Through the Looking Glass: Distortion and the Fantasy of a Feminist Nude

Louise Bonnet, "Figure Holding an Orange," 2023. © Louise Bonnet. Photo: Ed Mumford. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

Rarely do I find a work of art as disturbing as Louise Bonnet’s innocuously titled painting Figure Holding an Orange (2023). This thirty-square-foot oil-on-linen piece, included in the Swiss painter’s solo exhibition 30 Ghosts at Gagosian in New York, depicts a reclining nude cradling a tangerine in her left hand. Something about her mortifies me. Despite having seen enough reclining nudes, particularly in painting, to have developed an indifferent—and at times ironic—attitude toward the genre, I’m possessed by an urge to shield her exposed body. (It is not enough to look away.)

For a while, I thought it was the figure’s legs that bothered me. Their meaty, contoured thighs and knobby knees reminded me of my own, a personal insecurity. Or it was the rolls of pale ribcage fat that cascade down her angled torso, halted by the sheer black tights drawn over her protruding abdomen, bisected by a seam resembling linea nigra. Then I realized it was the nose: an elongated, birch-colored appendage, shaped like a baseball bat, jutting from the figure’s face, so long it must be supported by a rod lodged in her navel. It resembles the nose of Pinocchio, the puppet protagonist from Carlo Collodi’s 1881 tale. When I was a child, my family owned a picture book featuring the motley-attired, ruddy-cheeked puppet, of whom I was also mortified. When he told his first lie, his nose sprang from his face and sprawled across two pages as Geppetto and others looked on. Now the phallic associations seem obvious to me, but my childhood terror stemmed from a broader source: the sudden, pubescent transformation of the body, an experience one has no control over.

It is likely that my feelings toward Bonnet’s Figure Holding an Orange arise from what Lauren Elkin calls “feminist protectiveness.” Elkin uses the phrase in her recently published book, Art Monsters, a book that seems to speak directly to Bonnet’s practice without mentioning the artist by name. Art Monsters deals with the body’s role in the cultural production of the 1970s, when discussing feminist critics’ “irritation” with artists like Hannah Wilke, whom writers like Lucy Lippard accused of sending “politically ambiguous” messages at a time when feminism, in Elkin’s words, “needed supporters; it needed its practitioners not to do things to fuel the anti-feminists’ fire.” One can sympathize with the critiques: artists who flaunted conventionally attractive bodies could be accused, by both feminists and anti-feminists, of acting in bad faith by thinking they were affecting radical change when, really, they were propagating pernicious beauty standards that undermined their politics. My irritation with Bonnet is perhaps an inversion of Lippard’s: At first glance, Bonnet’s painted figure is too ugly. She is an amalgamation of exaggerated body parts, and she encodes, in a distinct visual language, a set of socially enforced affects and anxieties. Yet, upon closer inspection, she exceeds the cultural meanings I project onto her. In the way that she resembles the furnishings she reclines against, her flesh bulging like upholstery and folding like fabric, she presents more as materiality than as metaphor. She certainly does not need a viewer’s protection.

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses (film still), 1967. © Carolee Schneemann. Foundation/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023.

Although reviewers tend to categorize Bonnet’s figures as women, the artist has noted that gender is not her main conceptual focus, and catalogue essays—such as one describing the way Bonnet’s subjects “fluctuate in a kind of gender-blended state”—also sidestep any explicit feminist readings. If I refer to the figures as feminine forms, it is because I’m reading them through my own experiences of gender. To consider Bonnet’s figures as women also allows us to situate them within the fraught history of the Western female nude and to draw visual connections, for example, between them and paintings like Manet’s Olympia (1863), whose body is portrayed as a commodity guarded by her disdainful gaze; Picasso’s Woman by the Sea (1922), whose massive form, emphasized through foreshortening, is a surface on which the artist projects his interest in classical antiquity; and René Magritte’s The Rape (1945), a Surrealist portrait in which breasts, a navel, and a triangle of pubic hair stand in for the features on a woman’s face. Such depictions show not only that distortion of the body in painting is nothing new but also how much the body can hold and withstand as a cipher, conveying cultural concepts such as class, history, and power. Working against this tendency to instrumentalize the body as metaphor, the postwar artists in Elkin’s book attempted to reclaim the nude in a scattered series of feminist “uprisings,” using their own bodies in performance-art pieces. Carolee Schneemann did this in her controversial performance Interior Scroll (1975), during which the artist smeared her naked body with paint and, standing with her legs apart on a table in Ashawagh Hall in East Hampton, New York, slowly extracted from her vagina a tube of paper that she read from.

Elkin nominates Schneemann as one of the titular “art monsters” in her book, and describes her scroll as looking “a bit like an umbilical cord, thick and helical.” Indeed, Schneemann’s performance, captured in photographs that the artist then printed and coated with beet juice, urine, and coffee, conjures a graphic, albeit painless, birth scene. In discussion of works like Interior Scroll, which disturb and soil their surroundings, Elkin glosses the writing of the Bulgarian French philosopher Julia Kristeva, who connects the maternal figure and her milk, blood, sweat, and pus with abjection—a state of humiliation associated with social expulsion. Bonnet’s figures seem to speak to Kristeva’s psychoanalytic theory, and I wondered if perhaps my initial aversion to them had to do with the fact that they reminded me of a maternal body I once cast off, so as to come into my own subjectivity. However, this conjecture is complicated by Bonnet’s contribution to the 2022 Venice Biennale, Pisser Triptych (2021–22), whose central figure strikes a pose akin to Schneemann’s wide-legged stance. In the central panel of Bonnet’s twenty-four-foot composition, a monumental figure holds her legs open over a yellow cone that appears to both emerge from and pierce her vulva. The suggestions of bodily fluids here, namely urine and breast milk, are abstracted; they can be read as solid cones or beams of light, but not as liquid discharge. They have an uncanniness about them, implying expulsion and impingement without leakage and mess. This is no longer abjection tied to a familiar, leaky body but rather abjection that conspires with impossible appendages. These limbs, like Pinocchio’s nose, upend notions of organicity while troubling the material boundaries of the body. 

Kara Walker, Figa, 2014 (installation view: DESTE Foundation Project Space, Slaughterhouse, Hydra, Greece, 2017). Photos: Fanis Vlastaras & Rebecca Constantopoulou. Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Sprüth Magers.

For the first epigraph of her book, Elkin chose a quote from “Professions for Women,” a speech by Virginia Woolf, who once defined her goal as a writer as “telling the truth about my own experiences as a body.” In her speech, Woolf admits to having not yet solved the issue, adding, “I doubt that any woman has.” Lately, like Woolf, I’ve been trying, with varying levels of success, to see my own body clearly and honestly and not, as it were, through a looking glass of perspectives ranging from slight distortion to full-blown dysmorphia. But I confess: like Pinocchio, I have been guilty of deceit. The disinterest with which I attend to the nude figure in art doesn’t extend to my own body, in which I have invested disproportionate reserves of emotion, weighing, documenting, plucking, pinching, and plying it with hair-growth supplements. However, I’m suspicious of anyone who equates honesty with objectivity, or suggests that objectivity is even possible: in July 2023, a scientific report showed that our hands are twice as heavy as we perceive them to be. I’m also suspicious of the concept of a singular, fixed body: a study published in 2005 claimed that the body’s cells regenerate once every seven to ten years. How can one assess their body within social structures when it’s challenging to accurately assess it in physical space? What are the ethical implications of these distortions in self-perception?

For Pinocchio, bad faith triggers an involuntary metamorphosis, though in reality, conversely, bodily changes often catalyze lifelong habits of concealment, such as covering the cleavage, hiding evidence of menstruation, or avoiding mention of having had abortions. Artists who reveal bodily truths often do so through activism or demonstrations of solidarity. In Art Monsters, Elkin discusses Suzanne Lacy’s Ablutions (1972), for which Lacy and the artists Judy Chicago, Sandra Orgel, and Aviva Rahmani had audience members sit in the dark and listen to a tape of women recounting their experiences of rape. The performance, as Elkin explains, also included “three tubs of eggs, beef blood, and liquid clay” that naked women bathed in and emerged from to be swaddled in sheets. What was important about this performance was that, at the time, women rarely shared such stories with their loved ones, let alone publicly. Here, revelation serves as a feminist tool. Perhaps my frustration with Bonnet’s paintings stems from the fact that I find myself waiting, to no avail, for their surfaces to resolve and reveal a hidden interiority.

Jessica Ledwich, Untitled III, from the series Monstrous Feminine, 2013-14. ©Jessica Ledwich 2023. All Rights Reserved.

This refusal to narrate and testify is not simply a feature of Bonnet’s medium, as Elkin’s discussion of British painter Jenny Saville demonstrates. Figure Holding an Orange visually quotes Saville’s Propped (1992), in which a fleshy nude figure sits on top of a bedpost. However, while Propped is a self-portrait of the artist—“[Saville] painted her own body on a monumental scale, Rubenesque, in mottled shades of flesh and sinew,” writes Elkin—Figure Holding an Orange is at most a portrait of Bonnet’s subconscious (the artist is often labeled a Surrealist). The exaggerated proportions and uncanny anatomical functions Bonnet depicts, in contrast to the forms of feminist art delineated in Elkin’s “monster” genealogy, are not and do not reference living people by using their bodies as form and content.

Maria Lassnig, “Selbstporträt mit Stab (Self-Portrait with Stick),” 1971. © Maria Lassnig

Moreover, Bonnet’s paintings lack any hints of a documentarian ethos found in, say, the pastels and etchings of the Portuguese British artist Paula Rego, who makes a passing appearance in Elkin’s book, though, in interviews, Bonnet has referenced Rego’s Untitled series that depicts women just after they had an abortion. In a painting titled Red Study (2022), Bonnet paints a conical beam—blood-red instead of piss-yellow—shooting out of the vulva of a lunging figure, who poses with an oversize hand placed cheekily on her hip. Whereas Rego’s figures writhe, scowl, curl on their sides in pain, and brace themselves over buckets and towels, the long, relaxed muscles of the figure in Red Study suggest neither pain nor concern. And while in Rego’s figures, the mind and the body seem at odds—the women are either trying to get a grip on their pain, or they seem impatient, wanting to hurry the bleeding along and get on with their lives—the head of the figure in Bonnet’s Red Study is minuscule. In a sense, Bonnet’s paintings portray the opposite of the adage “mind over matter.” In her distorted gestalts, the two sides of the Cartesian split are inverted.

Instead of showing us how to overcome the materiality of the body, Bonnet’s figures give us a glimpse of what life could be if we let our bodies overcome us, which is perhaps why they do not emerge triumphant from the canvas like Saville’s subjects. But they also neither “open themselves up for misogynist attack,” as Elkin writes, the way self-portraits by Wilke did for a time, according to certain critics, nor do they act as passive sites where power is processed and cultural tensions are worked out, the way the female nude has functioned over centuries of Western art history. In Art Monsters, Elkin asks repeatedly whether art can reclaim the body from the strictures of beauty. Bonnet jettisons this question altogether. She doesn’t reclaim the body—she doesn’t wrest it from the patriarchy’s grip and place it under new management—so much as she lets it take over, lets it grow like Pinocchio’s nose, without caring what that growth might reveal or imply about the person inside it. Likewise, Figure Holding an Orange, with her matter-over-mind bravado, rejects displays of feminist protectiveness and casually refuses to justify her visibility.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *