A woman sits on a bunk. In sealskin shorts and nothing else. Shaped by a soft line that feels its way along her soft shapes. Consistency and insistence – and here start the problems.
Aage Gitz-Johansen (1897–1977), a Danish artist known as Qalipaasorsuaq (“the great painter”), drew a young Greenlandic woman, half-naked on a bunk. The work is titled Briksens ungmø (Bunk maiden).
It is not a young man portraying an equally young woman; she is not the only Greenlandic woman drawn by Gitz either, nor his only nude study, nor even the only woman whose breast sits, so to say, as it typically does before childbearing and a woman’s thirties.
In our #metoo times, the problem is that on one hand, as a woman living in 2020, I should say “old pig”, and thus point to the uneven power relation between male Danish painter and young Greenlandic woman. On the other hand, we cannot just do away with all the nuances and the art itself there, simply overwriting them with sexist or feminist slogans.
The same problems came to frame the exhibition “Beloved by Picasso – The Power of the Model”, on show at the Danish museum Arken in 2019–2020. Picasso – an artist who inspired Gitz and an artist whose relation to women in art can – and should – be discussed today too.
The young woman sits tailor style on the bunk, dressed in sealskin shorts; she turns her side on us and looks down. Yet, her breast and body are fully exposed to our gaze.
We can perceive a desire, someone taking pleasure in the woman and her shapes. Art critic Edward Lucie–Smith points out that desire, or eroticism, does not essentially belong to a certain subject matter; instead, it is brought to it by the artist.
Eroticism is not merely a question of imagery, but something which the artist himself brings to his subject-matter, and which he embodies through the relationship created between the various figures, and through the very details of form.*
It is not the fact that the woman is half-naked that generates desire in the painting. It is the specific way in which the subject matter is staged and painted, it is the line and the shapes.
When we look, and when we look at art, desire is something we cannot avoid. We cannot avoid dealing with the sensations and feelings set off by the act of looking. Edward Lucien-Smith argues that whenever we are even in the slightest way affected by what we see, we are, in fact, in the role of voyeurs, being essentially not directly involved in a scene:
He watches, and participates in fantasy. His satisfactions come to him, not through doing, but through seeing what is done (or what is to be done).**
It is important to clarify that “he” is not indicative of gender here. Lucien-Smith uses “he” neutrally in referring to some general individual, not specifically a man. We are all voyeurs, especially when we look at art.
A white stripe highlights the shapes from the girl’s chin all the way down to her shorts; at once an accentuation of the shapes and of the girl’s absorption with her own foot, as she sits and wiggles her toes while being portrayed.
Body parts can be sexualised – rendered erotic or charged with desire. The wiggling toes [wagging foot?] nearly turns into such fetishism, like a stand-in for desire in the image. There is indeed such a concept as foot fetish, so that this body part is frequently erotically laden. Gitz gives the girl’s foot both space in the painting and also the girl’s very attention. Together with the white brushstrokes, this gaze – the line from head to foot – simultaneously contributes to create a space.
The woman dwells in this space delimited by the white stripe and her absorbed gaze running between face and foot. Such space also generates a sort of elevation, of spirituality, so to speak. This girl is akin to many representations of the goddess Venus found in Western art history, a figure whose body and ideal have set a paradigm for the female nude model. Gitz’s young woman seems in particular to reveal remote similarities to Botticelli’s Renaissance painting The Birth of Venus. Botticelli’s Venus is both a naked and spiritualised subject – or rather, idealised. She takes over space, or occupies it, in all her harmonious beauty.
The desire we meet in Gitz’s work partly consists of a gaze, of the particular way the woman’s body is staged, of her nudity and absorption. It is hard not to fall a bit in love with Gitz’s women and their soft, warm shapes.
But said desire also consists of an ideal which is more connected to the drawn line than to the woman. An ideal of perfection – of shaping and capturing, as in the art-historical notion of disegno.
In principle, Gitz’s line could take the shape of a bird just as well as of a woman. Women and birds were truly favourite subjects that he repeated over and over again. He was said to be able to draw a woman or a bird in a single stroke, and still manage to capture their shapes’ warmth and softness – be it birds or people.
Disegno emerged as a style in Renaissance art (ca. 1520–1600). As a concept, it referred both to the very act of drawing, but also to the representation of an ideal form, and thus to the very essence of drawing as manifested in the line.***
Gitz allegedly said on several occasions that were he to turn 100 years old, his birds would fly off the paper. An amusing dream for sure, but not the least a quotation demonstrative of Gitz’s work process and of why his line can be defined by the concept of disegno. What he sought to capture on paper was an ideal, something alive; this shows in the recurrence of his bird and woman subjects, and in the fact that he could capture something living in the very form of a single line. Warmth and softness are for me the words that come closest to describing Gitz’s line.
The many Venuses in art history, and by far the majority of Western European nude studies, rest on the ideal of beauty embodied in the white woman. Gitz paints Inuit or Greenlandic women just that way, as beauties and goddesses, and he does so for the first time without ethnographic interest, but as a subject in and of itself. What we face is not a study of a Greenlander or of Greenlandic women, it is first and foremost the woman as such to resonate. At once a subject matter observed and examined, and a naked subject, (of) a gaze and a desire.
THE GREENLANDIC WOMEN
We said we should stick to the nuances, and yet without letting go of all the problems. Let’s go back to that “Old pig!” – an exclamation pointing to a gaze directed at someone, and not least to the inner voyeur in all of us.
Nudity, power and gaze constitute an “ongoing discussion”, as Professor Mary Beard recently pointed out in BBC series The Shock of the Nude. According to her, no solution is in view there, there is only a gaze that we can question and engage with. What really touches and affects us about nudity, its provoking or irritating aspect – the shock –forces us to confront ourselves and our own body.****
Problematising Gitz’s nude studies of young Inuit women might lead to the simple acknowledgment that he is, after all, a Danish painter travelling to a colonised Greenland. Or that he would avail himself of his status as older and respected man, nicknamed no less that Qalipaasorsuaq (“the great painter”), to paint young (and unmarried) Greenlandic women – at least judging on the title. Does she have a choice? We do not know. There is a connection between the pleasure in looking and the pleasure in being looked at [are connected] – the voyeuristic and the exhibitionist. That is to say, we do not know what relation – or consensus – is between the painter and the woman, between artist and model. And one should be cautious, from the standpoint of our #metoo times, not to impose, in retrospect, current norms onto a time which is not ours.
None of Gitz’s female nude models is given a name. Unlike Picasso, whose depictions of women always referred to some individual known by name, Gitz’s works bear titles such as Bunk Maiden or Greenlandic Woman. What remains is the name of the artist, Aage Gitz-Johansen – while the names of the women seemingly ended up on the scrap heap.
Although GItz drew from live models, he did not necessarily finalise a picture before the original model; rather, he would elaborate the subject in such way that any one woman he depicted could in principle derive from multiple models and studies. This may also explain why none of his Greenlandic models are known by name.
But even denying a correspondence between the model and a real woman, we still face a problem, namely the ideal we traced back to the Renaissance Venus. Bunk Maiden could become a symbol, or a sort of ideal, of the Greenlandic woman. Gitz shared his nickname of “Greenland painter” with a number of older painters who had taken part with their art in romanticising, sentimentalising, beautifying, and worshipping Greenland. If the naked woman in Gitz’s images is understood as some authentic Greenlandic woman, the noble and fertile savage woman, untouched by civilisation,then that is where we face the truly problematic core of the story.
The problem is stressed and further nuanced when juxtaposed with another work of art. Arctic Hysteria, a video piece in which Pia Arke stages and challenges by means of her nudity exactly the voyeuristic gaze. A gaze that many of the male Danish painters laid on Greenland. Naked, the artist crawls around the black-and-white photograph of a Greenlandic landscape, which she eventually tears to pieces. Before that, she sniffs, crawls, and rolls around with sensual and slightly erotic movements, leaving no body part to the imagination. She wants to be seen – and we do see. At the beginning of the video, we can clearly see the room the video is filmed in, we notice a date and time on the camera, and the artist is heard saying the word “record”. She emphasises therewith the staging of what follows.
But what is she actually staging? She stages our gaze on her nudity. The voyeurism. Are we irritated or repulsed? What sort of shock does she provoke in us with her movements? What sort of body are we looking at? Do we experience pleasure or unease?
Seen from a broader perspective, Pia Arke works with power relations in storytelling, colonisation, and the relation between Greenland and Denmark. Is it one of Gitz’s Greenlandic women that we see ripping the landscape to pieces, in a hysterical rebellion against her objectification and idealisation before someone else’s gaze? Or is it Emanuel A. Petersen’s beautified Romantic paintings of Greenland’s nature, untouched by Westerners and their so-called civilisation – even though Greenland’s nature had in fact been touched by people during the past 4000 years? It is beyond the purpose of this article to provide a definitive answer. The point here concerns the very complexity of gazes, and the ongoing debate on what we see and why.
We cannot simply dismiss Gitz’s paintings of naked women by labelling him an “old pig”, because we would in the same breath miss an opportunity to discuss, examine, and put into perspective ourselves, our body, and our gaze. At the same time, we should of course problematise the male gaze on women, Danish painter against Greenlandic woman, and the whole category of “Greenland painters”; all of that embodies uneven relations of power – between Denmark and Greenland, man and woman, between individuals and between the Greenlandic women and Gitz.
We would also miss out on all the beauty and fascination, since Gitz’s women are like little goddesses in their own universe and one hardly gets tired of looking at them. And the question eventually is: who is the “old pig” now?
Behind the Art – Aage Gitz-Johansen is written by Stine Lundberg Hansen // Translation: Lorenzo Imola
* Edward Lucie-Smith: Sexuality in Western Art, Thames & Hudson, 1991 (1972), pp. 85–87
** Edward Lucie-Smith: Sexuality in Western Art, Thames & Hudson, 1991 (1972), p. 171
**** Mary Beard: The Shock of the Nude, BBC // https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000f1t6