John Berger
Ways of Seeing at 50

"Men act while women appear" 

Berger tackles the position of women in society and how this was reflected in so-called high art paintings. They depict women's naked bodies but do not celebrate the beauty of the human body. He heavily criticises Renaissance male painters for their eroticisation and objectification of women. 

 

The nude woman in many paintings is there to feed the appetite of male sexual desire. Artists assumed that women do not have desires of their own; they exist to be looked at, posed so that their bodies are here only to be consumed.

 

Berger wrote there was hypocrisy in this: 'You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her … put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting 'Vanity'. Thus morally condemning the woman's nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.

 

Berger argued that the nude has always exemplified a woman's vision as passive possession; his analysis spared only those artists who, like Rembrandt, preferred the naked to the nude and painted pictures of individual, assertive women.

 

Berger claims that men are represented as active, whereas women are primarily concerned with self-presentation. He simplifies this by writing that "men act while women appear." This is especially noticeable in European oil paintings, which often depict nude female figures. While men do the looking, women watch themselves being looked at.

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Nude Girl on a Panther Skin. Felix Truat, 1844

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Nell Gwynn, Peter Lely, 1668.

Charles II had this portrait of his mistress and mother of two of his children, Nell Gwyn as Venus, by Peter Lely,  hung behind a landscape, which he swung back to allow favoured guests to peer. 

In the painting, the woman is showing submissiveness to the owner. However, she also wants to display herself for the enjoyment of men. 

Even though some artists tried to resist this tradition, they couldn’t overcome the cultural tradition of female objectification that has continued to the present. These artists failed to create a different view in culture because of the media and how the perception wouldn’t change in the eyes of men.

Rubens tried to resist this trend. In his portrait of his second wife, the painting named Helene Fourment in a Fur Coat, he attempted to portray the same message with a different image.

 

The image is of women with no clothing other than a fur coat looking shameful. The middle-aged looking woman in the painting is wearing an oversized brown fur coat. The difference between a regular “nude” painting and this one is the coat is covering her vaginal areas. Berger argues this image is not appealing to the mans’ eye because she looks shameful and doesn’t want to be displayed as an object. As a result, it wasn’t as popular as real nude photos/pictures with men

Berger illustrates his argument with an image of  Nude Girl on a Panther Skin by Truat. A nude woman reclinines as a man gazes at her through a window. Her body is angled away from the man. The woman looks at the viewer. The presence of the woman is different to that of the man. The man has sexual, economic or moral power, whereas the woman is powerless. She is passive and looked at.

 

The person behind the painting is painting a vain woman; she is posed to expose her genitalia to the viewer. The woman is placed as available and attempting to please the viewer - primarily men. The man looking at her is paid no attention; she's there to satisfy the viewer's needs. Women are simple objects to be looked at and decorated for men's pleasure. Even though paintings like these are hundreds of years old, the same idea is prevalent in today's advertising and online sites.

According to the Roman myth, The Judgement of Paris awards an apple to the woman he finds  most beautiful. .  Beauty becomes competitive it is a beauty contest in which women are judged by men and treated as possessions for the male desire.

In Cranach's painting,  Paris, is in a contemporary suit of armour, as he deliberates over the most beautiful of three goddesses: Minerva, Venus, and Juno. While Mercury stands nearby holding the coveted prize—a golden apple (here transformed into a glass orb)—Cupid in the top left corner aims his arrow at Venus, signalling Paris’s decision in favour of the goddess of love.

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Helene Fourment in a Fur Coat, Rubens, 1636

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Susanna and the Elders, Tintoretto, 1555-56

A popular subject for Renaissance painting.  Susanna is washing while a elderly man is spotted in the top right corner peering at her. For a different perspective from a woman's viewpoint go to the link Artemesia Gentileschi

Judgement of Paris, Cranach, 1528