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Why aren’t more women artists gazing at men?

28 April 2022

From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

In the opening room of ‘Fashioning Masculinities’ at the V&A, the god Apollo is joined by Hercules, Hermes and archetypes of loveliness, ancient and modern. Strolling past velvety male nudes, shot with the perfecting haziness of a lover’s eye by the likes of George Platt Lynes or Isaac Julien, I experienced a revelation. The male objects of desire that accompanied my teenage daydreams and student reveries had all been framed as such by men. The transition from school to university in the early 1990s had been charted in a shift from the films of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory to those of Derek Jarman. Men framed by women’s desire were not often visible during my formative years.

Rounding the corner in the V&A, I was brought up short by a boy staring intently towards me as his leather-clad fingers curled around the swelling hilt of his sword. Prince Alessandro Farnese – grandson of Charles V of Spain – 15 or 16 at the time of his portrait in 1560, earned his place in ‘Fashioning Masculinities’ thanks to an extravagant gold and silver cape, pearl trimmed and ermine lined. A prince in pearls in that jewelled age is nothing remarkable. Far more so is the dynamic that plays out between artist and sitter within the painting. For here it was, from the hand of Sofonisba Anguissola: a male object of desire presented by a woman.

Painted when Sofonisba was in her mid twenties the portrait suggests, in however contrived a manner, that we are party to a flirtation. A young man, at a potent, transformative moment of adolescence, holds the artist’s eye as he tugs at the cuff of his glove. Beyond the central expanse of that patterned cloak our attention is directed to two spheres of activity. Above: the beardless face, with its intent gaze. Below: the suggestive arena of the jutting sword, and the tight rub of skin on leather as his exposed knuckles grip the fingers of a second glove, left limply dangling. 

Our museums are full of men revealed for the pleasure of other men: dying slaves, Saint Sebastian in the ecstasy of martyrdom, Hercules swinging his outsized club, even a few sultry saviours. There is no great tradition of male nudes by women artists because, until quite recently, women lacked access to the life drawing room at the academy. Even if they had a studio, a naked man within it would have been scandalous. 

Sofonisba Anguissola portrait painting

Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese (c. 1560), Sofonisba Anguissola. National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Desire, of course, does not have to be naked. Where are the inheritors of Sofonisba’s appraising eye? Not much in evidence, though they must have existed. Female sexual urges have historically provoked alarm: an uncontrollable force that estranged ruined daughters, caused wives to stray, made fools of men and filled their nests with bastards. In art, womanly lust has been an attribute of witches and a prelude to moral catastrophe.

Disapproval and censure do not eradicate cravings: they just make them hard to see. The lack of pictorial evidence for female desire is no reason to imagine it did not exist. Might we share a fantasy of our own, that certain women artists kept portfolios for their own pleasure, as Turner and Duncan Grant did? Artists follow their eyes, no matter the fashions or prejudices of their time.

Thanks to Laura Mulvey’s writing in the early 1970s, we have tended to associate scopophilia – the pleasure of looking at a body – with the male gaze. In subsequent discussion of the female body in art – rendered mute, submissive, compliantly exposed, available, and objectified by the male gaze – desire did not come off well. The concern that bodies submitted to the desiring gaze are reduced to objects has thus complicated any exploration (let alone celebration) of female pleasure in looking.

Some very smart (and indeed sexy) paintings appeared as a corrective to the male gaze in the same period as Mulvey’s famous essay. Alexis Hunter’s Object series (1974) follows a shirtless man in leather trousers as he stands aligned with phallic symbols: the bonnet of a car, a cigarette, elongated cowboy boots, the New York skyline. Sylvia Sleigh’s all male Turkish Bath (1973) and her many nudes of Paul Rosano play with art historical conventions of the sensual, supine female model submitting to the scrutiny of the male artist.

Behold Man! (2013), Frances Stark installed in the exhibition ‘A Century of the Artist’s Studio’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, in 2022

While both Hunter and Sleigh engaged critically with the pleasure of looking, in retrospect it’s hard not to feel both likewise indulged in it. The crucial distinction between the revealed female body and its male counterpart, art historically, is not nudity per se, but the asymmetry of power that it represents. The pleasure of looking is not itself at issue. In unpacking that power dynamic, there can and should be space to explore women’s desire in art. 

In Behold Man! (2013, on display in ‘A Century of the Artist’s Studio’ at Whitechapel Gallery) Frances Stark inserts herself slyly into this conversation. Behold man – Ecce Homo – traditionally indicates an image of Christ stripped and bound. The artist paints herself reclining on her studio sofa, while in the mirror above we see her male studio assistant holding up Sleigh’s Double Image, Paul Rosano (1974). The references play in many directions – from the role of pleasure in composing devotional images, to the artist controlling the space around her from a supine position. At the centre of everything, though, is desire: Stark gazing at the painting of Rosano, sucking at the tip of her pen with undisguised pleasure. 

From the May 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.