivalence prevents the eradication of the sexual objectification of women. Is female nude a manifestation of sexual exploitation or of liberation of women? Ambiguity is very difficult to overcome. If a woman’s body was only an object, it probably would have been easier to struggle with it. But this vague, unequivocal attitude – sometimes naked women are merely sexual objects, sometime nudity is one aspect of women perceived as whole human beings – is hard to defy. It certainly is a “modern construction”, as Matisse had put it. And deconstructing it is very difficult.
Sleeping Nude on a Red Background is exhibited in Kunsthous Zürich