The 'Male Graze'

The 'Male Graze' is a campaign that was started by the anonymous feminist activists, Guerrilla Girls. The campaign explores the issue of the 'male gaze' within museums which delves into the problems surrounding the history of objectifying the female nude. The play on the word 'gaze' initiates the devouring of the subject matter by men, and emphasises the ever-present sexualisation of the female anatomy. This message is being spread throughout the UK by the Guerrilla Girls through a series of billboard works in cities such as Leeds, Cardiff, Dundee and Birmingham. The exposure of this theme is far from revolutionary, and was an issue that came up consistently throughout my History of Art degree. Through highlighting the voyeuristic consumption of the female nude, the motive is not to erase the existing sexualised depictions of women, as due to the amount that exist that would mean destroying a hefty chunk of art history, rather the intention is awareness.

Let me just explain what the concept of the male gaze entails. Essentially the term invokes the sexual politics of the gaze (which refers to a way of looking) and refers to a sexualised way of depicting women which simultaneously objectifies them whilst empowering men. The theory itself was coined by film maker Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay,' Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. A word that she associated with the male gaze was scopophilia which is the sexual pleasure involved in looking. As soon as I saw this word the first thing that came to my head was John Berger and his 'Ways of Seeing'. A quote by Berger that has always stuck with me was:' To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.'

Keep that quote in mind and then think of Titian's painting Venus D'Urbino (an image of this will be down below). The purpose of Titian's work was to satisfy the tastes of the Duke of Urbino. It was a marital portrait of his new wife which basically presented the duties in which she would have to conduct. At first appearance what would you think those duties were? Well the first thing I thought was sex and producing heirs. The eroticisation of the piece is masked by the title, which refers to the woman as 'Venus'. By concealing the woman's identity and passing it off as a piece portraying figures from classical antiquity such as Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, then surely they were viewed as academic rather than pornographic. A painting which I have always truly admired is Manet's Olympia. This painting again is masked with the title Olympia yet this painting confronts a societal 'secret' in France. I mean its not much of a secret just something that was never discussed, because if it is not discussed then surely it doesn't exist... The model was courtesan Victorine Meurent. The brutality of the image unapologetically exposes the sexual occupation of Meurent as well as highlighting the existence of this 'immoral' desire. This image, for me, mocks the historical masking of the female nude and how this perceived morality was accepted through an agreed artificial identity implanted onto the female subject in order for her nudity to be accepted.

This idea, which may have seemed so 'modest' at the time is exactly what is so infuriating now. The Guerrilla Girls are bringing this to light so that the viewers in museums and galleries can be aware of this. I believe that awareness of the male gaze is necessary but eradication or the demonization of these subjects is not the way around this issue. I am not saying that this is what the GG are intending but I know that this thought process nowadays seems to be a popular option. History is there to learn from and the male gaze which one could argue, and I would, is still a present issue today, should not be censored but rather exposed. Even the Mary Wollstonecraft monument by Maggi Hambling, as I spoke about in a previous article, feeds into the idea of the objectification of the nude woman. Even though some may argue that she is owning her sexuality I would say that it is just another example of how a woman's power is taken away from her and owned by those who view her. I do not understand the ongoing necessity to depict a woman naked. Is this something that we still can't move away from? Can we portray a woman and her achievements without depicting her naked... or is that where our value lies? The female nude can be reproached through the recognition of the issues surrounding the history associated with this subject matter and I really applaud how the GG are making this known to the public.

This theme, in my mind, does not mean that paintings that reveal this form of sexism require degrading but rather they demand an explanation, education and recognition. The Guerrilla Girls talk about their ideas behind this campaign in a podcast by the Art Newspaper, so if you are interested you can listen to it on Spotify, and probably on other online podcast platforms.

Down below I am going to include a series of images that depict this issue and I would like you to think about them. Next time you go to a museum see if you can notice how often this subject matter is represented and then who painted it. A man? Probably.

Paintings names, as shown from left to right:

  • Diana and Actaeon (Diana Surprised in Her Bath), Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, 1836.

  • Venus D'Urbino, Titian, 1534.

  • The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1485-6.

  • Olympia, Edouard Manet, 1863.

  • The Sleeping Venus, Giorgione, 1510.

  • Mother of Feminism, Maggi Hambling, 2020.

  • Woman Pulling up her Stocking, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, 1894.

  • The Birth of Venus, Alexandre Cabanel, 1863.

  • Slave Market in Rome, Jean-Leon Gerome, 1884.

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