Marta had something to spill, you could tell that. She walked up to me fairly bursting. She lately has been doing lots of renovation on her fine two story log house. They love wood, all kinds. Inside and out, the contrasting grains of wall, old furniture and objects creates a frenzy of lemoned earthiness. Thought she wanted to tell me about her latest wood project.
I found a painting, Marta said. In my mother’s attic. It’s going in the bedroom; the finishing touch for the area after adding the new (woody) bath in there.
It is of a nude, she said. Stretched out, you know, in the “Titanic position” . And it is my MOTHER, in her twenties, no doubt about it. Nobody even knew it existed. We recently found it in her attic. Marta’s mom has been gone for a while now.
I was blown away. What a story. Jealous. Realized that better writers than I could take this gem of a little experience and run like a marathoner with it. It is a perfect notion around which one could build a classic read. German war bride comes to the US, later mother of twin girls, with an unknown history.
It could teach a lesson. Mothers are not just mothers. They are people. Children can be selfish enough not to want to know that. What a bind for a whole person, being a mother. Or perhaps the best ones are the best jugglers, until, you know, the old painting in the “Titanic position” shows up.
As an artist and teacher, I was equally thrilled about Marta’s story in the way she described her newly found painting.
Both of the images above are what we call “odalisque”. A reclining nude. And this is what Marta meant in her description of her mother. I was so interested in this. As a teacher of art history, and always collecting contemporary facts or events which highlight the old stuff I asked my students to learn, that iconic scene in the movie presented a teachable moment. “Titanic”, was a pop culture moment of the time for sure. Everybody had seen it, and knowing this, suddenly and for a short time, art history was contemporary pop culture. Loved that connection for my students.
Viewing the three above, you can see what the tradition of this kind of image is. Ingres, Manet, Gauguin: all created in this old art motif. Stretched out lady, on a bed, countered by something in the far corner, a maid servant, a curtain, a voo-doo figure. That is the compositional history.
The history of painting the image of a nude lady is far more complex. It simply wasn’t done for a while. Did the Greeks, Romans sculpt nude women? No. The nude male was the symbol of perfection, and that was used all the time. No unclothed women were done.
Always pushing the envelope, artists DID want to depict the female figure. How did they bully into this idea? They painted harlots, concubines, prostitutes. Women of low morals. You could not see a naked lady in those days without a moral judgement attached. Oh women have suffered so throughout history! This idea makes me almost nauseous: men have the sexual response, but we will blame it on the women.
The public was appalled when Manet painted his odalisque, the middle image above. It shocked all of Paris when shown in the salon of 1865 (it was finished in 1863). Think of this as our civil war time. A prostitute stares out at the viewer, showing no shame, and in her work venue as well. The john who just left sends flowers back with the maid. The public was shocked, but the breech had been crossed. That is how we move forward. The public and art critics of the time were equally shocked at the way the odalisque was rendered. The paint was flat and the planes of the body merged into description only as you moved away from the image, mounted on the wall. The critics were wrong about their “take” here as well.
Beware, beware if the old fogies of art like your work too much.
- An Australian Odalisque (stephanieburnsfineart.com)
- Naked Or Nude? Wesselmann’s Models Are A Little Bit Of Both (npr.org)