Toward the end of his seminal chapter on the objectification of women in European painting, in Ways of Seeing (1972), John Berger discusses an exception to the rule: Rubens portrait of his second wife, Hélène Fourment:
We see her in the act of turning, her fur about to slip off her shoulders. Clearly she will not remain as she is for more than a second. In a superficial sense her image is as instantaneous as a photograph’s. But, in a more profound sense, the painting ‘contains’ time and its experience. It is easy to imagine that a moment ago before she pulled the fur round her shoulders, she was entirely naked. . . .
Her body confronts us, not as an immediate sight, but as experience—the painter’s experience. Why? There are superficial anecdotal reasons: her dishevelled hair, the expression of her eyes directed towards him, the tenderness with which the exaggerated susceptibility of her skin has been painted. But the profound reason is a formal one. Her appearance has been literally re-cast by the painter’s subjectivity. Beneath the fur that she holds across herself, the upper part of her body and her legs can never meet. There is a displacement sideways of about nine inches: her thighs, in order to join on to her hips, are at least nine inches too far to the left.
I would make two sets of points in this regard, the first of these being Berger’s, the second set my own. In this chapter Berger distinguishes between nudity and nakedness. We might say in some harmony with him that, as compared to nudity, nakedness is more real (less fantasy), more erotic, and less objectifying (offering “the possibility of the shared subjectivity of sex”). Nakedness also requires a history, a narrative. (“In lived sexual experience, nakedness is a process rather than a state.”) And nakedness requires particularity—Hélène Fourment’s quite particular flesh, for example.
Secondly, and in closing, I would speak in praise of awkwardness, be it unplanned, unconscious, planned or conscious. Of course awkwardness is commonly thought a negative quality, and one that great artists and master craftspeople naturally avoid. But, as in the case of Rubens’s portrait, awkwardness can draw our attention to its juxtapositions, and thus bring us ideas, or erotic or intellectual stimulation, that might be absent in seemingly more polished portraits or texts.
As I said, this is my “set of points.” Berger does not put it quite this way, writing rather that the displacement of Fourment’s upper body and legs:
permits the body to become impossibly dynamic. Its coherence is no longer within itself but within the experience of the painter. More precisely, it permits the upper and lower halves of the body to rotate separately, and in opposite directions, round the sexual centre which is hidden: the torso turning to the right, the legs to the left. At the same time this hidden sexual centre is connected by means of the dark fur coat to all the surrounding darkness in the picture, so that she is turning both around and within the dark which has been made a metaphor for her sex. (My underscoring.)
Image & Links
Het Pelsken (literally, The Fur or The Pelt) is a 1638 portrait by Peter Paul Rubens of his second wife Helena Fourment getting out of the bath. It is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In Berger’s text the picture is captioned “Hélène Fourment in a Fur Coat.”
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