This is fantastic. How come I've never heard of Joan Semmel?
Hm, I'm not sure, but many female artists aren't as well-known as well as they could be, in my opinion! Thankfully we have the Sackler Center for Feminist Art here at the Brooklyn Museum. (This work is from their collection). Here Semmel questions the male gaze and reclaims the female form. I like to compare this with the nearby Philip Pearlstein work, which is painted at a similar time but by a male artist.
Philip Pearlstein's work is the nude woman in the rocking chair. How do you think the identity of the artists change the way you understand the works?
I see that this room with the Semmel is all paintings from approximately 1935 onwards. What would you say they have in common?
I'd say they share interest in the human figure as subject matter. Artists have always been questioning and exploring different depictions of the human body, but this gallery highlights those thoughts after the Second World War.
You might also notice the work by Mickalene Thomas is even more recent (2007). Mickalene Thomas' work (the large painting covered in rhinestones) questions not only the role of the human body in art, but also race and intersecting identities.
Answering your question about Pearlstein and Semmel, I think the Pearlstein figure is posed in a more provocative and sexual way, with her head tilted back. So maybe that's a little more stereotypical as a depiction?
And what do you mean "intersecting identities"?
It's a contemporary idea that people can have simultaneous multiple "identifiers." Thomas is Black, a woman, queer, and a feminist. Intersecting identity recognizes the uniqueness of an individual's experience and point of view.
Thomas's identity and work are placed within these intersecting roads of understanding and conversation. I hope that makes sense!
Yes, very enlightening, thank you!
The cool palette of this work keeps the viewer at a slight distance, removed even. And yet, the perspective is as if these bodies were our own, bridging the gap. Did Semmel often consider the gaze of the viewer? There seems to be a breaking of fourth wall here.
Wonderful observations. I want to first tell you that this painting by Semmel was a snapshot of Semmel herself, and her partner lying together so she is certainly challenging the idea of "the male gaze" as a woman doing the gazing and painting the gazing. She painted a series of works in the 1970s entitled "Sex Paintings" and the "Erotic Series" which are large paintings of sexualized people in sexual positions, so it is certainly something she was interested in at this point in her career.
As she grew older (she is now 83) she was interested in depicting the aging female body. And if you look at any of her later works, from the 1980s and on, you will see a celebration of the aging female body in the nude.
So, to your point of considering the viewer's gaze, you hit the nail on the head. That is definitely what Semmel is interested in. If you look across the gallery, there is a female nude painted by a man. It's an interesting juxtaposition of the gaze and authority.
This is amazing. Thank you!
Now I'm wondering if she was also a photographer . . . thinking about Renaissance painters & camera obscura re perspective and composition.
She uses photography EXTENSIVELY in her painting practice--some of her self-portraits even include the camera she is using to capture her image. I don't believe she considers herself a "photographer," however, as her finished works are all on canvas.
I love that you took it back to the Renaissance though! I always enjoy those paintings where an artist is looking at themselves in a mirror to complete a self-portrait.
I'm excited to see more of her work now! Thank you! I'll probably return with another question.
What do you think is the message here?
In "Intimacy-Autonomy," Joan Semmel is considering the female nude in art history. Many nude depictions of women throughout art history were made by men. In this painting, Semmel is reclaiming the nude by painting herself and her partner in bed.
She used these non-naturalistic blue tones to make the painting seem more surreal.
Could you tell me more about the artist?
Sure! Joan Semmel is a contemporary painter. Since the 1970s she has centered her work around the nude body, sexual desire and erotica. She is invested in second wave feminist critiques of the male gaze and the representation of women in art. Here Semmel paints a photograph she took of herself and her partner.
What I like most about this work is how unclear the viewpoint is. . . Is this seen through the man's eyes, or the woman's? And I start to question what if might mean if this is a man looking versus a woman. What do you think? Do these surreal blue figures make you question gender and looking?
Well at first I think this painting is seen through the woman's side. But yes, it could be from the man's side as well
I agree with you there. It's sometimes interesting to think about how point of view can change the way a work is understood. Let me know if you have any more questions as you explore :~)
Tell me more.
Though the colors are otherworldly, this painting is actually based on a photograph that the artist, Joan Semmel, took while lying in bed with her partner. She subverts the male gaze by portraying nude bodies from her own physical point of view. Completed in 1974, during the height of Women's Liberation, Semmel's work played right into the trend of reappropriating the female body.
She said: “I was convinced that the repression of women began in the sexual arena, and this would need to be addressed at the source.”
Wow, it is really a good work. Thank you.
Do you think Joan Semmel was influenced by Georgia O'Keeffe, or vice versa?
I do think that Semmel was influenced by O'Keeffe like many feminist artists of the 20th century. O'Keeffe would have been about 90 when this was created and was largely no longer painting.
However, they both lived in New York City and studied at some of the same institutions, like the Art Students League.
The color is a bit unsettling, but it demands attention.
I think part of what Semmel was trying to do with the unsettling color was call attention to the work. She's presenting this idea, of nudes from the female perspective, as an alien concept because it was at the time, in the context of traditional art history.
Why are the bodies blue?
Though this painting is done in a realistic style, the blue-green colors of the skin give the whole scene an "otherwordly" aura, which is especially interesting given that the artist was presenting an alien concept for the time: the nude from a woman's own perspective.
The painting actually recreates a photograph that the artist, Joan Semmel, took of her and her partner in bed, looking down at their bodies.
She's subverting the objectifying male gaze typical throughout Western art history by painting her own body from her perspective. The blue color also serves to desexualize the nude in a way, allowing viewers to consider other visual elements more deeply.
Is the man in this painting supposed to be an optical illusion?
This painting is based on photographs that the artist took, though, of course, with an entirely different color palette. The shapes and composition are based in reality, but certainly takes on some other connotations between the unusual point of view and the otherworldly colors.
The most common illusion that people see is that of a landscape with mountains, but that is typically applied to the woman's body. What is the illusion that you're seeing?
I feel like the male's penis is positioned to the side, while also having what resembles a female's pubic hair on the other side.
The fact that his penis has fallen to one side is simply a result of the way he is laying and the forces of gravity. From what I've read, I don't get the impression that Semmel was trying to make him appear more feminine, but that she painted what she saw. The work is really about her viewpoint.
Why are the bodies blue?
While the painting is realistic in style, the blue-green colors of the couples skin creates a sense of otherworldliness which ties in to the somewhat "alien" concept of the work: the nude from a woman's own perspective.
Semmel painted this from a photograph she took of her and her partner in bed.
The colors both demand the viewers attention in their uniqueness while also desexualizing the nude, encouraging you to consider other visual elements more closely.
Which other elements?
Elements like the perspective of the female subject, which is unusual. Also, the way their bodies and their surroundings can be likened to a landscape, with mountains and valleys and a blue sky in the background.
Hi, in Joan Semmel's Intimacy Autonomy, why are their bodies blue?
Semmel was reacting against the girlie-magazine culture and pervasive "sexploitation" that she felt was prevalent in New York, so she opted to reframe sexuality from a woman's perspective.
She captured the human form in a very naturalistic way, but she made the colors less "real" to get us to look at the subject in a new way.
This takes it even further away from pornography, in addition to the unusual vantage point.
This piece tries to be radical but fails a bit because it shows very traditionally beautiful bodies, right ?
I guess that the bodies are blue so that they don’t have a “race” ....
Wow, I really love your interpretation. The two bodies depicted are actually the artist and her lover at the time. It is a kind of self-portrait. I'm sure the artist would LOVE the fact that you considered her body beautiful.
As for the blue bodies, your interpretation that they are blue so they don't have "race" is brilliant. I have never considered this painting in that light.
I do know that the artist, Joan Semmel, loved abstract art. She painted the bodies blue because it was a way to paint a realistic painting, but also abstract it, if that makes sense.
Does the abstraction provide more dimension to her commentary?
Changing the color of the bodies (and the bedspread and background) gives the scene an alien air which parallels nicely with the somewhat alien idea of a woman artist painting her own nude body from her own perspective.
It's also a way to distance the viewer from the more obvious sexual connotations of the scene to explore more deeply other aspects of the work, like its formal qualities and/or deeper meanings.
Tell me more.
In this large scale painting, the colors are unsettling in a way that demands your attention, presenting something familiar, but with a twist. By making you examine the work more closely, you are led to consider other visual elements like the perspective from the female artist's gaze.
Why did she choose blue?
It's unclear why she chose blue specifically but changing the color of the bodies serves to make the painting a bit more abstract. It desexualizes the scene and prompts viewers to consider the work and its implications more thoughtfully.
Do you know anything about the title? Why was it called Intimacy-Autonomy?
The intimacy aspect refers to the intimate relationship between the artist and her partner, but also to the ways in which she inverts that intimacy. The autonomy aspect refers to the ways in which Semmel works against the sexual objectification of the female body and challenges the "male gaze".
And so in this sense, by desexualizing the female body, Semmel returns a sense of autonomy, i.e. being in control of oneself, to the female subject.
The title also refers to the process behind the work. For this painting, Semmel pasted together two separate photographs, one of herself and one of her lover at the time. Thus, the partners are "intimate" since they are together in the painting but also "autonomous" since the painting was composed using separate, individual pictures of each.