(Re)Thinking the Male Gaze
by Sara Terry
It’s hard these days to imagine the shock back in 1863 when the French painter Edouard Manet presented his monumental painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) to Parisian society. Rejected by the influential Salon, it was shown in the now infamous Salon des Refusés, where it scandalized Parisiennes with its larger-than-life depiction of a nude young woman seated between two clothed men at a picnic – casting a frank gaze outward, on the viewer.
It was a groundbreaking moment in modern art, and in Manet’s career. But in many ways, it was nothing new at all – just another depiction of a woman (a naked one), made by a man, for the pleasure of other men, through the lens of the notorious “male gaze.” It’s at the heart of centuries of history of the western world, from the early Christian church to renaissance nobles to Hollywood moguls: the representation of women as objects of desire commissioned by, paid for, created by and made for…men.
To be the object of someone else’s gaze: women know that power dynamic only too well. Even with the #metoo movement’s critically important insistence that women’s voices be heard, and their stories believed, the power dynamics of who gets to do the gazing hasn’t changed much. But it will.
With this project, “(Re)Thinking the Male Gaze,” I’m engaging with some of the most famous paintings in art history, made by men of nude women, re-creating the paintings as gender-flipped photos. With that as my starting point, I carefully research each painting, learning about its cultural context, reading feminist critiques, understanding each work’s place in art history. And then I re-stage the painting, taking on the creator’s role, choosing backgrounds, time, place, objects, message – grounding the work in my own female gaze, putting together my own critique of gender, power and representation.
“(Re)Thinking Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe” is the first in this series. I chose it for many reasons – in particular the fact that the three main figures in the painting are each engaging in some act of communication (gesture, glance, etc), but none of them is acknowledging the other. That’s what I feel has happened in the first stages of the #metoo debate – we aren’t hearing each other yet, aren’t engaging in dialogue across gender, generation and color. But we will.
This work is my way of inviting you into a conversation.