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reversing the male gaze

The male gaze and its relationship with the objectified female body is one of the most common tropes throughout art history. Sylvia Sleigh tried to reverse this tradition, turning conventional portraiture on its head by painting male nudes in poses that recalled the female subjects of artists such as Velazquez, Titian and Ingres, challenging not only conventional female iconography, but also images of masculinity. Late last month, she passed away in Manhattan at age 94.

Sleigh helped spearhead the feminist art movement of the 1970s. Though her oeuvre of paintings includes a variety of subjects, male and female, clothed and unclothed, she is best known for her reclining male nudes, which commented on the traditional gendered relationship between sitter and painter. Depicting her subjects (often friends, fellow artists, and even her husband) posed as a reclining Venus or odalisque, she drew attention towards the way in which women have traditionally been rendered in art, offering viewers a new way of conceptualising the gendered relationship: through a female gaze.

Some portraits allude to specific paintings, like the 1971 Philip Golub Reclining, which mimics the pose of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus. Similarly, The Turkish Bath (1973) borrows the title and composition of Ingre’s painting, replacing his voluptuous harem women with a nude man strumming a guitar for five male companions.

But I think it’s important to note that her motivation wasn’t to ridicule or get revenge on men- her images are constructed with great admiration for the male body, carefully bringing out the dignity and individuality of each subject. By showing men in the light traditionally reserved for women, her paintings became an opportunity to show women a pleasurable and beautiful image of the male form.

As she explained: ‘I feel that my paintings stress the equality of men and women. To me, women were often portrayed as sex objects in humiliating poses. I don’t mind the “desire” part, it’s the “object” that’s not very nice. I wanted to give my perspective. I like to portray both man and woman as intelligent and thoughtful people with dignity and humanism that emphasized love and joy.’

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