odalisque (painting) matisse
Is the odalisque inherently problematic? As the dictionary defines it, odalisque refers to a female slave or member of a harem, but Steven E. Katz argues that the term has been used “more loosely” in the world of art to simply mean “a reclining nude female figure.”
Other historians and writers overtly discuss the problematic nature of white Europeans not only inventing and exploring sexualized fantasies of prostitutes in foreign locales, but also inviting viewers to take pleasure in these desires. In 2015, writer and poet Najwa Ali explored Matisse’s odalisques, looking to the underlying violence of such imagery and representation. With pointed, lyrical prose, Ali introduces the subject of the odalisque in terms the average reader would understand:
But so ingrained is exploitation in our understanding of female sexuality within (and outside of) art history that these incredibly basic readings recede into the background and are deemed somehow radical. Obscuring them further is the ubiquity of female sexual subjugation within this historical context, if not also our contemporary one.
Installation view of Matisse/Odalisque at the Norton Simon Museum
Adlin, Jane, Jared D. Goss, Sabine Rewald, Lisa M. Messinger, William S. Lieberman, Jennifer A. Loveman, J. S. Johnson, et al. “Twentieth Century.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 56, no. 2 (1998): 61-68.
Odalisque With Raised Arms is a painting by Henri Matisse, completed in 1923. The oil on canvas measuring 23 by 26 inches is in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Matisse’s style changed and evolved drastically throughout his career, including a wide and varying collection of paintings depicting the female nude. His Odalisque paintings were inspired by his trip to Morocco. Many of the female subjects in the Odalisque paintings were modeled after Matisse’s main model at the time, Henriette Darricarrère.
Odalisque is a French version of a Turkish word for ‘chambermaid’, though you won’t see a lot of odalisques changing the bed linen or straightening the pillows in Western art, as Judy Sund explains her new book Exotic: A Fetish for the Foreign.
Paintings from this period were in keeping with other examples of nude and erotic art, albeit with a few added kinks. “Critic Denis Diderot suggested that the pose of Boucher’s odalisque invited sex of the ‘most convenient … even the most natural, or at least the most advantageous’ sort,” writes Sund, “apparently referring to sex from behind, a style of lovemaking that church authorities had long condemned.”
The British artist Richard Hamilton, in 1961, wrote, “It is the Playboy ‘Playmate of the month’ pullout pin-up which provides us with the closest contemporary equivalent of the odalisque in painting.” Matisse, who died a year before the first issue of Playboy came out, would probably take issue with that analogy. If his odalisques were no more realistic than a Photoshopped Playboy model, they were exaggerated not for the sake of prurience but design; they were as decorative as the florid backdrops. He painted these women—European models dressed in exotic fabrics—with a softness and ardor that many people, women included, find flattering. Matisse’s greatest collectors, as the MIA exhibition attests, were two enlightened women from America.
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