The female gaze on the male nude in art: the missing piece

Why is the female gaze on the male nude completely absent in art museums? It has been more than thirty years since the Guerilla Girls made the statement “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” but it seems like gender equality in museums is still a long way off.

Male nudes through the female gaze

I remember the comment of a male gallery owner on my final exam while he was looking at my photos of naked men. My female gaze on the male nude was too ‘soft’. The only picture he liked was that of a man who bends over in the grass, his butt raised high towards the eyes of the viewer. His remark remembered me of the comment of my dear friend, a children’s book authoress who was thrilled that her book was finally not labelled as ‘feminine’ but simply appreciated for its quality.

It shows that the male gaze is still leading in the art world and the female gaze takes it in the shorts. Despite the remark of the gallery owner I had a blast that weekend when I saw the reactions of the visitors to the exhibition. Some walked on very quickly with colour on their cheeks, others kept looking and commented that they realised they had never seen naked men in this way.

Naked men are controversial

In the last couple of years, there were a few Dutch museums that exhibited the nude in which the male nude was conspicuous in its absence. There was also an international show that I like to mention in particular: Masculin/Masculin, in Musée d’Orsay in 2013. By journalists called “a controversial exhibition”. A show with more than 200 male nudes, inspired by the exhibition staged by Vienna’s Leopold Museum in 2012.

Juicy detail: the Leopold Museum covered all the intimate parts of the naked soccer players on the exhibition posters put up in the Austrian capital after they caused an outcry. The so-called ‘controversial’ photograph by French artists Pierre & Gilles “Vive La France” shows three men wearing nothing but blue, white and red socks and soccer boots. Naked men are apparently indecent. Another important detail: almost all the nudes in the Masculin/masculin exhibition were made by men.

Leopold Museum Nude MenLeopold Museum Nude Men Outsided

Leopold Museum: exhibition on the male nude

Male lust is universal, the female gaze personal

Fast forward two years later. I decided to email a gallery owner in Amsterdam, because in his portfolio I happened to come across a male artist who has a very large archive of photos of women he photographed naked out of sheer lust. In my view, it was not illogical to ask if he was interested in a conversation with a woman who depicts the male nude. I sent my portfolio.

Two weeks later I got an answer. About my work “he doesn’t have much to say”. He doesn’t like it much and he feels like it is quite personal and has nothing universal. I have been staring at that email for a long time. Apparently male lust is universal and my respectful broad female gaze on the male nude is too personal.

Female gaze on the male nude: he naked, she captures it

So a few weeks ago I started a project in which I sent a poster with a male nude on it made by a female artist (me) to 35 museums in the Netherlands. Titled ‘Hij naakt. Zij maakt’, which means ‘he naked, she captures it’. The reactions were very sympathetic, although few museums dared to put the poster up. Except for the Bonnefanten Museum and Cobra Museum (later this year).

However, there were also some remarkable things. Some museums claimed that they do have a lot of male nudes in their collection (which was either not the case or all of the nudes were made by male artists). Others thought that a gay or transsexual man could also be included in the female gaze (or at least not the male gaze) while others claimed that there are just few female artists depicting the male nude (or in other words, it is not possible to show the female gaze on the male nude)

Then I heard that one of the buyers of my poster wanted to put my male nude up in her studio, but was stopped by the landlord who said it could be offensive to people. Not even my best friends dared to put the poster in their window. Later a friend said to me that this makes sense, because was I going to pay for their smashed windows? Ok good point. But still, why would anyone break into a window when you see a male nude?

Hij naakt. Zij maaktBibi Joan in front of Amsterdam Museum

Bibi Joan: he naked, she captures it, when can we look?

Turning men into nude models

A week later I stumbled upon an interesting book by Sarah Kent and Jacqueline Morreau about an interesting exhibition in 1980, ‘Women’s Images of Men’, which caused outrage because it reversed the ‘normal’ power relations. The women took on the observer’s role and turned men into models. It was a shock to male viewers to see women displaying men and making them vulnerable.

But it wasn’t just the female gaze – seeing a man through a woman’s eyes – that caused outrage, but also it seems to be indecent that a woman is exhibiting artworks of nude men. One art critic said she ‘encountered a forest of penises’, another felt an ‘aura of sensationalism created by so many penises for penises sake’ whereas only a few artworks displayed the ‘offending’ parts.

The interesting thing was that at the same time another gallery showed drawings and pastels of artist Kitaj, explicitly detailed images of vaginas, penises, and copulating couples. Work that was called a ‘full sensual response’ and praised for the ability to derive ‘artistic satisfaction from the way the parts of a woman relate to her and his whole design’. Why are the art critics being prudish about a male nude while glorifying explicit artworks of vaginas? This double-standard always fascinates me.

Kitaj Female Nudes Sarah Kent Images of Men

Left: Kitaj, right: Sarah Kent

The taboo on the female sexual gaze

Forty years have passed, but the reactions to my male nudes in projects like ‘Look at me’ clearly show that there are still some hurdles to overcome. A naked woman is normal, a male nude weird and indecent. Especially when it is made by a woman. It is recognized that most artistic representations of the male and female nude have not been created by women but by men. Hence it was the works of male artists that have constituted the predominant historical masterpieces for thousands of years. The male gaze has dominated the art world for a very long time and it did not help either that the leaders of all art institutions were mainly men.

But this is only part of the story. Sarah and Jacqueline argue that there is another reason why we have so few male nudes art created by female artists. Not only did female artists have to catch up on an enormous amount of time because they entered the art world much later than men, but the fear of being mistaken for pornography also drove many female artists away from this subject. Without a sympathetic context for women’s art, they simply did not dare to show direct depictions of female sexuality.

The artworld is still a man’s world

Today women who create continue to struggle for legitimacy and respect within the art world. It is clear that the art world is still a man’s world. For the people who think we passed the point of sexism in the art world, check out this nice read of Jillian Steinhauer. Scroll down to the end and read the quotes of the gallerists she interviewed. “Women do not have the same drive or passion for their art as men do — they are not willing to die for their passions.”

This view on female artists becomes also painfully visible if we look at the numbers. Of all the work purchased by top museums in the past decade, only 11% is made by women. Of the 100 most expensive works ever sold, none belong to a woman. Only 13% of the living artists represented by galleries in Europe and North America are women (source: Art Girl Rising).

The average selling price for men’s art is $ 50,480. For women, that is $ 29,235. Women’s art is thus 42 percent cheaper at auctions. If you look at lists of most successful visual artists, you see hardly any women. In the art schools women are overrepresented, but when we look at careers, the gender inequality becomes painfully visible.

Male Nudes Rijksmuseum

Results for the search term ‘male nude’ in the Rijksmuseum online collection

Towards more attention for female artists

In the Netherlands there is an increasing focus on female art, partly thanks to the focus on quota of a number of museums. Many museums indicate that they strive for more balance, but they do not formulate how they will do this. Five museums do not apply criteria for the division between men and women: the Rijksmuseum, Museum Voorlinden, Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Stedelijk Museum Alkmaar and the Groninger Museum.

Suzanne Swarts, the female director of the Museum Voorlinden says: “Our policy is to collect and show good works of art by good artists, so we have no specific goals with regard to female artists”.

The societal role of museums in the female gaze

I just wonder, what does ‘showing good works of art’ mean? What is good and who determines that? Do you think you know all the ‘good’ artists? More importantly, museums have a huge impact on the visual culture and thus the representation and perception of people. The artists in our museums should be a reflection of our society and give a voice to all the different people who live in this society. Unfortunately in most museums, but also in the media, this is not the case.

Imagine what this does to the spectators, the new generations, who see in the museum that the vast majority of the artists are men and the vast majority of the models are women? I agree that you don’t want to work with a quota, but it did encourage museums to put together a diverse collection that is representative of society and actively seek out women’s art.

Male nudes Stedelijk Museum

Results for the search term ‘nude’ in the Stedelijk Museum online collection

Determining the social value of art

How do we determine the value of a work of art? According to Augusto Arbizo, director of New York’s 11R gallery, price is determined by an artist’s exhibition history, sales history, career level, and size of artwork. Fashionable artists are more likely to sell for a high price.

It is pretty clear that there are so many other factors involved in determining the value of art. So you can’t keep saying in 2021, well, there are just few art works featuring male nudes made by women. Or we’re not looking specifically at female artists but at the quality of the artwork, because everybody knows the art world is not only about quality. It might be interesting to measure the ‘social value’ of all artworks in the museums. Let’s see what that does to the diversity in museums.

Female gaze: towards a more inclusive art world

If we talk about the underrepresentation of the female gaze on the male nude, there are two problems. Female artists are fairly underrepresented in musea and also the nude models are still mostly women. The latter seems trickier to solve. We can all agree that there is no reason why female artists shouldn’t be represented in the museum, but when it comes to male nude, we have some taboos to break. Being inclusive also means showing more male nudes in the museums.

If naked men are nowhere to be seen except in the bedroom, how will this ever get normal? And what happens to our view of the naked male body if we only see it through the eyes of the man? And wouldn’t it be fascinating to discover how a woman looks at a naked man?

Clearly, the art world is far from inclusive. Not just for women by the way. We have a lot of catching up to do, so we better start now.

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