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Portraying the Naked Woman

charlie's picture

The topic of women as artists is one that has been discussed many times throughout history. Linda Nochlin, art historian, once wrote an article entitled “Why have there been no great women artists?” which explored this very subject. The Guerrilla Girls added to this topic by pointing out that when most women are featured in a museum, it is for being a nude subject in a painting rather than for being the creator of the masterpiece. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Ingres’ The Grand Odalisque, and Valie Export’s GenitalPanik are all works featuring a female nude subject. A uniting theme among them is the portrayal of the nude women as “freaks”. When a woman, especially a nude woman, is portrayed as a freak, her sexuality and her gender are seen differently.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s The Grand Odalisque (1814) (Figure 1) portrays a young nude woman lounging on a chaise lounge surrounded by luxurious fabrics. She glances at the viewer with a look that simultaneously informs him that he has interrupted her and asks him to come and join her. But is this girl naked or nude? Is there a difference? According to John Berger, “to be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself” (54). The girl in this painting is nude - one’s face is the most recognizable part of one’s body, and yet hers is halfway masked in shadow. Additionally, the title of this painting makes no mention of her actual identity, leaving her as simply an unidentified, female, nude body; therefore, she cannot be recognized as herself and is seen as nude. Aside from her nudity, the next thing that the viewer notices is that she is anatomically incorrect.


The harem girl’s right arm appears to be too long to be properly proportioned with her body and her spine seems to both be missing vertebrae and elongated. Ingres’ positioning of the girl also appears to be impossibly uncomfortable. It is with this elongation and supposed elasticity that Ingres portrays this young concubine as a “freak”. A freak, as in, someone who posses an attribute or skill that differs from the norm or draws attention to oneself in a way that is not necessarily seen as positive by her community. When viewing this painting, the girl originally appears to be gazing at the viewer with bedroom eyes, asking him to come and join her on that teal chaise. Yet, after noticing her “defects” her appeal drops drastically. She is seen as imperfect, grotesque. Her “bedroom eyes” suddenly transform to a look of sorrow and loneliness. Although her breast is very clearly visible, after taking in her imperfections, her gender is lost; the viewer no longer thinks of her as a woman of sexual desires.

When faces and bodies do not match up in any visible pattern, as in Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1881-1973 (Figure 2), it is difficult to apply gender and sexuality as a point of reference. Although the figures in the painting are clearly women, they also retain a level of androgyny. Their hairstyles are feminine, or at least commonly considered those of women, as are their pubic areas and breasts, but they also appear to be sexless at the same

time. All of the women’s arms are larger, and very muscular, attributes which are normally ascribed to male arms, therefore muddling their gender assignment. Furthermore, the faces of the two women on the right are very discomforting. They are disfigured and therefore unnerving. Picasso’s portrayal of the features causes these women to be desexualized and considered freaks. In their imperfections, their sexuality is lost. Symmetry is what humans find most attractive in other humans, and all sense of symmetry is removed. Their miss-matching skin tones and body parts adds to their “freakishness”. In their abstraction, both in characteristics and in painting style, the women are objects at which one stares rather than women about which one might fantasize.

            Although Valie Export was not fully nude in her performance piece GenitalPanik (Figure 3), her unorthodox approach to nudity still leaves viewers contemplating the “freakdom” of a naked woman. Export’s performance involved marching into a movie theater wearing crotch-less pants and holding a machine gun. She then used the audience’s appalled and scared reactions as a part of her performance. In merging violence with nudity, she managed to simultaneously desexualize herself and appear crazy. In the case of this piece, Export is most definitely naked. She


is exposed so as to rouse an emotion or reaction from her unsuspecting audience. Here, she is on display. Her nudity is intended to be unsettling, not to be observed for the beauty of her sex. She, and her performance, is one answer to the question: what happens when the fairer sex isn’t so fair? The most astounding difference between this photograph and performance piece and the two paintings above is that a woman created this work. This is a purposeful act of turning an exposed woman into a freak and of combining violence with her body.  Unlike the other two paintings, which allow the women to be observed first as sexual objects, then rejects for their deformities, Export instead presents herself, deformities and all, in what is the most honest portrayal of all.

            Viewing a woman sans clothing is an intimate experience. The viewer is given a glimpse into a woman’s personal life, a chance to see something which is only on display in moments of privacy or in moments of intimacy. When this moment is altered, by violence, in the case of GenitalPanik, by deformity or by ambiguity, in the cases of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and The Grand Odalisque, the experience is vastly difference. The women involved are no longer women having deeply personal moments, but instead become obvious exhibits to be inspected and ogled. In actuality, this is silly, as no body is without its deformities or its “freaky parts”. Instead, it is those not-so-perfect pieces of the body that should be highlighted and made to be seen as beautiful.



Works Cited

ArtStor. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct 2011. <>.

 Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, Chapter Three. London: Penguin, 1977.

Clare, Eli. Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation. Brooklyn: South End Press, 2009.

Picasso, Pablo. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. "The Collection." MoMA. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct 2011. <>. 

"Valie Export, Aktionshose: Genitalpanik (Action Pants: Genital Panic)." perform feminism. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Oct 2011. <>.






Anne Dalke's picture

A Freak Show?


It's exciting for me to see you--like others of your classmates --stepping off from some of the disability studies we've introduced in this classroom to look again, and differently, @ work you are studying elsewhere. You've structured your study around a series of three portraits of naked women, from three successive eras in the history of art, in order to trace both their increased "freakishness" and increased agency--which I find an intriguing project. I'd like to understand better how you understand the relation between those two dimensions--are they correlative? And I'm particularly curious about your introduction of violence in your discussion of the last of your three images; what is its role, in women's agency? I'm puzzled, too, by where you end up--w/ the claim that imperfect body pieces should be "made to be seen as beautiful." How to go about doing that?? (For one possibility, see chelseam's project, "Claiming the Stare," esp. the embedded video, Jes Sachse's Body Language/Image, in which--chelseam claims--the artist/subject "maintains a sense of control over the situation." See, too, Gavi's Voicing Rhetorics of Beauty).

There are a couple of technical troubles in your project (next time you come in for a writing conference, let's work on making figures 2 & 3 large enough to "read"), but what puzzles me most about the work you're doing is its absence of context; so much of the work we've reviewed in class could be useful to you here. Your definition of "freak," for instance, seems to come from  a dictionary, rather than from Eli Clare's complex exploration of "freak shows" and "freakishness" (especially the freakishness of being disabled, and so seen as asexual). Emily Shaw's Freak Show, which was another of our assigned texts, might have also offered you a useful frame for your discussion.

Margaret Price and Joan Roughgarden challenge the use of the "god-trick"--the "omniscient and unlocatable" gaze that thereby shields itself "from any countergaze"--but you use that trick a lot. For example, "after noticing her 'defects,' her appeal drops drastically. She is seen as…grotesque";  "the viewer no longer thinks of her as a woman of sexual desires"--> who is doing the noticing, the seeing, the thinking in such passages? for whom do you speak, and wherefrom?

I have a couple of related questions about the message your user-name and avatar send to your audience: What does "charlie," and the image of the kissing children, signal about who you are, how-and-why you should be listened to? How does do they locate you in relation to your text?

You make a number of provocative claims throughout your essay--"When …a nude woman is portrayed as a freak, her sexuality and her gender are seen differently"; "symmetry is what humans find most attractive in other humans"; "in imperfection, sexuality is lost"--which I'd like to understand better. Would you like to go on exploring them in the comments section here? I'd be interested in our continuing this conversation….