Throughout the history of Western art, there are few subjects as ubiquitous as that of the female form. Though artists, movements and entire structural beauty ideals may come and go, the nude or scantily clad woman remains a near-constant presence. Viewed through the prism of the male gaze, the female form has traditionally been presented as passive; a submissive object, primed by her creator for her observer’s voyeuristic consumption. However, in more recent times, women artists and photographers have begun to challenge, mirror and repurpose the often-demoralising glare of the male gaze.
The subversion of the male gaze is a practice that photographer and multi-disciplinary artist, ORLAN, adopted early in her prolific career. Striptease historique (Historical striptease), on display at Ceysson & Bénétière, Paris until 21 March, explores this practice through a selection of ORLAN’s most notable and seditious self-portraits.
Opening with the artist’s first documented work, ORLAN S’Accouche d’Elle M’Aime (ORLAN Gives Birth to Herself), the exhibition wastes no time in laying bare both the photographer’s form and philosophy. This image sees the 17-year-old stare, with something close to teenaged obstinance, past her own mannequin alter-ego. In a characteristic denial of both nature and traditional ideals of the nude, the artist births her reimagined self, marking the introduction of the stylised pseudonym she has now used for over 50 years.
Striptease Historique next presents ORLAN’s 1967 image Nu descendant l’escalier (Nude descending a staircase), in which the artist boldly disregards the avant-gardes of the past, in favour of her own anarcha-feminist ideology. Here, as throughout this exhibition, ORLAN’s self-portrait rejects the diminishing stare of the male gaze; the strength of her convictions mirrored in the dominance of her stance.
The most substantial body of work on display is a selection of 18 images, from ORLAN’s 1974 – 1975 series, Strip-tease occasionnel à l’aide des draps du trousseau (Incidental strip-tease using sheets). Draped in her Mother’s trousseau, stained by the artist with semen, the images show ORLAN’s gradual disrobing. Throughout the series, she assumes the roles of the Madonna, the whore and of Sandro Botticelli’s Venus. Once again rejecting notions of conventional femininity, gender roles and religion, the artist refocuses the female form within her own gaze, via powerful, political performance.
In condensing ORLAN’s extensive, varied and often sensationalised practice into this impactful display, Striptease Historique creates a space in which the artist’s voice can be heard without interruption. Here, ORLAN’s works can be observed as depictions of the female form, but also studied as formidable assertions of self, explored as subversions of conventional femininity and appreciated as assertive rejections of the male gaze.