Returning the Gaze

By Margot MifflinJanuary 23, 2022

Returning the Gaze

Women in the Picture: What Culture Does with Female Bodies by Catherine McCormack

CORSETING, GIRDLING, FOOT-BINDING, liposuctioning, circumcising, Botoxing, bleaching, douching, vajazzling, plugging with jade eggs, burning at the stake, stoning in the square, sterilizing without consent — what doesn’t culture do with female bodies?

The subject could fill an encyclopedia; in Women in the Picture: What Culture Does with Female Bodies, historian Catherine McCormack narrows it down to women in art history and visual culture, from Old Masters to female artists, influencers, and celebrities. Identifying four historical tropes that have defined and constrained women in art and beyond (Venus, mothers, maidens and dead damsels, and monsters,) she brings insight and expertise to the subject. She writes,

Art history can help us see how everyday images of women are steeped in ideas about body shame, how Renaissance paintings can start conversations about rape culture, how pictures of the monster Medusa relate to white nationalism and supremacy, or how lifestyle blogs promote the same ideas of wifely virtue as Golden-Age Dutch paintings.

McCormack carries the mantle of feminist historian Linda Nochlin, whose game-changing 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” both documented institutional obstacles to women’s success as artists and questioned the patriarchal precepts of “greatness” itself. McCormack also runs with John Berger’s assertion, articulated in his classic 1972 book and BBC TV series, Ways of Seeing, that in the culture of images, “men act, women appear.” But she provides what Berger didn’t: women’s perspectives, both as models and artists, including — crucially — women of color.

McCormack argues that though Berger’s dictum lives on in academia, its footing is shakier in mainstream culture. Even as the biases he flagged continue to provoke public debate — from outrage over the display of Balthus’s depiction of an eroticized child in the painting Thérèse Dreaming at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017 to indignation over the Manchester Art Gallery’s lilywhite In Pursuit of Beauty exhibition — many “classic” images continue to be venerated and recycled without question, despite their questionable content. Like Berger, McCormack targets a general audience in hopes of highlighting the ways we’re conditioned to accept the unacceptable; to that end, her prose is lucid and persuasive.

Her strongest chapters, “Venus” and “Maidens and Dead Damsels,” dive deep into history, then resurface, pulling with them a tangle of contemporary analogues. Botticelli’s 1484–’86 The Birth of Venus, which features the “default Venus of art history,” she explains, is inspired by myth: the god Cronos sawed off his father’s testicles, then threw them to the sea where they shape-shifted into the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility who floated ashore on a seashell. And so “[t]he enduring Western symbol of feminine beauty and sexuality did not come from the body of a woman but the sex organ of a man” in a story that “erases the reproductive power of the female body.”

The pose of Botticelli’s Venus — with canted hip, adopted by beauty queens, drag performers, and Instagrammers — is standard for anyone “performing universally understood ideas of femininity,” writes McCormack. In Western art, when the figure covers her crotch with one hand, she’s called the “Venus pudica,” derived from the Latin “pudendus,” which means “shame.” (It’s also the anatomical term for the vulva, currently heading for retirement because of both its glaring sexism and its lack of medical specificity.) Sometimes the Venus reclines (as an odalisque), presenting herself for an implied male viewer or collector. McCormack’s concern isn’t that the trope is sexual, but rather that this single, reductive, male-driven vision of women’s sexuality has become so universal, leaving “actual female desire without a language,” and excluding women of color.

Even the exception proves the rule: the “black Venus” depicted in Thomas Stothard’s 1801 The Voyage of the Sable Venus, which recasts Botticelli’s Venus as a slave being shipped to the West Indies, is a colonialist rape fantasy: her naked body, sanitized through the painting’s classical presentation and subordinated to an established white supremacist ideal, is ripe for plunder. (And her journey is portrayed as willing and liberatory — a balm for any slaver prone to pangs of conscience.)

Linking the black Venus to Saartjie Baartman, the South African woman dubbed “The Hottentot Venus,” who was exhibited in Europe in the early 19th century as an anthropological specimen because of her large buttocks (seen as a symptom of “deviance and hyper-sexuality”), McCormack traces other racialized — and racist — adaptions of The Birth of Venus through history, from Paul Gauguin’s exoticized Oceanic women to Kim Kardashian’s notorious Paper magazine cover, in which she holds a champagne bottle as it ejaculates over her head and into a glass balanced on her protruding rear. “The image crudely adopts a racist stereotype of black female sexuality within the relatively safe conduit of a light-skinned woman, to create a whitewashed black Venus in disguise,” she writes. (The concept was not Kardashian’s, but rather that of misogynoir photographer Jean-Paul Goude — a restaging of a photo in his 1982 book called — wait for it — Jungle Fever.)

But McCormack also celebrates modern women who have upended the various Venus tropes, from Hannah Wilke, whose 1992–’93 Intra-Venus photo series documents her body being ravaged by lymphoma, to Beyoncé (ever “the architect of her own image”) posting staged photos of her rounded pregnant body (shot by Ethiopian American artist Awol Erizku) and “placing herself directly into a canon that excluded African beauty in the highly cultured terms that the Venus archetype represents.” (Poet Warsan Shire calls her “The Black Venus” in her accompanying poem.) McCormack writes,

Her body emerges from a bouquet of plants, arriving not from the cold, motherless water, like the Botticelli Venus, but flowering from the earth, bringing the conspicuously absent notions of fertility and bloom into Venus’s body. And rather than coyly covering her groin in apprehension of being exposed, Beyoncé presents us proudly with her burgeoning belly.

Like the Venus, the maiden appears in historical artworks for the delectation of men,
either “being abducted and raped by libidinous gods” (as in Titian’s The Rape of Europa) or dying from tragic love or aesthetically rendered suicide. This archetype casts female suffering as “noble and beautiful,” or worse, normalizes violence against women “by turning it into poetry, religious devotion or beauty.” Today, the ravished maiden appears on Greek and Italian coins and euro banknotes, on government buildings, in public sculptures, and on tote bags. And yes, these assaults can be read as metaphors for acts of expanding empire or building civilizations, but they also assert, writes McCormack, that “a young woman’s submission to the violent lust of a more powerful man [is] a symbol of cooperation, political harmony, of mutual interests.” More to the point, she wonders, why should women’s bodies be used to symbolize the brute forces of history at all, especially when women’s own sexual pleasure and appetites are so rarely depicted in the history of art?

Like the problem of what to do with Confederate monuments, McCormick questions how to handle famous artworks glorifying rape or abduction and asks us to ponder exactly who these images are for and what they presume. Is Europa in distress or “erotic abandon”? Does “no” mean “yes” “when it’s Zeus, king of the cosmos?” Is Harvey Weinstein a modern-day Zeus? (For a bracing antidote to Europa, see Elisabetta Sirani’s rape revenge painting of 1659, Timoclea Kills the Captain of Alexander the Great.) From here, she jumps to the ’70s to show how feminist artists have reclaimed and reworked the topic of rape, realistically. In Faith Ringgold’s 1972 Slave Rape paintings, for example, frightened women retreat from the implicated viewer into the underbrush, and Suzanne Lacy’s performance piece Three Weeks in May (1977) addressed an outbreak of sex crimes for which Los Angeles was named the “rape capital of the USA.”

But here’s where McCormack falters. While her analysis of historical painting and sculpture is whip smart and probing, her modern corollaries are oddly random. If the subject is violence against women, why not include Ana Mendieta’s soul-searing photo series Rape Scene (1973), showing her bloodied bare haunches from behind, her shirt-clad torso slumped over a harshly lit table? Or Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece, in which the audience, given scissors and permission, undressed her, snip by snip, in a dainty assault on her person that left her covering her breast, Venus-like, with one hand? Or Marina Abramović’s 1974 Rhythm 0 performance, in which her audience, invited to transgress as they wished, kissed, cut, and nearly killed her?

The chapter “Venus” overlooks the French artist Orlan, who set out to “disrupt the standards of beauty,” in works like Incidental Striptease (1974–’75) where she posed as Botticelli’s Venus — draped in semen-stained sheets, and who, in the 1990s, had her face cosmetically reconstructed to resemble the features of famous women in art, including François Boucher’s The Rape of Europa. In fact, her work appeared in a 2016 exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Botticelli Reimagined, devoted entirely to the Renaissance artist’s influence on contemporary art and pop culture, spanning film, fiction, visual art, and comics. McCormack can’t be faulted for missing every last modern adaptation of her four historical paradigms, but she can be for neglecting so many major ones.

Because of its reliance on binaries (male/female, black/white), Women in the Picture also falls short in mapping Berger’s “ways of seeing” across a broader gender spectrum. What about trans and nonbinary artists’ remixes of her archetypes? The self-portraits of South African artist Zanele Muholi in their photo series Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness, for example, subvert Eurocentric conventions of classical nudes and defy colonialist visions of the black female body. Kehinde Wiley’s gorgeous Tahiti paintings honor members of Tahiti’s Māhū (third gender) community in a riposte to Gauguin and what Wiley calls “an entire history of complicated gazing.”

These associations multiplied in my mind for days after I closed Women in the Picture. It was hard to say whether the book was deficient for neglecting to follow all the vectors its themes suggest, or shrewd for identifying the foundational tropes that enable readers to do this for themselves. McCormack’s discussion of Beyoncé as a Venus reclaiming black beauty from the history of white supremacy in Western art, for example, led me straight to Nikki Minaj, who rejects respectable white beauty standards through what critic Jillian Hernandez calls “the aesthetics of excess.” Hernandez writes, “As subjects seen through a racialized, classed, and genderless lens of abjection, Black and Latina women and girls, through the aesthetics of excess, make ornamental and artistic the experiences of being seen as ugly in relation to white femininity.”

It’s certainly true, as McCormack claims, that we still have a long way to go in challenging gender bias in visual culture, but if she revealed more of the many ways this is already happening, the path forward might be clearer. In 2011, for example, the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli put Minaj in direct conversation with artists like Boucher by posing her as famous 18th-century courtesans for a photo spread in W magazine. In one panel, an artist’s palette rests against a toppled classical bust of a female figure lying at Minaj’s feet, confirming her triumph over centuries of hegemonic white beauty and class privilege. Neither muse nor mother nor mistress, Minaj poses regally, her hand on a harp, exalted as a musician whose canonical status is secure.

In the end, my frustration with these oversights won out, not least because I would have enjoyed seeing where McCormack, an astute critic, would go if her book hadn’t topped out at 223 pages. Her analysis of figures like the Medusa (in her “Monsters” chapter) and her reexamination of Berthe Morisot (in “Mothers”) are original and engaging. “[B]eyond the pastel façades and gauzy renderings of fabric and atmosphere,” she writes, “there is nothing about Morisot’s work that I don’t find troubling and quietly unsettling.” That includes the cramped psychological boundaries of her settings, the sense of dislocation she conveys, and her rendering of the “ennui of middle-class motherhood, with its heavy dresses and empty days,” all evidence, McCormack concludes, of her radical existentialism. Fortunately, these illuminating historical passages outweigh the spottier contemporary ones, making Women in the Picture an invigorating read — even if it leaves too many women out of the picture.


Margot Mifflin is a professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York and at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She’s the author of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood (Counterpoint Press).

LARB Contributor

Margot Mifflin is a professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York and at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. She’s the author of Looking for Miss America: A Pageant’s 100-Year Quest to Define Womanhood (Counterpoint Press).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!