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Porn in 21st century art is vintage Victorian

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A London gallery run by the Federation of British Artists tossed out a painting that the Society for Women Artists selected for its 150th annual show.

The painting, “Portrait of Ms. Ruby May, Standing” by Leena McCall, pictures a clothed woman looking out at the viewer with parts of her upper and lower body exposed.

The gallery told the press that the painting was unsuitable for “vulnerable adults” as well as children. McCall said the gallery judged her work "too pornographic," and defended herself to the press this way:

“My work deals with female sexual and erotic identity. The fact that the gallery has deemed the work inappropriate and seen it necessary to have it removed from public display underlines the precise issue I am trying to address: how women choose to express their sexual identity beyond the male gaze.”

The argument warrants discussion.

Female nudes are a longtime subject in art that dates back to prehistory, circa 25,000 B.C. I’m thinking of the Venus of Willendorf recovered from Paleolithic archeological sites at Willendorf in Austria.

But there’s an unspoken caveat. While showing nude women in art is presumed as art, showing nude women looking at the viewer looking at them is presumed as porn. In other words, the proper art subject is the passive nude, uninvolved with the viewer.

This point came to light 150 years ago during the furor over Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting “Luncheon on the Grass,” which described a nude woman picnicking with two clothed men in a Paris park. The image was no different than any other Old Master art, like Giorgione’s "Concert Champetre” painted four centuries early.

Manet’s version shocked high Parisian society (including Emperor Napoleon III - hardly a paragon of decency – who called the painting "indecent"), because of a tweak that Manet made to the scene.

Instead of showing the women waiting on the men and talking only to each other, as Giorgioni did, Manet showed the nude female not only actively engaged in conversation with the men, but also staring back at the viewer - her face direct and challenging and lacking the usual demure reticence of nude females in art.

McCall acknowledges such a dynamic in her painting of Ruby May: "She's not a shy, timid woman; it's not pornography in the sense of 'Here I am, come and get me!' It's very much an equal gaze and that was the whole purpose of the painting."

There’s yet another reason for the shock value of both the Manet and McCall paintings: Besides lacking reticence, Manet’s model was well- known in Paris as the artist Victorine Meurend. And the model for McCall’s painting is clearly identified in the title of the work “Portrait of Ms. Ruby May.”

Speaking for herself, Ruby May told the press that “a sexually empowered woman (is) patriarchal at its roots.”

You’d think she was talking during Queen Victoria’s reign.

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