The Degradation of Women in Art
By Lauren Amato
Assia Djebar’s postface, “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound,” is a feminist reading of Eugene Delacroix’s painting, “The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” which was done in the 1830s. After Henri Matisse died in 1954, Pablo Picasso began a series of paintings of a variation of Delacroix’s painting. He did this in order to continue Matisse’s tradition of using odalisques, while referencing someone that both had a great respect for. An odalisque is a concubine or a female slave in a harem. Picasso’s females are represented in this way in his variation of Delacroix’s painting, “The Women of Algiers.” While Assia Djebar is correct about Picasso’s version liberating these women, I do feel that she has overlooked some very important points that contradict what she is trying to prove. Helene Cixous’s “New French Feminisms” demonstrates her consensus with Djebar that the woman needs to break free from the harem, but she proposes that woman writing woman is the solution to the objectification of women. This essay will demonstrate that Djebar’s reading of Delacroix’s painting is one that illustrates many of the problems with the silencing of women, but that she fails to discuss several problems that still remain with Picasso’s version. Although the female is being liberated in Picasso’s art, he still depicts these women as odalisques, and they are transformed from passively silent creatures to exploited sexual objects. Helene Cixous recognizes the silencing of women as a problem also, and her article provides insight and complicates even more the problem of male artists representing women in art.
To begin, Djebar is very accurate about the fact that Delacroix’s painting distances us from the women, and that Picasso breaks this distance in his variation. Djebar says that the centering effect that Delacroix strategically used has “a triple result: to make the three women, who now penetrate more deeply into their retreat, more distant from us; to uncover and entirely bare one of the room’s walls, having it weigh down more heavily on the solitude of these women; and finally to accentuate the unreal quality of the light” (136). These women in Delacroix’s painting are, in fact, completely distant from the viewer. The painting is an interrupted scene of these women, who are unaware of the intrusion. The eyes are not directed at the viewer, and the faces remain blank. The viewer has no idea of the psychology of these women, what emotions they feel, or what they are thinking about. They remain expressionless in order to make them more distant from the viewer. There is an unreal quality of life to make this seem more like a dream than a reality because women really do have emotions, desires, and their own thoughts. The dark quality of the light sets the dreary tone of the painting. The color does not give off positive feeling, but rather serves as a signal that something is wrong. The gloomy room that these women are sitting in illustrate that there are feelings here that we are completely unaware of. Djebar says that these women “remain absent to themselves, to their body, to their sensuality, to their happiness” (137). Not only are the women in the painting distanced from the viewer, but they are also distanced from themselves. They are not in touch with their bodies, sexuality, or happiness in this painting.
Cixous, like Djebar, discusses in her article that women should not accept being silenced and should break free from the harem, as well as proposing a solution through writing the body. Cixous mentions that “women should break out of the snare of silence. They shouldn’t be conned into accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem” (251). According to Cixous, women have been tricked into accepting the male’s construction of the harem. However, this manipulation cannot be seen in either piece of art. All that can be physically seen by a viewer is a group of women who have conformed to the ideas of men freely. The women in Delacroix’s painting are sitting expressionless is a room that males have designed especially for them. There is a lack of pain and suffering in the faces of these women who are bound to a single room at the request of a male authority. In Picasso’s painting, the women have broken from the harem, like Cixous said they should. A problem still exists with women only being seen as sexual objects. They are either sexual objects hidden from public eyes, or sexual objects exploited. In order to eliminate the idea of a woman as a sexual figure, which denies woman as an intellectual person, Carouse’s point should be considered. “By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display” (Cixous, 250). The only way for a woman to avoid being represented as a sexual object is for a woman to paint woman herself. This would involve a depiction of women as intellectual beings with power and authority, rather than sexual and helpless beings. The only problem that would arise if woman painted woman would be trying to erase the pre-existing notion of the female as helpless and as a sexual object. There will still be some women that will write (or paint) women from this male perspective without realizing it.
Picasso’s variation of Delacroix’s painting treats the female differently because women are given power through sexuality, which Cixous endorses to a degree. Rather than an interruption scene, Picasso wants the viewer to know that the woman standing is aware that she is being viewed in the nude. Her eyes are directly staring out of the painting. The breasts and navels are exposed, and these women are more three-dimensional. Rather than descending in space, like Delacroix’s version, these women are protruding from the painting, and the colors are bold. INTHEFRAY Magazine says that “Picasso horrified his contemporaries…he mocks the traditional passive female nude” (Farrell, 3). Matisse, one of Picasso’s contemporaries represented his female nude as “that of a powerless but sexual object” (Farrell, 4). Picasso transformed Delacroix’s exotic representation of women into a new representation that liberated female sexuality, permitting the women to have power through their sexuality. Delacroix’s painting represented exotic women devoid of all sexuality. No longer are the women distanced from us or from themselves. These are women with power, opposed to Delacroix’s women of passivity, and Matisse’s treatment of the female nude. The very fact that the women are breaking out of the painting shows that Picasso wanted them to be assertive. The message being conveyed is that women, like men, are capable of exerting their sexuality with power, and do not need to be ashamed of it. Cixous also endorses that women need to celebrate the female body without being ashamed of it. She says, “From this ‘self permission,’ multiplication of the effects of the inscription of desire, over all parts of my body and the other body” (Cixous, 254). Cixous is trying to say that by granting oneself permission to have sexual desires, she will love her own body and not feel ashamed of loving the female body in general. While Picasso’s odalisques do not seem to be ashamed of their sexuality, they are not expressing acceptance with their body. Rather, they are addressing an audience, suggested by the woman staring out of the picture. While many might see these women as accepting their bodies and celebrating them, they are really still looking for male approval. The eyes are focused on the viewer, rather than on themselves or each other.
While Assia Djebar celebrates Picasso’s painting as liberating of women, she has overlooked a large implication with the way that Picasso decided to represent these women. The text says, “The veil that shielded her from the looks of strangers is in fact experienced as a ‘piece of clothing in itself,’ and to no longer have it means to be totally exposed” (Djebar, 139). The “veil” is seen as a concept metaphor for being covered up in public. If a woman is used to wearing a “veil” in public, it is not a good feeling to go outside without it. Imagine going to work without a shirt for the day. This absence of a clothing garment that one is used to leaves a person feeling humiliated and insecure. You can imagine the anxiety that a woman faces when she has to go through this, but yet this embarrassment is the man’s solely. The woman is ostracized from her own feelings. In Delacroix’s painting, the women are kept secluded from the eyes of others by staying in the harem. A harem is a private room for women in a Muslim family. Picasso’s variation of “The Women of Algiers” makes these women publicly displayed. Rather than the women being distant from the viewer, the women are aware of being exposed to unknown eyes. While this may be the liberation of female sexuality, it is still the depiction of embarrassment, discomfort, and anxiety of these women. Picasso’s women are odalisques, so wearing a veil in public would still be a custom instilled in them. It is unavoidable to experience humiliation in a context that is not socially accepted by one’s culture. If Picasso wanted to liberate female sexuality, then he should not have kept them as odalisques. By keeping these women as odalisques, there is a shameful and terrifying connotation with this picture, after having read Assia Djebar’s book, which she does not tackle because she is so excited with the liberation of female sexuality. This aspect of Picasso’s work is overlooked in her excitement.
While Picasso does transform a passive woman without pleasure into a powerful and sexual being, it may also be argued that he is degrading the woman into a sexual object. It is important to maintain a clear mind and not get too excited with Picasso’s sexual liberation of the women because equality still does not exist. The power only exists in this extreme form of sexuality, disregarding the humanity of the women. Picasso makes female sexuality seem so idealistic and exotic that it takes over the entire quality of the painting. The importance of this Surrealist painting is that it exists more to conjure up a certain mood than to convey any idea. This movement in the art world held that the unconscious was the source of art. The purest Surrealism is achieved by psychic automatism (Harden). The mood of this painting is pure sexuality. Any power represented by women is sexual power. While it is still a step above what Delacroix was doing, it is not what Djebar says is, “the door open to the full sun” (151). She overlooks the difference between the various artistic movements. One cannot compare Delacroix and Picasso in the same manner because Delacroix was not a Surrealist painter. Picasso’s painting conveys a male’s idealistic fantasy of female sexuality and power, rather than the more important types of power in a society. It has been said that Picasso’s “very real sexism lies above all that—in his art’s very strangeness. The superhuman can never be fully human” (Haber, 4). This is exactly the problem with Picasso’s representation of the woman. She is so idealized and “superhuman” that this power cannot even be legitimized because it is nothing more than that of a male’s sexual fantasy. It is not a hopeful representation for feminist theorists because of the dreamlike quality that this painting is represented with.
Another problem with the idealization of these women is that, as Cixous discusses, woman is being universally defined. Women are unique and cannot be simplified to a “universal woman.” “You can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes – any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another” (Cixous, 246). Although Cixous refers to women universally, she recognizes that all women are unique and cannot be classified together. A major problem with Delacroix’s and Picasso’s representation of women is that women are being displayed as all distanced or exploited. There is no room left for the woman that is accepting of her body, has power, and is not a sexual object. This type of woman is very different from another woman in a nunnery, as well as a woman that is a prostitute. Both artists have failed to portray women as uniquely different, probably because their sexuality is the main point of interest. Rather than representing the women differently from one another, the women in both paintings are illustrated as either sexual or not. There is no happy medium and there is no room for differentiation in any area other than sexuality.
Djebar has also failed to realize that just because the harem is gone does not mean that the painting has strayed from the “man’s world.” Assia Djbar says, “For there is no harem any more, its door is wide open and the light is streaming in” (149). While the harem that the women are in has been opened up, the women are still being represented as odalisques, which are female slaves and concubines. It is a rarity for the idea of rape to not come to mind when mentioning slaves because female slaves were often rape victims, as Djebar mentions. She says, “The words that named it became, where rape was concerned, an explicit and unanimous condemnation” (150). Concubines are females that are only associated with a man for sexual relations, and female slaves are usually raped. Therefore, to say that breaking out of the harem sets these women free is false. A female slave is not free! A female slave is a form of the sexual objectification of these women. The harem is not the obstacle, but rather breaking out of this “man’s world” that ultimately stands in the way of female equality. Picasso did not have to represent these women as odalisques, but by doing so, it shows that the male unconscious still sees women as inferior sexual objects. Picasso supposedly has a “morbid fascination with prostitution,” which explains his unconscious representation of the women in this way (Quigley, 2). Picasso’s representation of women belongs to a system of “prevalent but largely unspoken and unequal power relations. These relations can be thought of as a set of rules about who can speak, what can be said about whom, when it can be said, and what meanings will be expressed” (Quigley, 2). Picasso’s series of paintings, some including women with their legs spread, are liberating the sexuality of women, which can be seen as the speech of these women. However, the power relations that are being expressed can only be represented through sexuality, in the form of objectifying women as sexual objects. Still, they are represented as slaves and concubines. The meaning of the painting lacks all of these things though because Surrealist paintings are meant to convey an idea and mood. Here, the idea is female sexuality unleashed, and the mood is exotic. This is nothing more than a male fantasy, which can not say much about the power of women outside of this context. Since the male fantasy is of exotic women, it follows that all women are exotic. According to this, all women are sexual beings. That is not always the case. Some women are not sexual at all, while others are only moderately sexual. Regardless, sexuality is not what should be emphasized by the man when he thinks of the woman. By emphasizing sex over morale and intelligence, he objectifies these women in an unacceptable manner.
Cixous discusses how female power has always been associated with the body. “For a long time it has been in body that women have responded to persecution, to the familial-conjugal enterprise of domestication, to the repeated attempts at castrating them” (Cixous, 257). Power has been demonstrated throughout history by women in terms of the body. This is probably because the only way women were able to express even a little power was through voice and death. Men may have been able to control the roles of women, but the few women that have found power have done so by means of protest, sacrificing one’s body, and being killed. Similarly, Picasso’s painting only shows the odalisques as having power through sexually exploiting their bodies. This type of power is problematic because it is a false sense of power. It adheres to a male audience. The power only exists if the men look at the women. Therefore, without the men there is no female power through sexuality in Picasso’s painting. The fact that the women are odalisques does not help too much because women that are slaves are usually not empowered by sexuality, but rather rape and stripped of any sexual power. Cixous says that instead of expressing feminine power through the body, it should be done through writing language. Writing, like art, depends of the person writing it to do this. Just because a woman is writing herself does not mean that she is writing her self without the already existing masculine ideas of the woman. These ideas have been so deeply embedded in some women that it is a challenge to disregard them altogether. Women have to try to stray away from seeing themselves the way that men see them, and instead they need to see themselves through their own eyes. Once all women can accomplish this very difficult task, the language can be very liberating for women. There definitely is room for power in language that Cixous brings forward. It is an interesting point to add that all writing and art is only possible if there are people to read and view it. Without a male audience reading a female language, I am not sure if it is possible to have power over them in terms of language alone. There really should be several ways to assert the woman as a powerful being worthy of equality. However, language is absolutely a great start.
One can imagine how Assia Djebar could have overlooked so many aspects of Picasso’s artwork because any step towards female equality and power is an accomplishment. However, while excited, one must always be critical of the problems that still arise. Picasso’s “The Women of Algiers” does represent the liberation of female sexuality. However, it still demonstrates many aspects where women are being subjected and degraded by Picasso himself. I feel that Assia Djebar credits Picasso more than he deserves. Picasso’s painting is only a small step in the right direction, but there is so much more that needs to be conveyed that Picasso’s painting complicates. Though women find power through their sexuality in this painting, what does the fact that the women are still odalisques convey? Are women ever going to be represented as humanized, or will they always be idealized as these “superhuman” figures? Furthermore, will feminine power always be associated with sexuality and the body like Cixous has proposed? These are some of the problems with one finding oneself to be content with something that is still so debatable and unclear. Yes, we should celebrate the power depicted in Picasso’s painting, but at the same time we should be very critical about the way that power is being represented and the problems that exist with representing female power in this way. We should also be very critical about these paintings because both are representing women in a universal way. There is no room left for the unique quality of women from one another. The paintings just show that all women are either sexual or all women are not sexual. Most women fall somewhere in between and sexuality is most often not the main focus of a woman’s life. The women in Picasso’s painting, while they seem to be expressing a sexual power, are really just looking for male approval. This is another example of how anyone can interpret literature or art with their own motives. One might see sexual power as liberating while another sees the sexually exploited woman looking for approval from the audience. I believe Cixous’s article is very insightful about the way that language can be used by the male and by the woman, and I feel that both Cixous and Djebar are headed in the right direction, despite the implications that I have pointed out.
Cixous, Helene. “A New French Feminisms.” The University of Massachusetts Press: Amherst.
Djebar, Assia. “Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound.” The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment.
University of Virginia Press: London. 1992.
Farrell, Maureen. “The Painted Ladies of Queens.” INTHEFRAY Magazine. June 2003.
Haber, John. “Six Centuries of Madonnas.” Review of Thomas Wilmer Dewing: Beauty
Reconfigured. Haber’s Art Reviews: New York. http://haberarts.com/dewing.htm
Harden, Mark. “Dada and Surrealism.” Mark Harden’s Artchive.
Leal, Brigitte, Christine Piot, Marie-Laure Bernadac, Jean Leymarie. The Ultimate Picasso.
Hary N. Abrams. 2000. (For images of Picasso’s series of paintings)
Quigley, T. R. “Semiotics and Western Painting: An Economy of Signs.” The New School
Visual and Cultural Studies. 1994.
© Lauren Amato