Go to any museum and you will find the walls covered in paintings depicting naked women. In the world of art an image of a naked woman can be classified as a nude. How does one define the dichotomy between being naked and being a nude? If you listen to English art critic John Berger in episode 2 of the BBC series Ways of Seeing, which was based on his essay of the same title, he explains the difference as a “nude” is a form of art, not to be confused with being naked, which is to be without clothes. Berger explains “A nude is to be seen naked by others, to be seen as a genre [object]” (Berger 4:21). As I spend time in front of one of my favorite nudes, I ask myself does a painting classified as a nude tell me more about the artist or the subject?
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in the gallery of modern European artists, you will find one of my favorite nudes titled Carmenlina painted in 1903 by Henry Matisse. I first saw Carmenlina forty years ago while I was an art student attending a lecture. Now I stand gazing at her for a new class trying to experience a new impression of this piece of art I know so well. As I approach Carmenlina I am confronted by her nakedness, which is front and center. From a distance, if you are not a Matisse scholar you might not recognize the painting as a Matisse. But you know it as a nude. This nude hanging among the other nudes in the gallery, like the Picasso nude on the opposite wall, does not contain any of our preconceived notions of a nude in the classic reclined pose. It is also not in what so many of us know as the Matisse style of graphic bodies and limbs in jovial activity. In contrast, silence fills the room that Carmenlina the model sits in. In his essay Berger says “all paintings are silent and still” (Berger 158), but in this painting I find the silence palpable. A visual that words cannot describe.
Very few words are present on the descriptive plaque that hangs along side the painting to indicate any intent of the artist about the work. The plaque contains the artist name, dates and the model’s name as the title, and little else. But I do not need words to see her. Berger tells us in human development “seeing comes before words” (Berger 141). To see Carmenlina one only has to look because as Berger’s theory states: seeing is a choice. What you choose to see is up to you. Once you see the title of the painting it immediately becomes more personal knowing the model’s name. Upon reading it you cannot keep your eyes from going right to Carmenlina. It forces one to deal with her nakedness as if it was now someone familiar that you know by name and you want to see. Would I change my view of her if the painting’s title is Nude like the Picasso? That nondescript title would only reference a genre. When a nude is titled the name of the model, does it become more about the model as a person?
When talking about his own work Matisse says: “What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape: it is the human figure” (Goldwater and Treves, 412). Did Matisse put Carmenlina on display because of his interest in the human figure? Did she have anything to say about it? Could she have understood she would be classified as a type of work and lose her identity as an individual? Her answers could become part of a conversation that has nothing to do with the painter’s intent or message to the viewer, which remains a mystery. But as a nude, I find Carmenlina is not alone in the painting. Investigation reveals that Matisse, all dressed, has included himself in the painting. Was this a 1903 selfie? Matisse’s inclusion of himself clothed solidifies the painting as a nude. According to Berger a nude is for the dressed to view, and Matisse’s is a dressed viewer. Perhaps he included himself wanting me to know he knows I am looking at her and also confirming her status? But to see him one must get past her full frontal nudity, which beautiful as it is, there is more to see here. The artist has included a back view of Carmenlina in a mirror. Berger tells us: “the painter’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject” but “our perception or appreciation of an image depends upon our own way of seeing” (Berger 142). We have a choice between only seeing Carmenlina facing us, or Matisse looking at us.
The composition of the painting was a topic discussed in my lecture I attended so long ago. The discussion included the importance of her posture as she sits on the table to the composition. One must understand, in the voice of the experts: “the compositional unity of a painting contributes fundamentally to the power of its image” (Berger 145). Carmenlina sits solidly and faces the viewer along with the art that hangs on the walls in the painting. But she has never looked comfortable to me. I find a discomfort in her that I will never know the origin of. It looks like she is just waiting. Waiting for what I ask? It occurs to me if this setting was a doctor’s office and the title was “The doctor will be right in” all conflict would disappear. The visual of the doctor’s office would negate the need to define her discomfort. And it would be clear what the painting is about. But such is not the case. It is just a dolorous model and the sly artist in the studio, both looking at me.
The studio they inhabit appears to be quite barren. Very few objects are in view. Placed between model and artist rests two vessels. One a square bottle with a neck and stopper in front of a small urn with handles. Upon studying the square bottle I am impressed by Matisse’s idea to repeat the square shoulders and the head of the model with this bottle that sits on the same table as Carmenlina. Turning my examination to the urn, preconceived notions come to mind that in classical painting this style of urn with two handles symbolizes the female form. Unlikely Matisse would give us two objects to support the main focus of the composition. Now I see the square glass bottle with the neck and stopper pointing upward as a phallic symbol for him. The bottle is turned on a similar angle matching the artist’s pose. The square bottle and the artist are the only objects askew in the painting relating themselves to each other. What may be more telling is these vessels sit on different surfaces with a void between them echoing the space between artist and model and perhaps what he views as their status. We have two bodies and two vessels in relationship to each other. Considering this relationship I could deduce this painting is about the two of them. There is a relationship here that may not be intended for the viewers.
But as viewers, museum attendance has been decreasing for decades. Still, thousands of museum visitors’ eyes have graced Carmenlina’s naked form. What if Matisse thought no one but himself might see this painting that it would never hang in a museum. If this was for personal enjoyment, has public viewing in a museum diminished the effect of the painting?
Well-known American author Walker Percy has ideas on the theory of diminishing impact of a site and uses the Grand Canyon as an example to explain his theory. Percy assigns a value of P. to the first seeing of the Grand Canyon as viewed by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas its discoverer. For our example Carmenlina holds the value of P. as Matisse saw the painting. According to Percy each time a viewer views P. they receive only a fraction of P. the original experience. The more views, the smaller percentage of P. one receives. While the massive Grand Canyon was formed by nature’s erosion, here Matisse created a modest-size painting that demands the main subject be seen. But by creating a nude Matisse has bequeathed it to the spectators to be seen. No matter how many times Carmenlina is viewed, nothing is lost in viewing and she remains a nude painting by Matisse. This was not an accident; this was his job. According to art theorist Rudolf Arnheim in Art and Visual Perception: “the work of the painter…is considered simply a replica of the precept” (Arnheim, 155). So no value is lost.
The precept was a moment in history captured by a painter. Here we can only see what the artist has chosen for us to see. An artist has the ability to: “improve reality or to enrich it…by leaving out or adding details” (Arnheim, 155). Is this really Carmenlina or just a nude Matisse wants us to see? If there has been any cosmetic manipulations one would never know. But we want to believe it is accurate. How can you not believe in the authenticity when a master artist has included himself in the painting? I find his presence becomes like an affidavit for me to believe this is an authentic rendering of Carmenlina. Her sharp focus can only come from careful observation by the artist, which begs the same focus from its viewers.
Suppose Carmenlina was a photograph instead of a painting. Though we hear stories on images being Photoshopped all the time, we tend to believe the photo is more accurate than the painting. Upon examining a photograph details emerge that are reflections of the fraction of a second the image was taken. With a painting you not only see the details of the history of the moment it was painted, but the details of the history of the artist’s brush strokes in the time it takes him to paint. Looking into the details again, one is faced with the ambiguity is the painting about the artist or the subject. Technique cannot be separated from the artist or the painting in the same way the photo cannot be separated from its film’s emulsion.
Upon reproduction of art either photographed or printed, the reproduction becomes separated from the source. As Carmenlina the nude hangs safely in its home in an art museum, Berger tells us, once reproduced all pictorial reproduction are no longer attached to the original. Her image can be passed freely becoming transmittable. The uniqueness of the original painting is lost or ignored. The image can be used for anything the holder wants instead of a painting in a museum, which questions her nude status. Detail is lost in any form of reproduction, but her nakedness will remain clear. Outside the museum, do these forms of reproduction of a naked woman bring us into the realm of pornography? Her blatant nudity, one hand modestly and teasingly shields the darkness of her sex. This same pose can be found repeated millions of times on porn sites across the Internet. No words are needed except a URL address to convey the kind of experience you are suppose to have. Or is the reproduction a sample of the artist’s capability? Even in mass-produced reproductions one can assign the importance of the artist or subject. The experience is in the hands of the viewer.
Back in the museum, if one sits on the bench the museum has furnished directly in front of Carmenlina one can watch other viewers pass by. These viewers come from around the world, some in small groups, and others are alone. Varying in age some listen to prepackaged taped tours while others make small talk in many languages. But no one is lingering in front of Carmenlina like I am. It is a quick look and then they look away. They may only see her nakedness, not a nude painting? It is easy that the details are hidden from their view. They have learned nothing of the painting except what is on the plaque if they go so far as to read it. Have they classified Carmenlina as just another naked women on a museum visit? One can only speculate on their intensions to visit the museum. Unimpressed by the painting, I wonder would they look at a place titled the Grand Canyon as just another hole in the ground. Of course they would not. The Grand Canyon, the thing that is, has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind through its availability in books, brochures, and the Internet. Perhaps Carmenlina is in need of a lot of PR to change her status.
Carmenlina’s naked body should be an attraction to be viewed without embarrassment of one’s admiration or enjoyment. We are in a museum and that makes it acceptable to look. Reciprocally, she needs us to look to validate her status as a nude. Matisse needs us to look to validate her status. For the artist he has accomplished a perplexing masterpiece. Perhaps that is what he wanted for us.
Time has past and I must leave the museum with no answers as to Matisse’s intended focus for his panting and its viewers. But Carmenlina the painting takes my breath away every time I see it. Am I in love with her or in love with the painting, which influences my perspective? Can the painting be about the artist though I want it to be about her? If we classify the painting first as a nude, then Carmenlina is the focus of the original painting. If we classify the painting as a Matisse, the focus is on him. Final resolution must rest with each viewer. As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Arnheim, Ruduolf. “Art and Visual Perception.” 151-55. University of California Press, 1971. Print
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” Bartholomae and Petrosky 141-65.
Percy, Walker. “The Loss of the Creature.” Bartholomae and Petrosky 459-71.
Bartholomae, David, and Petrosky, Anthony, eds. Ways of Reading,
An Anthology for Writers. Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing.” BBC4, 1972. Broadcast
Matisse, Henry. “Matisse 1869.” 412. Goldwater, Robert, and Treves, Marco, eds. Artists on Art: From the XIV to XX Century. Pantheon Books Inc., 1945. Print