Wednesday, November 22, 2006

the gaze and (islamic?) women

For those of us who, by force of circumstance actually live the
pluri-cultural life as it entails Islam and the West, I have long felt that a
special intellectual and moral responsibility attaches to what we do as scholars
and intellectuals. Certainly I think it is incumbent upon us to complicate
and/or dismantle the reductive formulae and the abstract but potent kind of
thought that leads the mind away from concrete human history and experience and
into the realms of ideological fiction, metaphysical confrontation and
collective passion. This is not to say that we cannot speak about issues of
injustice and suffering, but that we need to do so always within a context that
is amply situated in history, culture and socio-economic reality. Our role is to
widen the field of discussion, not to set limits in accord with the prevailing

Edward Said, Orientalism (2003 Preface)

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, "The Grand Odalisque" (1814)

Ingres's "Odalisque" is an outstanding example of the way in which the Western disfiguring of women is merged with and projected as fantasies of the Islamic world, disguised as historic portrayal, curiosity about, or even criticism of the Islamic treatment of women. Ingres is often noted for the manner in which he portrays the "ideal" and here he uses the occasion of the female harem slave to project his fantasized ideal. Is it any accident to begin with that the woman is enslaved? She is unfree, held in place for the viewer toward whom she turns, with an empty, emotionless look, to meet his (sic) gaze. The framing of the picture is tight, allowing little possibility or hope of imagining the movement of her figure. She is inert and languid. But even more disturbing, in what appears at first glance to be a realist painting (he pays great attention to the details pertaining to every "thing" that appears in the painting), Ingres actually disfigures the woman to achieve the effect he desires in his idealized sexual object: most strikingly, the spine is unnaturally lengthened and twisted to achieve the long back coupled with the look back over the shoulder, and one arm is lengthened as well to make it proportionate with the back. Thus, what is presented to the viewer as a realistic portrayal of the sexual enslavement of women in the Islamic world, actually carries in it the sinister nature of the deformed Western ideal of the female which is no less violent to the female-self.


the three major anatomical distortions that are normally mentioned are:

1. the lengthening of the spine by 3 to 5 vertebrae, depending on who you ask. this can actually be seen by the non-biology-lab-inclined, such as myself, if you will observe where the curvature of the spinal column ends, then the dimples above the buttocks and then the placement of the buttocks themselves and compare them too your own spinal column (the other way of framing the complaint is that she doesnt have bones there at all, which is an observation that many make about the curvature of her right arm as well)

2. right arm is LONG, and while it matches the back to some degree, it is the right arm alone that has been lengthened. it is a little hard to tell due to perspective, but the left arm is fairly normal.

3. finally, and the one i didnt really mention earlier...notice the poor woman's legs. the left leg is actually on top of the right leg in a very unnatural and arguably impossible fashion (adding to those who complain about her not having bones at all).

the readings of the "odalisque" fall into several categories.

1. ingres's odalisque is the most important painting (some do actually go that far!) of the 19th century because he is the first (or among the first) to mess around with reality, forshadowing later modernism.

2. ingres paints ideals. to be concerned with the concrete matter, is to miss the fact that the matter only points to the form of the beautiful (the beautiful woman, or is woman herself simply something to be seen through as so much matter?). this then is a classic portrayal of female beauty, where the classicists have never been all that concerned about natural poses (or lighting, or if little tiny fat babies fly around their paintings). im willing to buy that this is what was going on in ingres mind, at least to a point. i certainly think ingres knew what he was doing.

3. there is a positive reading which says that ingres did it to call attention to the twisted nature of harem life: accentuated the buttocks and placed her in an unnatural pose. if there was some evidence for that in his other paintings i would be willing to run with it a ways, but ingres shows little evidence that the harems are more than fantasy lands of the male sexual gaze/imagination. he is an orientalist painter with a typical taste for the decadent and exotic....and so, i offer my reading. which i dont claim to be anything like the last word, but i find the conjunction of the painter's view of this woman as woman, and the painter's view of this woman as a member of islamic society to be a fruitful way of approaching his work.




This is a fabulous essay! I linked back to you via, and I must say I am delighted that I did. I have linked to this essay, as I am a student of history as well (but with more of an eye to science instead of art). I plant to visit you more often, to give my right brain a stretch. :)
Isis (Mutnodjmet is my other alias).

Lawrence of Arabia said...

thank you very much for the compliment. i am glad you enjoyed the post. i look forward to seeing more of you in the future. i am honored by the link.


Irving said...

An excellent essay indeed :) The 19th Century sense of superiority over the "barbaric" Islamic world is plainly evident, as if the Orientalist writings of the era weren't subtly racist enough.

Ya Haqq!

Lawrence of Arabia said...

thank you. i find the orientalists interesting because they provide a great deal of insight about the occident. in fact, often they have a lot more to say about the occident than they do the orient.

jeremayakovka said...


I genuinely thank you for calling attention to this Ingres masterpiece. Please take the following comments as friendly:

When you get into anatomy (counting vertebrae) and hierarchies of ideals - instead of aesthetics ("How well does the execution portray Beauty?") - man, you lose me! I guess you're going to toss out Picasso and De Kooning who famously slashed their way through female portraiture...?

She's a luxurious and enchanting female figure - I take much pleasure in gazing upon her. Gazing at this painting is an exercise in exalted contemplation. Were it possible, I would throw flowers at Ingres' feet in gratitude (and one or two at her)!

Maybe like you, I was schooled on Edward Said and other "post-colonial" intellectuals like Assia Djebar, Helene Cixous, etc. Let it go, dude! I have.


Lawrence of Arabia said...

i only wrote about it or thought about the work because i think it is an important work of art and interesting. i would by no means suggest throwing it out of the canon (or an art museum) than i would suggest we should stop reading imperialist authors of note.

but it does violence to the work itself if you do not take its truth claims seriously, if you ignore its cognitive content. you cannot do justice to either the artist or the painting that way.

and "nothing is beautiful which is not also true".