03 Apr 2020
There are numerous objects in the Kunstmuseum Basel that can be perceived as controversial, depending on one's point of view. Among them are works by Jean-François de Troy and Cindy Sherman. Both were part of last year's collection presentation "Controversial?".
In February 2018, a painting by John William Waterhouse was hung in the Manchester Art Gallery, which tells the mythological story of the youth Hylas, who is lured into a pond by several nymphs and thus to his death. It was intended to spark a debate about how we deal today with representations that reduce the female body to its erotic charms. The discussion in the media about both the debate and the museum's action turned out to be very controversial.
If one were to censor a work in the Kunstmuseum Basel on the basis of the same considerations, it would probably have to be Jean-François de Troy's Diana and Actaeon. The female body is literally presented to the viewer as a feast for the eyes. Drunken nymphs are nimbly trying to cover their nakedness after being surprised by Actaeon while bathing in the forest. The entire attention of the scene is focused on the unfortunate man who, as punishment, has already turned into a stag and runs for his life. This allows the viewer to devote himself undisturbed to the pleasure of finding out what the nymphs have to offer.
Such representations were common in the 18th century, and it was good manners to hang such works in one's rooms. And even if today we may have a critical approach to the eroticizing representation of the female body, our gaze is still conditioned and accustomed to such images.
Therefore it is all the more irritating how photographer Cindy Sherman presents us with the female body. Individual plastic elements are draped next to each other, but a uniform effect is not achieved. The body remains fragmented, the coherence of the individual parts questionable. While the pregnant belly and breasts resemble a hollow rubber print, the arms resemble those of a mannequin. By the way, the pregnant belly does not really fit the face of an old woman who seems to be of childbearing age. Loosely it lies on an abdomen with amputated legs. This mutilation inevitably directs the eye to the vagina, from which a chain of sausages hangs – it is probably the most disturbing element of the picture.
There is something brutal about this staging. It may be understood as a presentation of the female body that is undignified or violates integrity, and may strike the viewer in shame. Yes, it may outrage or even repel! But what is actually happening here?
While de Troy welcomed the viewer as a voyeur, here he becomes the observed person. With wide eyes, the depicted woman looks at him challengingly to see how he deals with the sight of this body, which is not at all what he would expect. To further enhance this confrontation, she presents herself with a smug smile and the arms in the pose of a pin-up girl.
Cindy Sherman dismantles the image of the charming female body. She confronts us intimately with our habits of seeing and our fixed ideas of femininity, beauty or eroticism. In this way she offers us the opportunity to change perspectives.
Author: Seraina Werthemann, art historian and art mediator