Dance Ten, Looks Three

By Brenda Clough
venusThis weekend I went to the National Gallery in Washington DC to see Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Art and Design 1848-1900.  A thrilling and gorgeous exhibition, with much of the material on loan from the Tate Museum in London. It is going to move from DC to other US cities, so seek it out if it comes near you. It’s a fantasy writer’s dream book.

There are many many things that could be said about the Pre-Raphaelites, but I am going to focus on the thing that struck me yesterday. It is that the artists of this school were not turned on by what rings the chime of modern artists.  Look at the women on any current batch of books, comics, magazine covers, or movie posters.  What do you see?  Tits and ass, if I may be plain. The eye of the modern artist is profoundly focused on women’s chests and women’s crotches.

This cannot be news to anybody, and has surrounded us for so long that we assume it is the way things have always been.  Have a look, however, at the image at the top of this post. What is the focus of this particular painting?  No boobs and butts here.  Having surveyed a hundred or so paintings from these guys, let me lay it out for you.  The Pre-Raphaelites were profoundly interested in necks, hair and feet.  The sweep of a swanlike neck, the angle of a jaw — that’s what they thought was hot. The neck and jaw are in the vast majority of these works, lovingly delineated over and over again, usually excessively pale on a darker ground so that it pops right out at you.

And feet!  Even if every other part of the Lady of Shalott is backlit or in shadow, somehow a ray of sunshine hits her feet, which are bare, perfectly arched, and not afflicted with bunions, hammer toe or dry skin. Perseus fights the dragon on black rocks in full black armor, but mysteriously he is barefoot.  Or, more precisely, he is wearing the winged sandals of Hermes, but they are strapless, sole-free, and essentially invisible, so that we may admire the white shapely feet, glowing like milk glass against the dark background. It is an unmissable theme, almost fetishized.

And hair, for a Pre-Raphaelite, has to be like in the rock musical: long, straight, curly, ragged, blonde, red, or brunette, as long as it’s vastly abundant. Hair that would be almost impossible to manage in real life, hair that calls for a brigade of maids to comb, dress, wash, and pin up, hair that fills quadrants of paintings and is long enough to form a coverlet — that’s what is painted in exquisite detail.

Bosoms and butts held no interest for these gentlemen.  Venus, the red-clad woman in the painting, is flat-chested and wearing a high-necked gown.  She would never make it onto the cover of a fantasy novel today without implants.

I can only conclude that what is erotic to the modern eye has nothing to do with the turn-ons of the past.  And that says to me that things can and do change. Today the flat but sassy chorine has to go and buy herself a fancy pair. A hundred and fifty years ago she might well have been shedding her shoes and lifting her chin up. What will we think is hot, a hundred years from now?



Posted in Art, Culture Tagged permalink

About Brenda Clough

Brenda W. Clough spent much of her childhood overseas, courtesy of the U.S. government. Her first fantasy novel, The Crystal Crown, was published by DAW in 1984. She has also written The Dragon of Mishbil (1985), The Realm Beneath (1986), and The Name of the Sun (1988). Her children’s novel, An Impossumble Summer (1992), is set in her own house in Virginia, where she lives in a cottage at the edge of a forest. Her novel How Like a God, available from BVC, was published by Tor Books in 1997, and a sequel, Doors of Death and Life, was published in May 2000. Her latest novels from Book View Cafe include Revise the World (2009) and Speak to Our Desires. Her novel A Most Dangerous Woman is being serialized by Serial Box. Her novel The River Twice is newly available from BVC.


Dance Ten, Looks Three — 10 Comments

  1. Oh, yes. It can read somewhat peculiar, when George Eliot goes on and on about women’s lovely ‘stems’ (necks) and the gracefulness of her characters’ throats and necks. Also women wanted those sloping shoulders.

  2. In an era when most everything was covered up, the arch of a foot, the slope of a shoulder, the height and “purity” of a forehead (how on earth does a forehead become pure?), and the roundness of of the forearm were huge draws. When I consider that there were periods where women plucked their hairlines so that their foreheads would start further back, it makes today’s excesses seem less excessive and more part of the human condition.

    • Oh, my yes–this was the age of phrenology, so emphasizing various skull attributes was a signal if this or that quality (or lack of quality) in characters.

      Re hairline plucking, the illos of fashionable women of the medieval era in their houpelands and high headdresses, seemingly bald, their hairlines had been plucked back so far, and with their enormous stomachs sticking out. What a look!

      I remember someone speculating that plucking one’s hairline back so far probably kept lice from dropping down one’s face. I always wondered if that was an issue, especially after reading Grimmelshausen’s mid-seventeenth century novel in which we learn the proper etiquette for louse picking.

  3. You can see the shift of standards in beauty if you travel far enough. In China women are supposed to be slender, slight, and pale, with delicate faces and hands — flowerlike. When my daughter arrived, her mother foolishly worried about her going jogging at dawn, arrogantly attired in a pair of short-shorts. Then I realized that in China, athletically toned women with square shoulders and an aggressive mein are not beautiful. They are alien. So I quit worrying. (Also, if accosted, she could knock your block off.)
    And no body mod is as severe as tight corsetry, which can shove your organs up into your lung cavity. Or foot-binding.

  4. Interesting that the “medieval dress” Janie and the other pre-Raph women adopted was uncorseted and unconfining. It was an odd movement, simultaneously conservative and progressive, supportive of women’s work, but only as muses and seamstresses and embroiderers, handmaidens of men’s visions. Morris the Socialist founded a company that made opulent fabrics, tapestries, furniture, and ornaments for the homes of the wealthy.

    • The artistic dress movement, starting from that, also went for corset-less-ness.

      I was telling a reenactor that I had made a stempunk heroine go for artistic dress and she was quite pleased at the notion of a Victorian heroine with a reason not to wear a corset.

    • It seems to me that a lot of the folks these days looking to opt out of corporate life are also making products for those who are better off — the upper middle class, if not the 1 percent. Though women’s choices have certainly expanded.

  5. The image is small, but you can see in the painting that Venus is uncorseted, as are her handmaidens. Certainly the bodies the Pre-Raphaelites painted were more natural than the usual run of Victorian and Edwardian beauties. Looking over the entire exhibit I was even able to pick out the gowns that were recycled, from model to model! The dark blue one, worn by the musician in the center of the painting, can be recognized in other works.

  6. Since I first discovered the Pre-Raphaelites — the hours spent pouring over their work can’t be counted.

    The difference in those days between these women and the amubulatory wedding cakes that were the average middle-class – upper woman’s appearance — you didn’t even see their shoes or feet; they didn’t walk, they glided or floated, somehow, within the whalebone structures and the acres and acres of stiffened, overlaid fabrics — I still can’t image how shocking these paintings had to have been to the average viewer.

    OTOH, among those average viewers were thousands of men, who were the patrons of the untold thousands of fallen women in London and everywhere else in Europe. So, some of them, at least, probably knew what ‘real’ women looked like. Including notoriously Dickens and his company of jolly whore-vacationers to Paris, that included Wilkie Collins and Bulwer Lytton!

    Love, C.

  7. I was delighted to regale the people I went to the exhibit with the scuttlebutt about John Ruskin and his first marriage. Some gossip just never stales, you know?