Posted by: jahnavii0 | December 8, 2021

Gaze, Control, and how Self-Portraiture has Changed the Narrative of Female Subjects

We started our ENG-325 course with Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess,’ discussing the poem’s commentary on portraiture and what this visual tool says about society. While sifting back through the course material, I noticed how ‘My Last Duchess’ has a lot to say regarding gaze, be it of the viewer or the subject, especially when the latter is female. For Browning, it successfully reveals the social economy of gender and control in English society. He brings to light the dark underbelly of Victorian society and the place of gaze in particularly determining the patriarchal culture of inherence and marriage.

‘My Last Duchess,’ in brief, is a poem following a Duke as he introduces an unnamed visitor to a portrait of his late wife. The power of the male viewer’s gaze begins here. The Duke has total control over the portrait of the Duchess, which he hides behind a curtain and decides who gets to gaze upon. The portrait becomes instrumental in exposing the patriarchal structure that controls the Duchess’ life, both when she was alive and now. The Duchess, who has no agency of her own in the poem, is the property of the Duke, who governs her life and words. It is left to him how he wants to describe her and what he wants to discuss about her. This gaze is very different from how the Duke describes the female gaze of the Duchess. This latter gaze is seen as dangerous and not deserving of agency. The Duke describes how the glances and looks of the Duchess led to her infidelity and relationship with the painter, Fra Pandolf. He states how the Duchess “liked whate’er she looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” The female gaze lacks control and leads to damage.

Browning’s poem says a lot about the privilege of looking in Renaissance and Victorian society along the lines of gender. Men have the rationality and power to decide the functions of gaze. On the other hand, women become mere objects of the male gaze. They cannot even tell their own stories or determine how they are portrayed.

While not directly linked to Browning’s poem and his discussion, I wonder how this idea of gaze and its relationship with gender has changed over the years. Where can we see some examples of women breaking through to gain power over their visual representation? One thing that got me thinking about an evolved history is the place of self-portraiture by female artists over the years. This art form allows subjects to change how they are seen and give them agency and control over their stories, unlike the Duchess in Browning’s poem.

For example, Freida Kahlo discusses how “I paint self-portraits because I am often so alone, because I am the person I know best.” Kahlo drew several self-portraits over her lifetime, using vivid colors, brushstrokes and usually gazing straight through the portrait to the viewer. Kahlo uses subtle artistic choices in her paintings that reveal her deeper psychological narrative and portray her experiences from the inside. As a result, she can use the medium to express her sexuality and suffering as she has experienced it. Kahlo establishes control over the gaze of the subject and the viewer. She paints herself to look at the camera directly, confronting her viewer to look into her life and see her story. In this process, she also has directed the viewer’s gaze in seeing what she wants them to see.

Self-Portrait with Monkeys 1940, image courtesy of Flickr
Self Portrait with Loose Hair, image courtesy of Flickr
Self Portrait in Medallion, image courtesy of The Frida Kahlo Foundation

Kahlo is not alone. Women across cultures and the world have broken free from the gaze and power of men to establish their own narratives. Amrita-Sher-Gil, dubbed the Indian Freida Kahlo, is one of them. Sher-Gil is known for revolutionizing the artistic depiction of Indian women, giving voice to their inner experiences, and her self-portraits become the entry point into this. Her portraits capture her cultural identity Indian and Hungarian, and her accompanying range of personal emotions and experiences, such as her quest for belonging and troubles with loneliness and hopelessness. For example, Sher-Gil’s Self-Portrait as a Tahitian’ captures a nude Sher-Gil wearing a somber expression and staring into the distance. Her portrayal of her body here liberates the female body and sexuality from previous gender conventions and towards how she sees herself. 

Amrita Sher-Gil Self-Portrait 1930, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Amrita Sher-Gil Self-Portrait 1931, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cindy Sherman is a more modern example of an artist who has used photographic self-portraits to reorient viewers’ gazes. Sherman is particularly fascinating to consider as she uses cinematic tools to transform herself into different possible representations. She constructs her portraits around certain female stereotypes but adds a twist. For example, prosthetics, wigs, and makeup are all worn incorrectly, challenging the conventions often set for how women were meant to be seen and perceived. Sherman does a lot more in challenging the portrayal of women in visual culture, paying attention to the ugly and ungroomed. Below are a few examples of her artwork that have depicted her boldness and confrontation of gendered conventions.

Cindy Sherman Self-Portrait: Untitled B, image courtesy of The Collector
Cindy Sherman Self-Portrait: Untitled 98, image courtesy of The Collector
Cindy Sherman Self-Portrait: Untitled 98, image courtesy of The Collector

While these are among the few female artists who challenged gender convention and redirected the viewer’s gaze, the list is far from exhaustive. In addition, these examples are solely reliant on art and portraiture. With the danger of sounding tangential, I also wonder how technology today in 2021 has further changed self-representation. With our phones and easy access to camera (taking selfies, for example), I think it’s interesting to look at how this might have changed ideas on how we market ourselves and further redirect gaze as well.

Works Cited 

  1. Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43768/my-last-duchess. 
  2. “10 Self-Portraits by Women Artists – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/10-self-portraits-by-women-artists/nAJyCun4qsH7Jg.
  3. “Frida Kahlo.” Frida Kahlo – The Complete Works, https://www.frida-kahlo-foundation.org/. 
  4. “Amrita Sher-Gil – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, https://artsandculture.google.com/entity/amrita-sher-gil/m09sphm?hl=en. 
  5. “Overlooked No More: Amrita Sher-Gil, a Pioneer of Indian Art.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 June 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/obituaries/amrita-shergil-dead.html. 
  6. “Amrita Sher-Gil.” Obelisk Art History, https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/amrita-sher-gil/.
  7. “Cindy Sherman: Moma.” The Museum of Modern Art, https://www.moma.org/artists/5392. 
  8. “How Cindy Sherman Redefined Self-Portraiture (7 Artworks).” TheCollector, 29 Oct. 2021, https://www.thecollector.com/cindy-sherman-self-portraits/. 

Responses

  1. Jahnavii, thank you for bringing us back to discuss Browning at the end of the semester! I think your question at the end about how technology had changed self-representation is important. I would argue that self-representation is more achievable than it ever has been before. I also wonder how filters come into play with the idea of self-representation. Virtually anyone can change how others perceive them, now.


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