From Venus Pudica to IG-Spot
by Paola Paleari
The female figure has been intended as an aesthetic canon throughout the entire art history, and the woman’s body is one of the most represented subjects. Bound to the modern way of understanding the world, Renaissance nude models are inspired by Greek-Roman classics, but with a different function: they are far from symbolic precepts and driven by laic purposes. This, however, does not imply a release of the female representation. An example is the two renowned masterpieces by Sandro Botticelli, Primavera and The Birth of Venus: they both represent the ideal of the virtuous woman who, aware of her condition of nudity after birth, hastens to cover her private parts as her first adult reaction. The ancient idealization of Venus Pudica is here pursued: a Hellenic way of representing the goddess, naked or half-naked, covering the pubis and the breast with her arms.
Since the advent of the commercial image in the XX century, the ideas of femininity, beauty and sensuality have undergone a methodical standardization that has led to the acceptance and perpetuation of a number of clichés around the contemporary womanly image. This applies both to cinema and photography. In this regard, the essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema written in 1975 by Laura Mulvey is one of the most influential texts. Her study focuses on the use of the Hollywood film technique known as “subjective viewpoint”, which usually coincides with the gaze of the male protagonist. Considerably, female characters provide a pleasurable visual experience for men and function as the object of their look, rather than the bearer of it.
In response to this systematic objectification, during the years of feminist militancy the body becomes women’s prime instrument to pursue political instances. It is the heyday of performance art: female artists start using their bodies as a ground matter for the exploration of concepts such as resistance, pain and pleasure. This kind of research is located in a territory of conflict against the female role and sexuality, and directs attention towards the crisis of stereotypical identity by drawing a new, independent and ever-changing image of the self.
Today, the dynamics of self-representation are unleashed: the overflow of social networks and the ubiquitous presence of photographic cameras have led to a spectrum of communication tools providing a public reach that is wider than ever. Above all, the phenomenon of selfies has revolutionized the way of describing one’s life and body. It is a quick, easy, light and funny format, that has made photographic documentation an indissoluble part of this narrative. It is a very controversial gesture, that some critics see as a typically narcissistic act, often connected to low self-esteem. On the other hand, the selfie has opened the dam of how and why we represent ourselves, and for whom.
Considering the importance of the self-portrait within the feminist movement and the role played by the selfie on social networks – Instagram in the first place – I cannot avoid establishing a certain connection. Through self-portraiture, women have taken on the representation of their own body and sexuality, subtracting them from the direction of the male gaze and re-proposing them in an autonomous way. Very often, the self-portrait operates in the space between real and fictitious identity: the subject plays a dual role, in front of and behind the lens.
Instagram has boosted this ambiguity, and not only for the better: a high level of consciousness is needed in order to navigate a visual realm where it is hard to distinguish the staged from the posed, the daily life from the playact. A large amount of Instagram users are not aware of the algorithm-based machine that is set to work whenever they share an apparently harmless selfie, or rest on the most superficial aspects of the medium. Nevertheless, I believe that there is space for more than stigmatization when it comes to new possibilities of self-expression.
I have an Instagram account myself and I am intrigued by a certain kind of user, typically a young woman who makes use of social media to convey a picture of herself and her world that flouts the codes associated with feminine identity. Such a profile usually counts a great number of followers and presents visual material – mainly snapshots and smartphone videos – informed by an amateurish, everyday aesthetic that aims at showing the female body and habits as imperfect and real, rather than pretty and girlish. Signe Ralkov, Arvida Byström, Louise Cehofski and Maja Malou Lyse are four Scandinavian Instagrammers I am bringing as examples in connection to this article, but the phenomenon is of course worldwide and sums an increasing number of accounts.
The pictures are mainly taken with natural light and posted unedited: cellulite, stomach fat, monthly blood and body hair are shown for what they are, that is, the normal condition of the vast majority of women. At the same time, these users prove to have a fine knowledge of the current standards in fashion, entertainment and advertisement, which they often mock and re-use to their own advantage. For instance, Signe Ralkov crafted (and wore) a thong made from the famous IKEA Frakta bag, after Balenciaga launched in April 2017 an extra-large leather shopper that almost literally copied the style of the $0.99 tote bag. She also questions the woman’s role (or duty) in procreating by using chicken eggs in her selfies.
Humour and self-irony play a fundamental role and they are largely employed to cast a different light on female sexuality: Louise Cehofski adorns her body with tampons and condoms, places her smartphone so to cover her genitals and censors her nipples, which are banned on IG, with extravagant objects such as fidget spinners. As a side note, it is worth underlining that the Venus Pudica principle is still applied to personal self-expression, especially in relation to one’s own body, while female nudity is largely accepted in the commercial and artistic universe.
Even if it is often difficult to separate the everyday action from the performative act, Instagram and Internet at large are actively used as a platform where to practice gestures that are overtly artistic. Maja Malou Lyse is a visual artist and performer who uses her web platforms to educate, explore and test feminist and political theory through projects such as workshops in self-gynaecology and Boothbitch, a longtime blog about sexual health, female empowerment and patriarchy.
Together with fellow artist and Instagrammer Arvida Byström, she organizes a series of Selfie-Stick Aerobics classes, openly fooling the excesses of fitness culture. Byström is also co-author of the book Pics or It Didn’t Happen, published by Prestel a few months ago, that collects hundreds of pictures Instagram has banned and removed – again, it goes without saying that they are mainly female nudes, considered “inappropriate” accordingly to IG’s user guidelines.
Given the extent of the phenomenon, its newness and implications, it is difficult to come to a conclusion as of now. It would be naive to state that Instagram is reshaping feminism and the way women depict themselves: in many cases, a perpetuation of the same formal language that here stands accused could actually be glimpsed. However, I believe we are witnessing some totally new ways of discussing image policy and female representation, and of processing topics that are still half-taboo, such as masturbation, shame and insecurity. Internet is a space where high and low meet, commitment and exhibitionism are blurred together and where activists, artists and extroverts share the same arena and meet the audience directly on their devices. Ultimately, even in the case these experiences came from individualistic premises, they give voice to a collective story that is still struggling to find recognition in the current artistic as well as social system. Time will tell.
This essay was published in AF·ART magazine, issue #06 – Mod Systemer / Against the System, December 2017