At Tate Liverpool

Peter Campbell

The faces and bodies of the women a painter invents are objects of libidinal desire. Greuze’s indelibly stupid, infatuated girls, their eyes rolled upwards in tear-stained sentiment; Burne-Jones’s slightly anaemic young women, well-built but sorely in need of someone to tell them to stand up straight; Fuseli’s athletic dominatrixes and witchy fairies; Rubens’s images of round-cheeked, half-smiling normality; even Millet’s solid-limbed and blunt-faced peasant girls: it’s hard not to read them as embodiments of desire (women don’t seem to invent men in that way). When men paint portraits of women the facts of a face dilute the archetype. Gustav Klimt created an eloquently sinister, predatory Judith/Salome type. Her jaw is rather square, her thin mouth is a little open, her lips drawn back showing white teeth – the faces of mummies shrink into similar smiles and grimaces. Her eyelids may droop heavily or be closed. She, and her less explicitly characterised sisters, are mostly skinny, but wide-hipped. When they are naked they are often standing in frontal poses in which pubic hair is strongly accented.

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