an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 4, July 2007, ISSN 1552-5112
One Among Several – The Traditional Gaze Seduced:
Toward A More Complex Understanding of Eros in Modernism
I would like to see feminist art historians, critics, and theorists become more sensitive to the philosophical difficulties of attempting to break down authoritative modes of analysis (the 1970’ and 1980’s models of feminist critical practice), while retaining a political thrust in our practice. That is, we want to argue for certain "ways of seeing" (as John Berger would have it) but without legislating these ways as the only ways. We want to be forceful, passionate, and politicized without sliding into prescriptions... We might be more flexible, acknowledging when our models no longer work, rather than trying to hang on to them at the cost of blinding ourselves to new kinds of visual culture and critical practice (Amelia Jones).
The exhibition Eros in Modern Art can be read in a number of ways. A straight-forward content analysis would reveal that the vast majority of art works on display (around 93%) were made by men. Among these works one could also make a strong case that the presence of works such as Renoir’s Elongated Nude, Renoir’s Flying figure or Van Dongen’s Young Girl are classic examples
1. Renoir Elongated Nude, 1902 (Private Collection).
of the traditional male/patriarchal gaze of Western art as it exerted its influence on modern artists. It might even be possible to make a feminist inspired case that a significant number of the works on display are products of that gaze.
Indeed, an endless debate could be invested in the wisdom behind the selection and exclusion of works in this show. (For example the curious exclusion of Sylvia Sleigh’s The Turkish Bath or Prudence Heward’s self portrait Girl Under a Tree).
4. Sylvia Sleigh The Turkish Bath, 1973
I am supportive of gender sensitive readings of this show as long as these are also aware of one of the “new directions in critical practice” present in this show, of the kind Amelia Jones refers to (above).
Specifically, I wish to draw attention to the Eros exhibition as a show containing multiple narratives on modern and postmodern art. The curators of this show seek to deepen the complexity of understanding eros in modern art by placing non-traditional narratives alongside of the traditional heterosexual male centered one. This means that the telling of both old and new stories is important to Eros. One of the ironic outcomes of this effort, and it is one striking success of Eros, is that when the old male centered view is reduced to but one of many narratives, it can be appreciated as just one “way of seeing” eros. Such a show is both the product of, and a further challenge to, feminized understandings. Foucault’s question: “What matter who’s speaking/painting?” is unavoidable because – as this show illustrates – it also matters greatly who is listening/viewing.
I begin by discussing works from the show which are easily understood as representatives of the traditional male centered view of art and the male gaze (Renoir, Rodin, van Dongen). I move from these to less certain works by other male artists of the day which can be understood as both part of that same limited narrative, and at the same time, as part of a challenge to that traditional view. Following this I examine works in the show which come from more contemporary sources and bring a level of complexity to thinking about eros in modernism. Finally, I look at works in the show which challenge feminism to embrace a multiplicity of views of eros, including the traditional one as but one among several.
II. The Despised Works of Modernism?
The world no
longer looks the way it did before feminism. Contemporary
curatorial practice can no longer take place outside of feminist thought
or audiences unaware of gender sensitive perspectives. One of the most
interesting conclusions I have taken from Eros
is that the show’s curators are convinced that visitors to the show are feminized
subjects. This is something that the curators were willing to engage at
As one entered the Eros in Modernism show two of the first works that were encountered were arch exemplars used by feminist critics of the male gaze of modernism: Renoir’s Elongated Nude and Rodin’s Flying Figure. Both works fit into a tradition of presenting the female body for the (assumed) male spectator and as such have long been targets of feminist art criticism. Before long, one is greeted by other works that can be fitted neatly into a more traditional feminist criticism of the male gaze (such as Van Dongen’s Nude Girl), which are also presented without any of the problematizing didactic text one might have expected from less confident curators.
Passing through the first four rooms of the exhibition we are challenged to recall recent art history as a question is silently posed by the presentation of the works: “Do the curators expect us to accept such works unproblematically given everything that has been said and written about the male gaze in Western art in recent times?” Of course not – and the very fact you are thinking this is the first step in the very subtle engagement the curators of this show wish to make. Thirty years ago the curators, not expecting as much of their audience, could easily have been expected to play a greater role by way of didactic text. Today’s feminized consumer of art and art history coming to vital sites in the art world (such as the Beyeler Foundation), are treated with greater respect. Questions such as: “Do they expect us to accept Rodin and Renoir or Van Dongen (and I have long loved Van Dongen’s expressionist eroticism) as unproblematic representations of Eros?” come readily to mind. As I slowly made my way through the first few rooms burdened with my question, I met other works which only deepened my dis-ease with the possible goals of the curators. The curators had me where they wanted me when I passed beyond Renoir, Rodin and van Dongen, into rooms with representations of traditional male dominance in sexuality such as Isoda Korjusai’s Schunga, or Emile Nolde’s Point of Madness
(Private Collection). (Nolde Collection, Seebull).
(which follows a Toulouse-Laurtrecian re-presentation of women for male consumers, in this case in a night club). Prudence Heward was certainly on this Canadian’s mind as was the German expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self Portrait, as she was a European contemporary of Nolde. Surely, if the curators were seeking to fully problematize the traditional narrative—works like this which are well known to the international artistic community would have been included.
7. Paula Modersohn-Becker Self Portrait, 8. Prudence Heward. Girl Under A Tree (1927)
Passing beyond the works of Korjudsai, Nolde, (and others like them) I began to form two possible responses to the exhibition: 1) A kind of disappointed anger at the curators if the dominance of traditional understandings of eros continued, or 2) a growing awareness that a trap had been set by curators in an attempt to evoke anger – only to allow the works to assuage that anger as the visitor passed further into the exhibition. It would not be didactic texts that would be used to problematize these works – it would be the entire show, the art works themselves taken as a relational whole, that would problematize not merely a few works, but rather, the entire traditional narrative of modernism.
Modern art contains many expressions of eros several of which were valued by the curators of this exhibition. As it turns out, the feminized subject, in the opinion of the curators (and myself after seeing the show), is perfectly able to accept such works as expressions of eros when they are set in the context of a more complex and diverse set of narratives than the traditional modernist understanding of itself would allow. By stacking a large number of traditional works in the early rooms of the show, the curators succeeded in raising an awareness of diversity, multiplicity, and complexity, by their very absence. This is why I say the curators were assuming a feminized gallery going visitor who would ask precisely these questions. In the next section I examine some of the works in this exhibition that add many layers of complexity to the modernist narrative.
III. A Layer of Complexity
As long as women’s art is treated as an ‘exotic other’ it will continue to be marginalized. Also, it is high time that men’s images, which have been one of the primary ways through which both men and women have formulated their ideas about the female, start to be reexamined in relation to the ever increasing body of art by women which challenges male perception (Judy Chicago, 1998).
The old patriarchal modernist narrative embraced and constructed the view of eros we find in the works of Renoir, Rodin, Van Dongen or Nolde (above) – works in which we can argue that a relatively straight-forward understanding of eros is represented. Other artists present however, such as Rops, von Stuck, Klimt, Scheile, and Foujita served to add a layer of complexity to the stories being told. I would add that I would not be disturbed by someone arguing that these very works actually deepened the showing of the traditional gaze. It is for this reason why I would have liked to see works such as the Heward and the Modersohn-Becker included, as these works add impressive female representations of eros to the dialogue. Such works allow us to go beyond the traditional male dominant modernist narrative which, as it turns out, was never so certain or unproblematic. Indeed, to not look for complexity within this very narrative is to be seduced by a view of its simplicity –
11. Gustav Klimt. Sitting Woman With 12. Alphonse Mucha. La Trappistine
Thighs Spread, 1917 (Private Collection). (Private Collection).
always a dangerous position to occupy in a thoughtful forum of the arts today (such as Beyeler).
In these less certain works by Rops, von Stuck, Klimt, Scheile or Foujita we discover works that can be fit into one of at least two narratives. If we want to settle for a less demanding reading, one much more in line with modernism’s long held self understanding (and ironically akin to some 1970s and 1980s feminist readings), one finds five works very close to the Renoir, Rodin and van Dongen (above). Such a view could see these works as exemplars of the male gaze – a classic scene of women masturbating for the male pornographic gaze (Rops and Klimt); a sphinx devouring an unwitting man (von Stuck); and young
13. Egon Scheile Women Embracing, 14. Leonard Tsugouharu Foujita The Two,
female lovers presented for a presumed male viewer (Scheile and Foujita) although in the later two cases this is a much more difficult case to make. Indeed, if one were out to make the more simple case as a curator why not bring in works such as Mucha’s La Trappistine (the classic view of woman as evil temptress – see illustration 12 above) not included in this show?
At a more challenging level, we can see the presence of the works by Rops, von Stuck, Klimt, Scheile and Foujita, as evidence of a curatorial awareness of the need to problematize the traditional patriarchal views from deep within the history of modernism. Whatever else may be present in these works, and all works of art can be read from perspectives other than the traditional, we can also see sensitive explorations of women loving women, and a woman in the dominant role in the one of the five works in which a male is present at all. In the other four works, women – although painted in each case by a man – speak also to the non-necessity of the male in the experience of eros. Indeed, the presence of Klimt’s masturbating young woman makes a nice parenthesis to a work by David Hockney (Mo Nude, see illustration 15) which appears later in the show. Both are artistic renderings of perfectly natural expressions of the auto-erotic. Further, the presence of the Hockney forces us to return to simplistic readings of the Klimt while asking the question “what matter who is speaking/ painting?” It would matter very much I think if the Klimt appeared in this show without the Hockney (or a similar rendering of male autoeroticism) and this is precisely how the curators of this show allow the works to deepen, complicate, and problematize our perspective on them. The Beyeler Foundation shows works at a level beyond simple readings as the internal dialogue between the works’ demands.
15. David Hockney. Mo Nude, 1968
The later rooms in the show continue to introduce significant complexity in the multiple views of eros present. This is, I think, an indication that the curators of this show understand seduction as a form of challenge to power. Seduction is present in the Eros show as non-traditional perspectives challenge and eventually overturn the dominance of the masculine. Seduction is not a place where women are to be located in relation to men as evil temptresses (as in the Mucha which was excluded from this exhibition) precisely because such a work has nothing to do with eros. Indeed, a Baudrillard-inspired reading of von Stuck ‘s The Kiss brings to the fore the power of the feminine over the masculine (in a reading where men and women each possess the masculine and the feminine). This links seduction to an understanding of reversibility where women have long held a privileged position in confronting and reversing male power and dominance. While some feminists may remain uncomfortable with this reading, feminism itself can be seen as the most seductive of contemporary theories – and therefore, not surprisingly, as the most successful of contemporary theories.
Von Stuck’s painting can be read in this light as a feminine reversal of the masculine dominant role in modernist art (whatever his own intentions might have been as an artist). Likewise, Gustav Klimt’s Sitting Woman With Thighs Spread, Egon Scheile’s Women Embracing, and Leonard Tsugouharu Foujita’s The Two Friends can be read as sensitive and powerful reversals of the male as he is thrust outside of the frame and made redundant by the woman’s ability to give pleasure to other women and herself. Of course a traditionally-minded male spectator would enjoy Klimt’s young woman in an objectifying manner (as might a lesbian viewer – for we all objectify, at least to some extent, people to whom we are attracted), but the Scheile and Foujita deeply problematize the traditional gaze. If the Klimt were seen as a work akin to pornography, as some might argue – the Scheile and Foujita pose the women’s subjectivity in a way that works to compromise an objectifying gaze. Such is the power of reversibility and seduction on works such as these in art history. I think this is the kind of re-reading of male works in light of feminist practice and art historical analysis that Judy Chicago is desirous of in the quotation which opens this section.
Before moving on I should refer to another curious omission from the show – the work of Tamara Limpicka. Limpicka’s lesbian-erotic figures have long made a powerful challenge to traditional male dominated notions of eros. In any event, the works of Klimt, Scheile, and Foujita which do make it into the exhibition, work to deepen the problematization of the limited version of the modernist narrative beyond the earlier efforts of Rops and von Stuck—
16. Tamara Limpicka The Two Friends, 17. Tamara Limpicka Kizette, 1926 (Fine
1923, (Private Collection).
although they do not excuse the paucity of women artists in the overall exhibition. This of course brings us to the question: What is the place of women in the Eros exhibition?
IV. Women Artists in Eros in Modernism
While Eros in Modernism works to encourage alternative readings of modernism (including feminist perspectives), it fails to present a sufficient number of women artists. Among those included are Merit Oppenheim who appears twice: once as a subject of Man Ray’s Untitled photograph of 1930,
18. Valerie Export Still photograph 19. Robert Mapplethorpe Christopher Holly,
from the action: Genital Panic, 1981 (Gallery Thaddeus Ropac).
1969. (Besitz der Künsterin,
and a second time as an artist in her work Mona Lisa’s Eye of 1967. Stunningly absent however is Oppenheim’s delicious surrealist-lesbian icon, Object, Breakfast in Fur, which was so adored by Andre Breton.
20. Louise Bourgeois Fillette, Sweeter
Version, 1968/1999 (Gallery Karsten Greve)
21. Man Ray Erotique Violée, 22. Meret Oppenheim Object: Breakfast in
Centre, Paris). Fur, 1936 (MOMA,
Several works of Louise Bourgeois find their way into this exhibition as does a photograph of her by Mapplethorpe in which she is holding Fillette. There is also work on display from Valerie Export (above), Cindy Sherman, Marlene Dumas, Rosemarie Trockel, Rebecca Horn, and Pipilotti Rist.
We should recognize that some part of the explanation for the under representation of women artists rests with a lack of works to show. It was simply too risky for women artists of early modernism to represent eros in their work. It was the 1920s before two women occupy a table in a Parisian café without a male chaperone and not be considered prostitutes. Still, many great works of eros by women artists do not appear in this show. Along with the works of Lempicka and Oppenheim already mentioned, where is the work of Heward, Modersohn-Becker, Alison Watt, or Kay Sage to name a few (not to mention many contemporary women photographers)?
23. Marlene Dumas Porno Blues, 1993
In a show that does challenge the traditional masculinist narrative so well, and a show that includes the work of seven women artists, these works still represent only 6 percent of works in the show which are reproduced in the catalogue: (10 of 170 by my count), and just under 7 percent of artists whose works were included in the show (7 of 97 by my count). So how does Eros in Modernism challenge traditional views of eros in modern art?
V. Challenging the Traditional View of Eros
Despite the exclusion of several women artists who have dealt with eros in their work, I must also acknowledge the success of this exhibition in challenging the traditional modernist narrative in important ways. The works of Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney (above) play no small role in this challenge. Here is the male as object of the male gaze (at minimum) and the inclusion of the traditionally excluded gay face of modernism. Lucy Lippard has pointed out that it matters very much who is being represented by whom and then looked upon by whom. This has been one of the more significant contributions of feminist scholarship in which writers such as Lippard and Griselda Pollock have participated. Why then would we not include the traditional despised works of the male gaze such as Renoir, Rodin and van Dongen alongside those of Mapplethorpe, Hockney, Valerie Export and Louise Bourgeois? Indeed, the traditional works in the show allow us to see the diversity of modern art through the diversity of the gazes present in this show. Given the success of feminism and women artists in forcing a revision in art history, we can no longer make assumptions about the “way of seeing” of the person viewing an art work. If we cannot accept the Renoir or the Rodin on gendered grounds, then what are we to do with the Mapplethorpe or the Hockney? (assuming that the viewer is not Jessie Helms). The irony of inclusivity in the contemporary is that Renoir’s view or Rodin’s is not longer so easily despised as in 1970s or 1980s feminist criticism, but is reduced to being one of many views of eros. Renoir and Rodin’s understanding of eros, challenged as it is by Mapplethorpe or Export, is neither superior nor inferior than its challengers. Further, if Rodin’s Flying Figure is to be despised because it objectifies the female figure’s sexual organs, what are we to do with Louise Bourgeois Fillette (Sweeter Version)? The works of Renoir, Bourgeois, Rodin, van Dongen, Mapplethorpe, Klimt and Hockney are in this show because such diverse works should be in a show called Eros in Modernism. If we are to object to the van Dongen or the Klimt shown above, then what are we to do with Hockney’s Mo Nude? The strength of this show is that it is as diverse as it is and the dominant perspective is pushed to the margins where all perspectives rest in postmodern discourse.
Works such as
the Renoir or Rodin that a majority of feminists have understood to be sexist
may well be understood in a different manner by a lesbian subjectivity. The
next lesbian or bisexual viewer may have a reaction much more in line with that
of the majority of earlier feminist critics. Eros then goes some distance as a show that includes feminist
critique of art history and curatorial practice although it does need to show
more women artists. Eros, while
presenting the traditional narrative as just one narrative among many,
including sensitivity to gender and sexual diversity, challenges tradition by
showing it to be but one view. While doing this Eros asks some interesting questions which also challenge feminism
today in serious manner. To do this we also need to look at other works on
display: Richter’s Student, Bonnard’s
L’Eau de Cologne, Picabia’s Upright Nude Model, and
VI. Further Complexity
The feeling that I was to be subjected to a thoroughly traditional understanding of eros in modernism began to dissipate before I was half way through the show. To end my assessment of this exhibition I wish to look at four works which were on display, viewing them as a challenge to feminism to embrace the kind of diversity accomplished by the curators of this show.
24. Pierre Bonnard L’Eau de Cologne, 25. Francis Picabia Upright Nude Model,
Over the past two decades one of the strongest areas of growth for feminist approaches has been an embrace of sexual diversity. Someone interested in pursuing a gender or sex-based criticism of modern art is typically prepared to accept the work of gay and lesbian artists such as Mapplethorpe or Meret Oppenheim. I do not anticipate many feminists objecting to my criticism of Eros for its exclusion of Oppenheim’s work or my endorsement of the exhibition for including Foujita’s rendering of the female to female experience of eros. “But just how far are we expected to go” some feminists might ask “in embracing multiple narratives given the specific history of art in the west?”. According to this show, and I do not think it a bad thing, we must be prepared to go all the way. I found myself adopting a position in support of this show (after having seen it all), that would have surprised me after passing through only the first four rooms where my feminist sensitivities were aroused.
26. Gerhard Richter Student, 1967 27. Helmut Newton American Olbricht Collection.
The challenge to feminism, and it is one that 21st century feminism is well prepared to embrace, is for a show like Eros to appeal to multiple understandings and representations of Eros. The deep irony of this is that works that would have been unacceptable twenty-five years ago can now see the light of day in such exhibitions. If we are to embrace Mapplethorpe as bringing a certain equality of the image to Eros, how can we exclude Richter’s Student? Similarly the work of an artist from an earlier time such as Bonnard or Picabia may be seen as one more expression of eros. Finally, the Helmut Newton photograph extends the tradition of von Stuck to a place where the female may be presented as dominant in a contemporary context and be taken as just one more view of Eros. By the time I had reached Picabia’s upright model I had come to understand that something very different was happening at Eros: such a work could be appreciated simply as an expression of eros. What made my experience of the Picabia truly interesting was the presence of two young women standing in front of it who had been there when I entered this room. As I approached them one of the young women said “Isn’t she sexy?” The other young woman replied: “she’s perfect”. I hope everyone who had the privilege to be in the presence of all of these works (many of which are hidden away in private collections and rarely seen), had the same feeling in front of the Picabia, the Man Ray photograph of Oppenheim, the Hockney, the Mapplethorpes and so on. I also understand that given the particular histories which have shaped certain individual subjectivities—my view may not be shared.
For me, the Eros exhibition is wrapped in a series
of complex and evolving challenges in the art world at the present time. It is far from a perfect show as I have pointed out,
but it does contain both an affirming response to the challenge of feminist art
scholarship and at the same time, not surprisingly, returns a certain challenge
to feminism – one that this feminist accepts as fair although other feminist
critics may not. The effect of Eros for me is that
it makes an important contribution to the decentering of the traditional male
gaze in such a manner that this gaze is reduced to simply one more point of
view. Ironically this places us in a position where some of the most despised
works (by earlier feminist critics) of traditional male artists come to occupy
a new place of value alongside expressions of eros from formerly excluded
groups. To state this empirically by way of three examples from the show
itself, if we are to view Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of Christopher Holly (1981) as a non
offensive work, then we must look anew at Renoir’s Elongated Nude of 1902. Similarly, if we are to positively value
Louise Bourgeois Fillette (Sweeter
Version) or David Hockney’s Mo Nude
as exemplars of contemporary visions of eros, then we will have to look again
at Rodin’s Flying Figure (1891) and
Kees Van Dongen’s Nude Girl (1907) as
not the story of Eros in modernism, but as simply one story in the
multiple stories that shape eros in modern art. This is perhaps the greatest
achievement of the Eros in Modernism
All men and women have a gaze just as all of us have desire. I sincerely hope we can move quickly to a place where the multiplicity of eros may be better appreciated inside and outside of the exhibition halls of the art world. Eros in Modern Art, for all of its warts, can be read as having helped us to take one more step in that direction and it is here that it thoroughly seduces the traditional narrative.
an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image
Volume 4, July 2007, ISSN 1552-5112
Jones (Pilkington Chair Professor in the History of Art,
The Exhibition Eros In Der Kunst Der
Moderne took place at the Beyeler Foundation in (Riehendorf)
Barbara Ehrlich White, Renoir: His Life,
Art and Letters,
 Works excluded from an art exhibition can tell us as much about a show as the works selected for display. The works they attempt to protect us from can exact a terrible revenge on the curatorial profession.
Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art and Society,
 See also Peggy Phelan in “Feminism and Art, Nine views: A Panel Discussion, in Art Forum, October, 2003: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0268/is_2_42/ai_109023344
 Thirty years ago the audience might have expected less of curators as well.
Dietmar Eiger, Expressionism,
 It should of course be noted that it is not always possible for curators to obtain specific works for an exhibition for a variety of reasons, the least of which is sometimes curatorial preference.
Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art and Society,
Charles Hill, The Group of Seven: Art for A Nation,
 Judy Chicago, “Introduction” in Judy Chicago and Edward Lucie-Smith, Contested Territory: Women and Art, Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1999:14.
Adam Butler, et. al., The Art Book,
 Seduction and desire are among the underappreciated concepts of much of feminist discourse and important areas for new developments in this discourse in the coming years.
See also Jean Baudrillard. Passwords.
Judy Chicago and Edward Lucie-Smith, Women and Art: Contested Territory,
 Given the importance of Oppenheim’s input into this and other of Man Ray’s photographs of the time, I think it fair that we refer to this photograph as a joint work of Merit Oppenheim and Man Ray.
Herbert Lottman, Man Ray’s Montparnasse,
Nancy Heller, Women Artists: An
Manfred Heiting (Editor), Helmut Newton:
 Perhaps we are even ready to see an exhibition called Women and Eros in Modernism?