Recently, a classmate of mine, Amy McAnally, gave a presentation about her experience at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In her analysis of the artwork, Amy talks extensively of how women are treated differently than men in artwork through the lens of John Berger. She agrees with Berger that men act and women appear, using paintings such as the Portrait of Lady Eden by John Singer Sargent and Interior of a Tavern by Peter Severin Krøyer to illustrate the dichotomy between the appearances of the two genders in artwork. While her ability to perfectly capture Berger's argument through her selection of found artworks in the museum is impressive, perhaps what is more impressive is the power of her own words.
"Women are never just human. Supernatural beings set on display to be looked at, and it has been like that for centuries. Men are always painted in order to look larger than life for their accomplishments (look at Napoleon) and they have a purpose to their being painted; women have a purpose to be seen, and to always be seen."
What an incredible observation. Berger would certainly be proud that his message was sinking in so well. But while I agree to a certain extent that this type of artwork could be interpreted as being misogynistic towards women, I am forced to consider what Amy herself says and think, "Maybe we're all wrong about this. Even Berger."
Amy says it best herself, "Women are never just human." From the earliest illustrations of woman as Eve, Venus, or Madonna, women have continuously appeared among angels or in serene, mythological-looking backgrounds as if they themselves were more than just human. Perhaps these depictions of women as passive, unimportant creatures have in fact been the opposite all along. Compare Boticelli's The Birth of Venus to Dosso Dossi's The Ascension.
In both, the focal point of the piece is a barely clothed person who has the appearance of being more than human. Each is a passive participant in the art and each is equally adored by others whom appear within the piece as well. Each has an aura of mystery about them, gazing out towards the surveyor as if hypnotizing them. Forcing them not to look away. Perhaps it is not woman's vanity, nor a man's obsession with her naked body that is forcing these women to appear objectified in these works of art. Maybe it is a woman's mystique, her ability to put others "under her spell", her cunning that is being illustrated in these works. And what better way to convey such a difficult notion than to cast her mysterious gaze out to the surveyor and place her naked glory as the focal point of the artwork?
I mean, in all likelihood, it's exactly what Berger and Amy (and countless other art critics) have said all along. "Men act, women appear" and "women have a purpose to be seen and to always be seen." But I find it difficult to believe that during a time when Shakespeare was writing ode after ode to glorious woman, that simultaneously painters everywhere were out exploiting their image. One has to admit that there is some reverence in these paintings. The lighting, the focus, the softness of the features - everything looks too perfect, too poetic, too pious to be anything but sheer admiration for the subject (notice she's not an object, here). Maybe Amy has it right. Women are supernatural creatures, always to be seen and revered as more than just human.