Monday, 6 October 2014

(Im)moral nudity and a feminist meat cleaver: the story of the Rokeby Venus

100 years ago, the suffragette Mary Richardson walked into London’s National Gallery and slashed Diego Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus (circa 1650). This painting’s fascinating history and motif can offer interesting insights into the Victorians complex relationship to the nude, the Suffragettes struggle for women’s suffrage, the creation and consumption of female ideals.

Trafalgar Square. Symbolic heart of London. Lord Nelson atop his Corinthian column. Within sight stands Big Ben and the mother of parliaments, a neo-Gothic structure abrim with pinnacles and turrets. Once the epicentre of empire, the square is flanked by massive embassy buildings bearing witness to the empire’s former reach: Canada House, South Africa House  and nearby  Australia House and India House.  

Straddling the actual square is another colossus: the National Gallery, a neoclassical marble complex and one of the worlds foremost art museums. Through the gallery’s winding alleyways, criss-cross your way to Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) The Rokeby Venus.

The Rokeby Venus (also known as The Toilet of Venus)
Here you are confronted with a nude Venus, lying half-back on black sheets, turned away from us. Her raised head rests against her right hand, the chestnut brown hair in a bun. The colour of the sheets accentuates her rose white shimmering body that winds in sinuous curves; an undulating figure on which the largest target area is the wide, bobbing derrière.

In front of Venus stands her son, the winged putto Cupid, holding a mirror in which Venus’ visage is diffusely reflected. This reflection means that we do not know for sure what she is watching. Us? Herself? Us watching her? The arrangement creates an exciting interaction between painting and viewer, and leaves us questioning if we are intruders or invited to the intimate situation. Voyeur or welcomed?

So far the superficial description. What the painting also reflects is, of course, a male depiction of Woman. In the history of art it is men who have painted. Men who have painted women. Men who have painted the ideal woman. In this regard, Velázquez has been so successful that his Venus can still be held up as an ideal. For example, recently the writer Will Self described himself as not alone in finding “Velázquez [...] Venus sexier than all contemporary comers”. And the editress Rowan Pelling claims that all women, herself included, who view Velázquez’s Venus are probably asking themselves: “Is my bottom as good as hers?”

Oh well. If Pelling is here viewing and assessing herself and other women through a patriarchal prism  the hegemonic male portrayal and depiction of Woman  we find a stark contrast in “Slasher Mary” Richardson, the suffragette who on March 4th 1914 attacked the painting with a meat cleaver.

The attack was a response to the detainment the day before of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Richardson managed to give Venus a half dozen blows before she was stopped and arrested. Shortly afterwards she stated that she had “tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history”. But added that “[j]ustice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas”, and as long as the government  with the public’s consent  denied womanhood justice, the government and the public were committing another (and much worse) form of destruction, namely “human destruction” of “beautiful living women”.

What Richardson carried out was a symbolic attack on the patriarchal society by attacking a naked female object that this society valued highly. The National Gallery had some years before acquired the painting on behalf of the nation for the astronomical sum of £45,000. As Lynda Nead points out in The Female Nude (1992), it seems inevitable that Richardson were to choose this painting. Velázquez’s Venus was hailed as a normative model for female beauty and the nude female body, for example described in contemporary Times as “'the perfection of Womanhood at the moment when it passes from the bud to the flower'”.

To boot, the fact that Venus’ son is holding the mirror might add additional patriarchal weight to the painting, something which Maren Tova Linett reflects upon in The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers (2010). What we see, Linett tells us, is Venus/Woman being evaluated  and evaluating herself  from a male perspective. And since its being done in relation to her son, that chief raison d’être of Woman is also conjured up: to produce the next male generation. 

What Linett, then, perceives in the painting is the typical valuation of Woman  by herself and others  through a male prism, and Woman’s primary purpose to serve as a vessel for the male offspring (whose being ultimately justifies her being). 

Mary Richardson leaving for court March 10th 1914 

We have so far seen how significant patriarchal, patriotic and pecuniary values were embedded in the painting. Unsurprisingly, Richardson’s attack on this valued depiction of female perfection met with public outcry. Nead shows how the attack was portrayed in the media as manifesting two conflicting versions of femininity. Richardson was given labels usually reserved for murderers (“Slasher Mary”, “The Ripper”). The slashes on Venus on the canvas were translated into slashes on flesh. Venus came alive and became the definition of the ideal woman: observed, pleasing, passive. The antithesis of Richardson who represented a demonic femininity: deviant, unruly, violent.

Demonizing people and movements fighting subordination is part and parcel of the dramaturgy of power games. “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is,” suffragette Rebecca West wrote tellingly, “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat”. The society in which the Suffragettes emerged has to posterity become notorious for prudery and bigotry. Like ‘Pharisee’ is today synonymous with hypocrite, so ‘Victorian’ is taking on a similar meaning in the English language. It was also to a nascent Victorian Britain that Velázquez’s Venus arrived in 1813. Exactly how it came to the shores of Albion is unclear. According to one version it was Napoleon’s superior at Waterloo  the Duke of Wellington  who brought the painting from Spain. Wellington, nicknamed the Iron Duke, has been described as the archetype of the stiff-upper-lipped Victorian. Unfazed, composed, unsentimental. (During the battle of Waterloo a British officer exclaimed “By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg!”, to which Wellington stoically replied: “By God, Sir, so you have.”)

Regardless of whether it was the arch-Victorian who took the painting to Britain, through the 19th century it nonetheless passed through Victorian upper class ownership up to just after the turn of the century when it met its final hanging place in the National Gallery. It had by then become fit for salons and put on public display. Same thing today, exhibited for all to see, from weathered nude art academics to families with children.

Things were a wee different in previous times. Velázquez painted the Rokeby Venus during the heydays of the Spanish Inquisition, when depictions of the nude were subject to official repression and censorship. It is unclear who ordered the painting, but the ones who ordered and/or painted nudity in 17th century Spain had to have powerful friends, probably of the royal kind (in Spain, the Inquisition stood under the monarchy’s direct control). King Philip IV, who was a patron of Velázquez, had an impressive collection of erotic paintings. These were only hung up for private display  Philip had several in his bedroom  where they most likely acted as aphrodisiacs. Pornography for the aristocracy.

In black and white: the lacerations from Richardson's attack

Thus, in a time and place notorious for official prudery Velázquez produced his sensually arousing Venus, to hang smack in the middle of the putative sin-fighters’ den. In light of such hypocritical prudery it may seem fitting that the painting ended up in Victorian Britain. It is not least in relation to the naked body that the Victorians are regarded as having been priggishly prudish officially.

But a safe generalization is that all generalizations are unsafe. As indicated by the National Gallery buying and displaying Velázquez’s Venus for public view, the reality of a bygone era is more complex and blurred than posterity’s caricaturization. For it does not hold, the popular image of the Victorians as officially unambiguously prude in relation to nudity. That they should have for instance draped their furniture – to protect women from swooning at the sight of the naked leg of a chair – is nothing but a persistent cock and bull story.

As art historian Michael Hatt puts it, the Victorians actually tried to understand the body rather than deny it. Yes, there was a fair share of moralizing and indignation over nudity in Victorian Britain. Policymakers could propagate against nudity for its potential to incite the populace to engage in coitus to a morally and demographically unsustainable extent. But at the same time the nude in art was regarded as one of the highest, purest, most sophisticated forms of culture. As this implies, the Victorian society was not statically conservative but  as the Suffragette movement exemplifies  a dynamic society undergoing dramatic changes.

Tis true, there were those who never wanted to accept anything nude as officially respectable, but there were concurrently strong forces within the establishment who begged to differ. It was actually during the Victorian era that British artists finally embraced and developed a tradition of the nude artwork (a centuries old tradition on the continent that had been conspicuously absent on the British Isles). And among their supporters they could claim the most prominent Victorian of them all. Queen Victoria was namely an advanced nude artwork user. She and her beloved husband Albert eagerly bought one another works of nudity, crammed houses full of various unclothed artifacts  creating cornucopias of concupiscence  and when at a show the queen was hastily herded past sketches of nude models, she dug in her heels, declared that she was actually amused by what she saw and later became the sketch painter’s patron.

Nonetheless, it was no easy-peasy thing to break in and make the nude work of art a success in the salons. A significant part of the ‘educated citizenry’ worried about prostitution, pornography and venereal disease; phenomena which were all connected to nudity and perceived to be raging on an epidemic scale, associated with forces that were degenerative and menacing to society. It was thus necessary to convince that nude works stood untainted of such things. To make a difference between nudity and nudity  therein laid the challenge.

The solution to this Gordian knot was to be found in the works and legends of Classical Antiquity. Situated in such a context, the naked body could be elevated above the shabby and salacious  presented as constituting high, civilized ideals  appearing to embody a form of moral, a pure, nude alternative.

The Rokeby Venus could consequently qualify here, the nudity made respectable by the connection to Classical Antiquity. The painting’s acceptability could further be facilitated by it exclusively exposing for the exposed eye Venus’ exposed posterior, while keeping her exposed front exterior exclusively unexposed. Hereby the painting could gain additional protection against potential criticism of it potentially having a potent pornographic effect on the viewer  dragging him/her down from the civilizing to the degenerative. 

In this way the Rokeby Venus could portray itself  as the editor of Exposed: The Victorian Nude (2001) Alison Smith formulates said challenge for the nude work  to purport to be:

 “a sort of worthy, legitimate subject; one that didn’t invite a prurient gaze but one that invited a pure chivalric gaze.”

However, note “purport. This was a work that had served as pornography for various aristocracy and whose botty has been hailed as: “The most smackable bum in Western art”. Furthermore, covered charms can also spur, the omission inciting more thoughts about the omitted. As Smith adds: although the nude works of the Victorians might have purported to be something else, they did in fact constitute “something very sexy, something quite challenging [and] provocative”.

In defence of her iconoclastic deed, Richardson proclaimed that as long as the public tolerated the destruction of “beautiful living women”, every stone they threw at her for destroying the Rokeby Venus would become a testament to their own political, moral and artistic “humbug and hypocrisy.” And the most beautiful of all these living women were, Richardson declared, the imprisoned Emmeline Pankhurst.

Four years after the deed, British women were granted suffrage, and today a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst stands outside parliament  within sight from the National Gallery on Trafalgar square.

Source material

• Alison Smith (ed.), Exposed: The Victorian Nude (Tate Publishing 2001)
• Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (Routledge 1992)
• Maren Tova Linett (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women 
  Writers (Cambridge University Press 2010)

• “National Gallery outrage”, The Times, 11/03/1914
• “Young British artists versus old masters”, The Guardian, 01/07/2012

Documentaries (BBC)
• Private life of a masterpiece  (2002)
• Empire of the nude – the Victorian nude (2001)
• Ian Hislop’s stiff upper lip (2012)