Art History 10F
Third Essay: Topic #1
The depiction of the nude female model by a male artist in oil painting has played a significant role in the western tradition over the last 500 years. The oil painting of the female nude is subject to the artists interpretation of her form. She is affected by the artists desire for his model, as well as his art and she is torn between the artists inability to be both lover and painter. Hubert Damischs The Underneaths of Painting helps the reader understand the importance of the male painters imaging of the female form. By analyzing Balzacs Unknown Masterpiece, Damisch uncovers several tangents to the unique relationship between artists and the women they create on canvas.
Balzac tells a tale of the truth behind the creative process of an artist and the way he perceives his vision when finally completed in oil. Poussin is a young painter who doesnt quite understand how the concepts of desire and love will affect the perception of his model, and lover, Gilette. He soon embarks on a journey that takes him underneath the paint:
Under the paint and as its truth, instead and in the place of the so-called picture, the exchange assuming its last true face: a woman for a picture and a woman for what forms (or ought to) its subject. It is at this point in the picture where the subterranean, archaeological presence of the woman reveals itself, that something is given to see, something that can be spoken, that can be named, something moreover alive, delectable, a foothold for desire; in a word, something that looks at us unlike the inexpressible wall of paint that holds it captive, (Damisch 202).
There are many layers of paint put on to one canvas, but the image isnt visible right away, she must grow through the brushstrokes. When the last brush of paint touches the canvas, her beauty is revealed to the eye. The artist has created his masterpiece and she can be discussed like a real woman now; she has a name, she has the personality the artist has given her which makes her come alive, she is so real that observers feel the need to touch her and she looks right back. The paint from which she came is an afterthought and because Poussin is hungry for a piece that can accomplish all this, he chooses his work over his love.
Damisch utilizes Balzacs tale to define the position of the artists heart. It is inevitable that every painter that is dedicated to his work cannot be capable of loving anything so much as the act of expressing ones self through paint. He falls in love with his creation and there can be no room for a tangible love. Here is Damisch:
one has to choose between being a lover and a painter. Poussin will be assailed by doubt at the thought that another person could look at Gilette, and look at her as only he was allowed to see her: naked. But this doubt will soon vanish: the young man will forget his mistress, he will desire only to be a painter, he will see his art and nothing else, (Damisch 200).
Poussin has not fully recognized the intensity of the connection that an artist has with his work and doesnt realize that Gilette is whats holding him back. Since he shares his love with her and his work, Poussin cannot capture true realism in the females he depicts. Although he loves her at this point and couldnt possibly think of letting anyone see Gilette, Poussin will discover that to let her pose for other artists isnt as shattering a suggestion when he creates the nude that will lend his heart solely to the act of expression. The artist will then transfer his feelings of obsession for Gilette to his work and he will be able to love no other with the same intensity that he enjoys his work.
Damisch questions the role of desire in the conversion of the female model into the artists Venus. He asks:
What of the working of desire in its relation to the desire of the other?
and then goes on to report that:
we are amongst painters who only have eyes for painting. As far as Gilette is concerned she has no part in their commerce: she doesnt look at the painting, but sees only the paintersPoussin, while drawing her, was no doubt looking at her, but was not thinking about herShe does not say: without desiring her. For it was his desire that she should model for him, yet a desire which did not necessarily pass without explanation, at least for the one who was, as it were its passing object. Gilette might have addedwhen it begs for a look: You never look at me from the place which I see you.it is only in painting that such a request had meaning, and one may at one and the same timefind a woman beautiful and desire her, at the place from where she is looking at us, on the canvas, (Damisch 200).
The artist has desired to attain a beautiful, inspirational model to develop his masterpiece- he doesnt desire the physical form of his muse. Gilette may argue that Poussin doesnt want her for the same reasons that she wants him, but she does not understand that this complaint can only be made by the female nude on the canvas: the test of true desire on the artists part is if he can look into his painting and he feels the need to caress the canvas- then he has perfected his image. Poussin mistakes the desire he has for Gilette to model for him for an emotional desire and when she does she can see he isnt looking on her with a lustful gaze- his eye is clinical in nature.
To comprehend the importance of the relationship among artists and their oil paintings of the female nude, one must understand the significance of each one of these factors. For centuries artists have tried to master the conception of the artist and his work, but this task seems fleeting: How can one artist represent the situation of every painter? Because this feat is impossible, we arrive at a variety of works that all try to express the same topic, but end up drastically different. What is true to all of the representations of the female nude by the male painter is that she is always subject to the desire and love of her creator.