The nude strikes back

John Bayley

  • Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form by Marina Warner
    Weidenfeld, 417 pp, £16.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 297 78408 0

The psychologist John Layard – ‘Loony Layard’, as he is affectionately termed in one of Auden’s early poems – is said to have told a submarine officer that he had grown a beard as a masculine protest against the mechanical womb he inhabited. And in Portrait of the Artist a young man informs his friend that he admires, the Venus de Milo because her broad hips show she would be good at bearing his children. To maintain the Silent Service’s reputation for courtesy the officer no doubt merely reminded his mentor of the limited facilities for shaving in submarines: but James Joyce’s young man resents his friend’s analysis and calls him a sulphur-yellow liar.

We do resent, it seems, having our erotic or quasi-erotic motives explained to us; perhaps not so much because we all feel the explanation to be false, though that comes into it, but because explanation itself is apt to be deflationary in this context, rather than stimulating. In undertaking to explain why we respond as we do to the female form in art, Marina Warner puts herself in a slightly absurd position, from which, however, both her scholarship and her sense of humour enable her to emerge triumphantly. She can at times sound a bit glib and didactic, quoting from Adrian Stokes and Hélène Cixous, and endorsing the concept of What it Means to be a Whole Person: ‘Surrounded as we are by the contemporary record of damage to the bodies that are the vessels of human life, Stokes’s credo that the integrity of the body assumes the integrity of the spirit stands as an urgent prayer for life against death, for wholeness against disintegration.’

Well yes, but integration is not exactly the friend of sex, or of the sexually symbolic in art: our old friend equivocation is a more helpful companion here, and the paradox of the sexes’ divided response to the female form in allegory is faced by Marina Warner but not fully overcome: she has to seek refuge now and again in a tone less suited to the expert iconographer than to the enlightened schoolmistress. ‘The many women who are wounded by the continual public use of women’s bodies today diagnose correctly that women are thereby reduced to objects of desire.’ But: ‘To condemn altogether the applied erotic power of the female body entails denying an aspect of the human condition; the task we have to take up, as women who inhabit these centres of energy and as men who respond to their charge, is how to tap it and make it fructify.’ So that’s the task, as you glance at page three of the Sun: fructification rather than reification. Marina Warner’s style is not at its best in such contexts, as if she felt she had to make the proper noises but lacked conviction. Her use of that fatal convenience-word ‘reify’ (ask the kulaks who reifies more than the Marxists do) may leave her temporarily stranded in the land of jargon and dogma, but at the next moment she is back in the true world of art, and expounding with wonderful vigour and insight the symbolism of the slipped chiton, the sieve of Tuccia, or the patrilineal goddess Athena, whose breast wears the aegis of the Gorgon’s head, that dread representation, for Freud, of the maternal genitals.

The figure of Athena was less a symbol of integration than a masterly alliance of opposites, an allegorical consortium for the prestige and benefit of the Athenian state. Phidias’s chryselephantine masterpiece, 12 metres tall, must have loomed with awe-inspiring magnificence in the dark cella of the Parthenon. Equally superb in a French 19th-century polychrome reconstruction on the cover of Marina Warner’s book, she must have provoked fewer lewd thoughts even than the Statue of Liberty. Although the Medusa head, bleeding, hairy, snake-encompassed, may have stood for the mother’s vagina, the goddess herself had sprung fully-armed from Jove’s head, and is thus ‘no crude statement of patriarchy, but a luminous and sophisticated symbol, its constituent parts beautifully counterpoised to embody the principles of civilised society as understood by the Athenians.’ Or by today’s Thatcher-led Conservatives. By the law of Pericles, an Athenian citizen gained that status through an Athenian mother, not through his father. Women are outside society, deriving their status from males, as Athena from Jove, but males derive theirs from the women who are their mothers. A masculinised but female figure, fathered but not mothered, Athena represents the contrary themes in Athenian identity: derived from a woman’s body, while its instruments and controlling agents are men.

Convenient, like all symbolism, but, like the statue itself, hardly conducive to happy human feelings. A contrast between head and breast is none the less significant. The perennial hopefulness with which the male looks at page-three girls derives not so much from the ‘reification’ of the bosom as from the potential and piquant contrast – well known to a higher art – between a friendly face and the goods it is offering. The feminine self-gift – ‘That I might there present it ... O, to whom?’ – has its basic charm in the relation between the giver and the given: the unique, personal and potentially lovable self, which is offering its necessarily separated and impersonal sexual gift. Both in art and on page three, self and body are, in the usual terms of successful effect, not only separate but able to set up, for that reason, an effective diversity of emotional and sexual response.

Such separation is also the source of humour, as vital to allegorical mythology as to pin-ups, pictures and daily life. Even Athena suffered jokes at her expense, as when Ares egged Vulcan to have a go at her. She resisted the lame god indignantly, and with her sacred ball of wool wiped off his seed, which had splashed her thigh, and flung it to the ground. It sprouted, but Gaia the earth rejected it, whereupon Athena herself took pity and reared it in her aegis: even if lacking in sexual response she was not devoid of motherly feelings.

Not that ‘integration’ – if we have to call it that – does not occur in high art’s allegorisation of the female form, but it does so against a background, not only of the humour and pathos of ‘the human condition’, but of other more incongruous and more inconsequent factors, which seem to intermingle our own reflexes with the live consciousness of the subject. As Marina Warner observes, in Rembrandt’s painting of Bathsheba his mistress-model, Hendrikje, has a kind of inner and dreamy sexual tenderness as her maid dries her foot after her bath, ‘which admits us to the secret places of her moods through the sight of her adorable body’. The intermingling of sexual response with a ‘story’, or an iconographical perspective, seems to me a goal of all such successful art, from the 12-metre Athena to Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove: although in the case of Athena, as in that of the Statue of Liberty, the response may be suggested in reverse, through the comedy of its own implausibility.

In advertising, the female form equates desire with the desirability of the product, and ideally both sexes can play – acquisitiveness reinforcing desire for the one, and for the other putting their own desirability in a wider and more fashionable context. This can be depressing, and rightly annoys feminists, but arguably there is more mutuality about it than in some more august iconographical commonplaces, such as Truth pursued by Time, which for the male viewer is an excuse for a near-rape scene, and for the female may be the occasion for a painfully sympathetic identification with the feelings of the victim. Neither is inclined to applaud ‘the painter’s zeal in representing time’s persistent and vigorous pursuit’, and this suggests that female-form allegory often functions by being counter-productive, and making one thing an excuse for another. This can occur in ambiguous and sophisticated ways, as in The Faerie Queene, or in very obvious ones, like the Victorian paintings of Andromeda, which Marina Warner does not mention. In the most striking of these, by Sir Edward Poynter, the appearance of an eye and tongue created by the vortex movement of the girl’s cloak swirled in the sea wind suggest that the painter and his male viewers are united with Perseus and the sea-monster to form a single voyeur. But Rembrandt’s Bathsheba is quite another matter. Not only does she seem smilingly lost in her own day-dreams of power and pleasure, as if she saw King David’s visage in her mind, but is also herself a real and realistic person – a model – who might have been thinking about Rembrandt, as he about her.

Allegory, story and ‘truth’, superimposed on the same plane, occur in the same fashion in Vermeer’s incomparable Art of Painting, where the model with her softly painstaking face and slight smile (which may in fact have been accidentally added by the painter de Hooch) seems to stand for the gentle laboriousness of being a female allegorical subject, while the artist with his broad flamboyant back to us has both the concentration and the pathos of the male artificer and organiser. Courbet brought allegory and reality into the same relation in his Atelier, in the Louvre, and Manet in the Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, as did the American Thomas Eakins in his painting of William Rush carving the Schuylkill River. The point in all these paintings is to distract the viewer from the conditioned simplicity of sexual allegory, itself resembling that of sexual response, so that we feel an equal participation with the sexes as well as with the separate planes of art and life. In her notes Marina Warner records a debt of gratitude to Susannah Clapp for pointing out to her that the Autumn of Keats’s ode – ‘close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’ – could be either a male or a female personification. The Latin god Autumnus was male, but there seems no doubt Keats had a lady in mind. None the less the perfect balance of the poem does seem to depend on a kind of neutral stasis of the sexual and sensual elements within it. Worth remembering, though, that Keats’s feelings and raptnesses were usually far from integrated. He identifies ardently but quite separately with the ‘mad pursuit’ and the ‘struggles to escape’ on the Grecian Urn, with Madeleine’s day-dream chastity and with her lover’s scheme to view her in bed and to seduce her.

He also pointed out that we hate art which has ‘a palpable design upon us’. All allegory is vulnerable here, and none so vulnerable as that involving the female form. Superbly executed as it is, there is something merely irritating about Gregor Erhart’s carved and polychrome Vanitas, which warns us against the sensual pleasures of this world by a triangular arrangement of figures back to back: a slim and beautiful girl, an equally attractive young man, and an old hag with withered shanks and breasts. Not only is the moral too palpable, and insulting to the Three Graces whose subtle and happy pose it crudely parodies, but it is mendacious as well, for there is no naked and repulsive old man to show that male charms go the same way as female ones. Moreover such allegory can combine two bad things about palpable design: pointing out a pompous moral and at the same time covertly catering to the lust in the eye of the male chauvinist viewer. These are indeed the wrong sort of gaps and separations, and one sympathises with Marina Warner’s disapproval of the kind of iconography which ‘in seeking to match image to figure of speech, should pay so little regard to the personal or social implications of the scene, so that a painter like Rubens in The Triumph of Truth, who had painted so many magnificent pleas in the cause of peace and mutual tenderness, should treat rape and the discovery of truth as interchangeable.’

Very true: though iconographers, with their acceptance of historical conditioning, don’t usually admit it, sticking instead to a purely historical scholarship. But the disingenuousness of this kind of allegorical art can take many forms. Where a painting endorses her own view of civilised sexual values, as with William Rush carving the Schuylkill River, Marina Warner does not object to the palpable design: ‘This delicately handled and deeply serious picture resumes many of the themes of this book, for it places the female body at the heart of an argument about art and art’s capacity to turn our minds to the contemplation of our potential as human beings.’ ‘Deeply serious’ is seldom a very reassuring recommendation. Titian’s wonderful The Flaying of Marsyas is certainly a deeply serious picture, but one would hardly bother to call attention to the fact. Deeply serious, though, is what the painter Thomas Eakins is all too evidently trying to be, and though his picture has undoubted charm as genre, and in the history of manners, it is in itself undoubtedly very slight. The figure for the river is an engagingly awkward nude girl, thin rather than slender, with a chaperone – perhaps an aunt or even mother – knitting placidly beside her, and with her clothes – red-lined jacket, white petticoat and blue stockings – laid over the back of the other chair. William Rush chips industriously in the background. In interesting contrast to the Vermeer or the Courbet, which also showed the facts of the studio as well as the allegory under construction, this painting draws very self-conscious attention to the ‘naturalness’ of the whole business, and in so doing re-ignites the whole cycle of voyeurism and desire. Eakins was trying to persuade the good bourgeois of Philadelphia that to pose naked was a perfectly decent and natural thing, which any of their sons and daughters interested in art might engage in without reproach. (In consequence, the poor man later lost his job as an art teacher.) But as so often happens in this context, the iconography of the painting takes on its own life. Neither of the other persons in the picture is taking any interest in the nude as nude, and this – and her clothes too – sharpens the focus of the spectator’s gaze. About contemporary with this picture, I should imagine, is Millais’s Knight Errant in the Tate Gallery, in which an opulent but somehow motherly lady, comfortably attached to a tree, is on the point of being freed by a knight in armour, with an expression as interested but also as innocent as that of a young man in Keats. The lady’s clothes are strewed at her feet, with the implication that she has not removed them herself, at least not voluntarily. But this potenially gloating concept is dissipated both into amusement and romance by the contrast between her all-too-contemporary person and that of the knight from fairyland. The damsel in distress here humanises both her own allegory and the voyeur’s instinct, while the humane Eakins accidentally added, from the best of motives, a new twist to an old sexual tale.

Marina Warner is wonderfully spirited on the theme of what might be called ‘the nude strikes back.’ In her chapter on ‘The Sword of Justice’ she devotes several pages to the poly-allegorical story of Judith and Holofernes, and in particular to the version in the Uffizi by the early 17th-century female painter Artemisia Gentileschi. She claimed to have been raped by a young painter her father hired to teach her perspective, and she lived in a milieu in which – as in most bohemian circles – young men were accustomed to behave abominably. She certainly got her own back in a striking tableau in which a struggling Holofernes is held down by Judith and her maid, while the former saws at his neck with an expression, as Marina Warner says, ‘at once repelled and concentrated’. Painterly mythology differs on what steps Judith took to get the general in a receptive frame of mind. Sometimes, as in Conrad Meit’s small alabaster sculpture, she is naked and mildly regretful, giving the severed head a pat; sometimes she bears it off, looking as starched and contained as a district nurse in uniform. These variations correspond to what allegory seeks to make of the story: whether it is a warning against luxuria, justice consummated by a chaste woman, or, as it became for the symbolists – Wilde, Klimt and Olga Wlassics – an inscrutable sado-masochistic transaction. Male desire manages, in its usual comical fashion, to get what it can out of what seems a rather unpromising situation. Marina Warner might have quoted John Crowe Ransom’s poem ‘Judith of Bethulia’, in which Holofernes failed ‘to brush her with even so much as a daisy’, and the young men, after she returns in triumph, are both chilled by her exploit and turned on by it. It seems psychologically important to every version that Judith, who is a virtuous widow, should remain sexually virtuous for ever after such a deed. But later versions of the Armed Maiden, in comic strips and star-wars stories, are less high-minded, being prepared to doff their breastplates, jockstraps and chiton or chitin-like carapaces to oblige a handsome fellow warlord or armour-plated youth. But even in such fantasies, as Marina Warner remarks, ‘good girls far outnumber bad girls.’ Is that so much a matter for regret?

Space is insufficient to do justice to the themes explored and the questions raised in this wholly fascinating book. Marina Warner is not only a superb scholar and analyst of iconography, but a humane and humorous writer who knows that all allegory, no matter how aimed, loaded and slanted, by activists of every hue, can still break through into art’s realm of play, pleasure and speculation, and increase the gaiety of nations.