All my paints and canvases have been packed away for a while now, in readiness for my moving house. Until the move happens, which could still be weeks, or even months away, I can not continue work on any of my painting; six of which are nearing completion. It is frustrating, but I am really looking forward to my new accommodation. Apart from having a dedicated studio space, I will also have use of a large, bright room for my sittings. Lots of natural light and plenty of space. So, unable to paint in the meantime, I have instead been planning my next paintings, which I hope they will take full advantage of my new “studio”.
I have often been fascinated by a number of portraits of women with bare breasts, dating from the Renaissance. They have the look of formal portraits (although they probably had a different purpose, as portraits of women were quite rare in those times), and yet they look strangely incongruous, with the sitter baring one or both breasts. This incongruity is largely a result of our modern perspective, no doubt influenced by a modern media filled with imagery sexualising the female form. Looking at female portraits, and the representation of women through history, does teach us that how we perceive the female form has changed dramatically over the years. Paintings of the Virgin Mary baring a breast for the baby Jesus were not uncommon, and clearly not intended for titillation; yet they might be viewed as improper by today’s standards.
Gauguin’s paintings of bare breasted Tahitian women are seen completely differently. The sitter is not “exposing” her breasts, as such, but is instead comfortable with no top. There is no sexual element that I can see. That is not necessarily how the later bare breasted portraits by Jan Sluijters might be interpreted. I find Freud’s painting of his wife in “Girl with a White Dog” even more difficult to analyse, given what I know about his relationship with his wife. I am fascinated with how the reaction to the representation of the human form has changed over time, and is constantly changing.
Bare breasts have been in the news lately. First there was Nigel Farage’s suggestion that breast feeding mothers should sit in the corner at restaurants. Then there was the “No More Page 3”, campaign, and their success in getting the Sun newspaper to remove photos of topless models from their paper… A success which lasted barely a week. I’m not offering an opinion on either of these stories, as I can’t allow them the time and space they deserve. I suppose they are examples of how we have differing, or rather, confused views on nudity and the human body.
Back to where I started: me and my work. And my plan to paint a series of portraits of women with bare breast(s). It is just this “confusion” which is of interest to me. There was an incident, when I first showed one of my “Relationships” paintings with two female figures. A member of the public, on seeing it in the gallery, reacted quite angrily, saying it was sick and evil, and the gallery owner was a purveyor of filth. I might have laughed at his interpretation of my work, but the truth is, I can not dictate how people view or interpret my paintings. And more importantly, no matter how ignorant or misguided someone’s view might be, it is still valid. I am not suggesting that I would give it the same weight as the considered opinion of an expert, but it is still their opinion, their interpretation, and as such, it is still valid. I don’t worry now about how people might read my work. I see it instead as just another important part of the jigsaw, the relationship between the artist, the subject and the viewer. As such, I won’t explain what my intentions are in planning this series of bare breasted portraits. I shall leave that for the viewer.