Nothing seems more like a whorehouse to me than a museum (…) In one beautiful frozen images of Venus, Judith, Susanna, Juno, Lucrece, Salome and other heroines; in the other, living women in their traditional garb, with their stereotyped gestures and phrases. In both, you are in a sense under the sign og archeology; and if I have always loved whorehouses it is because they, too, participate in antiquity by their slave-market aspect, a ritual prostitution. Michel Leiris, Manhood (1939)
Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? It was wondered by The Great Odalisque of Ingres wearing a gorilla mask, that was represented in one of the most famous posters of the Guerrilla Girls, which they planted in 1989 in front of the museum to put on the record gender discrimination: fewer than 4% of the collection artists are women, but 76% of the nudes are female.
John Berger, in Ways of seeing (1972), distinguishes between naked as an artistic theme and nudity: to be a nude is to be seen naked by others; to be naked is to be oneself. Nudity is exhibited (it is a form of dress); nakedness reveals itself without disguise.
For centuries, the main actor in European painting has been the male viewer, says Berger, in a similar way to what he is now of pornographic films, we might add. The spectator, before so much beauty caught in fraganti, like the dirty old men spying Susana among bushes, is the stranger who still keeps his clothes.
Berger exemplifies with Tintoretto and his representation of the biblical theme of Susanna surprised by the old patriarchs the hypocrisy of the painter when putting a mirror in front the young woman to allegorize on the vanity (vanitas), being in fact a pretext to enjoy the body that while looks oneself ignores that is being (doubly) looked.
The legacy of paintings that have dealt with this topic, narrated in the Book of Daniel, focus on the episode in which the young blessed is spied on by the perverted old men while bathing in the river or getting tidied up in the garden, thus adding an ounce of coquetry that subliminally makes us think that incites aggression.
Artemisia Gentileschi was the only one to take Susan out of that idyllic context and realistically express the dreadful reaction of a raped woman. Kathleen Gilje, as a tribute to that seventeenth-century painter (the first feminist artist in history, call it), made a black-and-white version (Susanna and the Elders, Restored, X-Ray, 1998) simulating a photographic X-ray study of Gentileschi’s painting that revealed a first version in which Susan wielded a knife before her aggressors. Thus is reflected the female subconscious, strong and tenacious, in front of the idle and languid image imposed by the male gaze.
In contemporary painting, the theme is atomized in infinite paraphrases: from the transgender bias given by Joseph Radoccia when he shows a man changing his office suit for women’s clothing while being spied from behind a tree; or the pseudo-pedophile provocation of Stu Mead when he disguises himself in bear skin to swallow with his eyes the country frolics of his nymphets; until the psychic projections of Bellmer, that when transforms the object of our pleasure in mirror of our psychosis causes discomfort in the one who looks.
Manet, with Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe showed the hypocrisy of which Berger talked about. Not being covered by any mythological or biblical subject, the female nude confronted with the dressed man was presented with all its sexist load. It is not that Manet was a feminist but from a purely provocative spirit he involuntarily emphasized the violence implicit in the entire western pictorial tradition.
From different perspectives, female artists have critically emphasized this contrast: Ewa Partum explained that was looking for herself through photographic montages where she is naked among passers-by, next to a policeman, in front of a government building… (Self-identification series 1980); Martha Rosler also used the photomontage to bring the war home (1967-72) and, for example, to place an Asian Playboy girl among American soldiers interrogating Vietnamese people. Military occupation and sexism inserted in the same degrading discourses.
The review of the Susana’s myth is not lacking in the special painting of Honoré Desmond Sharrer, who commented on mundane aspects in a dreamy way, from her status as a woman in a world of men. As household icons full of magic, her women were naked among men in suits, but they had something indomitable that could transform the others into mere extras.
Rembrandt’s women differ from that subaltern treatment to which tradition has relegated them. His muses, as Berger pointed out, don’t wear the clothes of male desire. They are vulnerable but full of themselves and their circumstances. It is no coincidence that contemporary artists who reflect on the play of glances and the perception of the other turn to Rembrandt, such as Pakistani Naiza Khan and photographer Sebastiaan Bremer.
Naiza Khan has a series dedicated to Susana (Bare the fact 2005) in which she puts in dialogue (in a hypertextual way) Japanese prints of the floating world with the Rembrandt’s Bathsheba and Hendrickje bathing in the river. She implicates ukiyo-e eroticism with feminine psychology (as it was captured by the Dutch master) to explore the ambiguous feeling of women who (like her) nowady are engaged among various traditions, because what is the liberating for some is regressive for others, and among those obstacles bears fruit her particular vision of Susana, undressing, dressing, hiding herself or being watched.
Susanna surprised by the Elders of the Dutchman Sebastiaan Bremer is part of a peculiar series with a palimpsest of references: on photos that George Hendrik Breitner made of his models (that he used as previous studies for his paintings) are overlap personages extracted from paintings of Rembrandt , to which is sometimes added the personal reflection of Bremer projected when taking the photos with his Iphone. Textured readings, speculative onlookers, homage to compatriot painters of the past who in their respective time were accused of representing women with too much “realism”.
Reviewing the fate of Susana throughout the history of painting, the satirist Thomas Rowlandson was the one who best used it to show the brothel of the art world. His connoisseurs (1799) amusing themselves in the (not only aesthetic) pleasure of examining with a magnifying glass a voluptuous Venus, with their lascivious countenances they are mimicked with the old ones represented in the painting of Susanna that hangs behind them.