Xavier Encinas & Victoire Simonney shoot reclining nude story for Sixteen Journal Vol.4Words by Esme Thompson-Turcotte
In 2011, fourteen years after The Titanic was originally released, the nude sketch of Kate Winslet from the climactic love scene between the star-crossed lovers, sold at auction for $16,000.
The picture, actually drawn by director James Cameron himself, was feigned in a scene in which a fictional Rose DeWitt Bukater, played by Kate Winslet, lounges naked on a sofa in her room while her lover draws her— at her own request. When the film was re-released in 2012 in 3-D, the Chinese version of the film omitted the nude scene, to the behest of one fan, who was quoted on a blog: “I didn’t wait 15 years to see a three-dimensional iceberg.” The iconic image, which stirred such uproar when omitted, descends from a long lineage of art depicting women lounging in the nude. The reclining nude has been a trope in the western art history canon for centuries, from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century.
This icon, resting at an obtuse angle, an expression on her face somewhere between ecstatic to disaffected, has moved beyond painting and into visual culture at large, and our understanding of “the gaze.” The abundance of images of the female body in mass media and art can partially be traced back to this tradition within painting, as can its lasting effects in other artistic mediums and commercial culture.
Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1538) illustrates how the context of the reclining nude can alter the tone of her depiction. Titian’s rendition of a disrobed woman imported Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” (1510) from a pasture to a bedroom, the reclining nude subject makes eye contact with the viewer, calling into question the voyeurism which had been customary for centuries. The scandalisation of a classical trope, in Titian’s case at least, had little to do with how he depicted Venus, and more to do with how he framed her. By importing Venus from the natural world to the domestic, her nudity reads as more abrasive. The context in which she is viewed no longer feels incidental.
In “Venus of Urbino”, Venus meets the gaze of the viewer, affronting the centuries old standard of depicting the naked woman as a passive, unconscious recipient of purveyance. The combination of eye contact and a bedroom as a setting, cultivates a more provocative iteration of nudity. Perhaps the controversy lies in a mutual loss of privacy which was previously maintained by a lack of acknowledgement. Eye contact ruptures the secrecy of voyeurism and transforms the coyness of being spied on to an act of exhibitionism. Having this contact with even a fictitious woman makes it harder to project a fantasy of virginity or childlike innocence onto her.
In 1865, Édouard Manet illustrated that the styling and environment of a woman within the same pose and degree of nudity drastically alters its connotations. Manet‘s “Olympia” was subversive for its content, as the Venus was replaced by the image of a modern prostitute. The cues to Olympia’s profession lie in her accessories and other inanimate objects which imply a certain transactional relationship to the viewer.
Her nudity is juxtaposed with glamorous accessories like jewellery and high heels. Further speculative evidence is in the background of the painting, as her servant presents her with flowers, presumably a gift from a client. Olympia’s hand, unlike Venus’s which is strewn casually across her torso, guards her crotch and signifies a sense of autonomy and even sexual rejection. The reclining nude woman, when given these attributes, is transformed from the unknowing object of desire to the conscious arbiter of her own sexuality. The viewer might feel shamed for enjoying the image of her nude body, as he is positioned as the client within the transactional relation established within the confines of the brothel Manet paints.
The maintenance of eye contact established by Titian became commonplace for centuries thereafter. Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Cézanne and countless others who depict the reclining nude woman, replicate this eye contact between subject and viewer.
Other subversions of the reclining nude include Abigail Ekue’s photo, Sleeping Beauty, in which the typical male gaze is eradicated by a gender role reversal, featuring a reclining nude men shot by a female photographer. Hanna Wilke’s Intra-Venus, (1992-1993) echoes the formal elements of the tradition in a triptych of self-portraits depicting her cancer-addled body over the course of her treatment for lymphoma. Her body is bruised and swollen from invasive medical procedures, yet the pose, (and the on-the-nose play on words for a title) explicitly reference the historically idealised depiction of the female body. Wilke’s Venus adopts the pose but her body, weakened by illness, is unmistakably human. Despite the many abstractions and deviations from the old masters’ norm of the reclining nude, outdoors and unaware of the viewer, the image is so iconic that virtually any iteration of the posture is tied to its canonical lineage, not limited to the medium of painting but applicable to the larger collective visual memory.
Photography: Xavier Encinas, assisted by Benjamin Bouchet. Styling: Victoire Simonney, assisted by Salomé Rouquet. Make-up: Céline Martin @ Artlist. Hair: Paolo Soffiatti @ Management + Artists. Set Design: Chloé Guerbois. Talents: Irene Guarenas @ Oui & Palmyre Tramini @ Women. DOP: Paul-Anthony Mille, assisted by Juliana Vélez. Equipment & Film Scanning: Kafard Films. Production: Supergravity. Post-Production: Artifices. Studio: Oddity.