Bewildering Female Nude


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

1 Comment

  • SHawn gallUP says:

    As soon as my attention was brought to the paint on the sheet next to the body, I thought, that is an odd sense of reflection in a non-reflective surface. Your observation is that her body is spilling onto the surface, or background. This strikes me: she is laying on the red BACKGROUND, return to that later. More than two things are happening and being alluded to here. One is the spillage you recognized. About the spilling concept, we can begin by bringing around my understanding that our self does not stop at the body, but the illusion of the body we live in as our current character: is that it stops at our skin. What is the defining aspect of self, the self is an individual but there are unseen parts of us that extend the body, one is the microbial cloud, there are other, which may be referred to as spiritual aspects, one being the aspect of the self that exceeds death, was before and will after, there is more but that is good for here and now. It’s really a whole we share, one thing the artist is pointing to: how we really become part of the world we exist in: flowing aspects of ourselves into the environment around us. Humanity is many individuals that compose a larger organic organism, we are more than capable of spilling over and having a dramatic effect on and with other people, people are dynamic and fluid and more affect-able than an object, like a sheet. We know, from physics, that all things, be it people or a tree or rock or even a man-made plastic item, are all composed of the same particles, it’s all energy. So we really can and do leave imprints of our own energy on objects. Which means that through object contamination we can share, if we like it or not, parts of ourselves. It is about being real, awakening and making it all matter! My observation on another aspect alluded to, validated by the title of the work, is that it is a reflection. I think if the sheet is a background that it must represent more than just a sheet. Reality, being more than what we see with our senses: much more than a few layers and levels go into composing the reality we are part of and existing in, the MASS of it is not viewable with eyes and other basic senses. She is laying on the BACKGROUND, so I strongly feel it is also reflection, that being a major layer of our reality, also referred to as the MIRROR. When I see this as a sheet, i’m not surprised, two things immediately come to mind, the mirror is covered, as if by a sheet or curtain, and the mirror is dirty, like painted over. Note: the mirror is not the sliver mirror you all know as a mirror either way. Well, we all know, from the Hubble fiasco what can happen when the mirror is not perfect. Leading to many questions. I am also bringing up, the laying and nude aspect. We are all wearing clothing, these days, but really, are we really covered? Maybe we are all naked and we just don’t realize it, sleeping awake. Final thoughts about laying, as in we have a rather lazy regard in this reality, we are just nearly laying, there is an inertia at work, or working against us, the painter might be saying that it’s as if we are just laying, asleep, on the fabric that makes the universe. Sleeping awake. Moving and effecting it but not conscious of what we are doing, really, naked and unaware. Space time has been referred to as a sheet. And in closing, I wish you all, the peace that passes all understanding, WE NEED IT.

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