The male gaze has shaped art’s obsession with the naked body. Mary Beard offers a female perspective
Mary Beard is standing on a chair, chiselling the fig leaf off a large classical statue in Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. “God this is quite exciting. My hand is taut with the nerves of it all,” she says, though what lies beneath the familiar modesty motif turns out to be something of a disappointment. The statue, cast in plaster from an original in the Vatican collection, has suffered “a limited castration”, with the result that the fig leaf – probably added in the 19th century to spare the blushes of Irish art lovers – had nothing much to hide. “There’s something really ironic about these things that were meant to stop you seeing things,” Beard reflects, “when what they end up doing is saying: ‘Look at what you can’t see.’”
Her outing to Cork comes midway through the first episode of Shock of the Nude, a two-part BBC Two series which sets out to interrogate western art’s obsession with the naked body. The Cambridge classics professor has already marvelled at the marble musculature of Michelangelo’s David and tried her hand at a life-drawing hen party (“He’s got very good bum cheeks,” enthuses one of the group). These scenes are a subversion of Beard’s central thesis: “I don’t think you can talk about the nude unless you talk about male desire.” Given the dominance of the male gaze, the programmes ask, how is a woman to find her own perspective?
One of the challenges of the subject, Beard admits, was how to place herself as the presenter. “It’s an interesting position to find yourself in, because you’re having to present views to people with your clothes on about what it’s like not to have your clothes on.” She is not afraid to share her own emotional responses. “In my fantasies,” she says of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a reclining nude with her hand lingering suggestively over her genitals, “I’m with this naked lady and we’re both giggling at these blokes who are leering at us.”
Given the brickbats that Beard has suffered over the years, this challenge to the usual formalities of art scholarship is both pointed and brave. “I think you’ve got to be a bit resilient about this,” she says. “It was a team effort. We’ve said what we set out to say and if you get some crap on Twitter, as I’m sure we will, that was not our intention.”
Over the years Beard has repeatedly faced down the misogyny of the media – both conventional and social. “This is what 57-year-old women look like, deal with it,” she told the critic AA Gill after he criticised her appearance in her 2012 television series, Meet the Romans. Discovering that she had been largely edited out of the American version of the landmark 2018 series Civilisations, which she presented alongside Simon Schama and David Olusoga, she wryly responded: “It looks to me that mine were more substantially edited than the others’… I wonder why that was? I always try and stick up for elderly ladies with grey hair.”
“This is what 57-year-old women look like, deal with it,”
The relevance of this very personal history, in the context of a film about the nude, is underlined in an interview with the artist Jemima Stehli, who in 2000 created a provocative set of photographs of herself stripping in front of a series of male curators and critics, to whom she had given control of the camera. One regular response, Stehli tells Beard, was “Would you do this if you didn’t have a body like this?”
Against the intransigence of the male gaze, Beard pits her own, shifting perspective. “I was brought up with 1970s feminism, when the object of the male gaze was seen as a part of male appropriation of women, and there’s a lot going for that position. But as I’ve got older I’ve begun to think: ‘What do I do? Am I not supposed to engage with it? Step one is to see the sexual politics, but can we go beyond this? What happens with women artists? Is it just a case of exalting male desire?’ But I like looking at these things and I have no intention of stopping. I think there’s room for hope.”
Original publication 25 January, 2020
Posted on NatCorn 22nd February 2020
Reference to an article does not infer endorsement of any views expressed.