the history of breasts in art

Breasts have been a focus in the culture wars of the past fifty years. I think of the second-wave feminists who ditched their bras in the 1970s, and the ongoing judgmental debates over breastfeeding, and the even more fraught and recent hostilities surrounding trans healthcare. Recent celebrations of feminine sensuality, reflected in things like #freethenip, hot girl summer, broader conversations about sexual pleasure and the body positivity movement, all also take breasts as a key motif.

But for all the girls who free their nipples on Instagram, it’s much rarer to see them free on the streets. We keep them secret and rarely articulate why they seem to be so controversial. The power of breasts as symbols of diverse but overlapping issues such as gender, eroticism and motherhood makes them the nexus of a wild cocktail of emotions, politics and desires.

A new exhibition at ACP Palazzo Franchetti in Venice, Breasts, aims to explore the multifaceted ways in which artists have represented them. It is a gigantic idea, but curator Carolina Pasti largely limits the exhibition to post-war modern and contemporary art. She has collected small works from major artists and installed them in a kitschy pink environment that isn’t even that Instagrammable, hoping to attract visitors with the gimmick of breasts.

Breastfeeding was something that only working class people did. The idea that Mary would have nursed her own child, the son of God, was revealing

However, she begins with a small Madonna and Child from circa 1395 that is part of the genre known as Madonna del Latte because it depicts Christ drinking from his mother’s breast. There are hundreds of works like this – it feels like every Renaissance painter has done one at some point. The iconography of the Nursing Madonna was a branch of the cult of the Madonna of Humility, because the Virgin Mary was depicted as a humble woman of the people. In medieval and Renaissance Europe (and even into the 20th century), breastfeeding was something that only working-class people did: they breastfed their own children and were hired as nurses for middle- and upper-class families. The idea that Mary would have nursed her own child, the son of God, was revealing. The Catholic fascination with blood was echoed in another bodily fluid: milk.

But this motif fell out of fashion after the Council of Trent, also known as the Counter-Reformation, in the 1560s, which firmly defined the boundaries of acceptable iconography in the Catholic Church in response to the birth of Protestantism. The intimacy of Mary nursing her child, and the rapture in which these images were held by the masses, had become too gross, too lustful, too embodied for the church.

Thus begins the story of the breast in modern Western culture: already full of conflict. Of course, Pasti could have started much earlier: with the so-called Willendorf Venus, for example, made around 25,000 BC. in Paleolithic Europe and depicts a female figure with voluptuous breasts, abdomen and hips. Or with one of the many sculptures of the Ephesian Artemis, a version of the Greek goddess Artemis with many breasts, made around the first century AD. These ancient, pre-Christian images of women offer stories of fertility, abundance, and matriarchal power that fall outside the bounds of contemporary representations of femininity, but have nonetheless influenced the way breasts are understood today.

In the centuries between Madonna del Latte and the modern and contemporary views of the breast on display at Palazzo Franchetti, the perception of breasts changed dramatically. Consider the history of women’s necklines in Europe as a microcosm of the way breasts were socially coded: the high collars of early Elizabethan England compared to the busty, dramatically low necklines of 18th-century France, where sometimes even the nipples were visible, followed by the prudish late Victorian dresses, when high collars returned. Class is also hugely important when reading this history: it was generally the breasts of upper-class women that were of interest, either as objects to be hidden or displayed. Images of women in countries colonized by European powers were often depicted with bare breasts, signifying their perceived lack of civilization and their inequality with white women.

In the 20th century, the development of modern art and abstraction led to images of the breast being abstracted from the body. Laura Panno’s work, which Pasti cites as the main inspiration for the show, shows breasts isolated, without the body they belong to. The shapes and textures that make up a breast become alien and amplified in this context. The repeating concentric circles of Panno’s Origine echo Marcel Duchamp’s Prière de Toucher, which is also on view in the exhibition. The feeling of roundness, of being spherical, which is rarely the case with real breasts, is emphasized in works such as Adelaide Cioni’s To Be Naked, Breasts and Masami Teraoko’s Breasts on Hollywood Hills Installation.

Despite the erotic association of breasts, few of these works are particularly sexual. Chloe Wise’s Football, Showing a chest with a curvy pair of breasts leaning over a black and white football has the most sex appeal. The disembodiment of most of these works is too jarring to allow for any sense of human connection.

The artist’s gaze takes on an outsized significance here, as power dynamics and physical interaction are implied by the interaction between artist and subject. Pasti told me that inclusivity was a fundamental value for her as curator of this exhibition, in her quest to “understand how women are represented in art” by both men and women.

The male artists in the exhibition approach the breast from different angles. Robert Mapplethorpe, the celebrated American gay photographer, took the photo entitled Lisa Marie/Breasts in 1987. He positioned himself and his camera under his subject’s chest and took a photo looking up from her navel to her breasts, which rise like mountains. in a strange landscape of flesh. His emphasis on the form and line of this monumental embodied landscape, rather than on the personality of his subject, invites the viewer to view breasts from a new perspective. Other male depictions of breasts have undertones of violence or control, such as Allen Jones’s Cover Story 2/4, a Barbie-like metal cast of an idealized female body.

While some artists look to abstraction or other contemporary visual languages, others look back to historical motifs of representing breasts. Cindy Sherman’s photo Untitled #205 shows the artist dressed as a kind of baroque, Madonna-like figure with bare breasts and pregnant belly draped in gauzy fabric, arranged like an Ingres painting. But the breasts and abdomen are clearly fake, hanging from the artist’s shoulders like a drag queen’s, evoking complicated readings of gender, motherhood, and transhistorical connections. Anna Weyant’s more recent painting, Chest, shows a close-up of a woman’s chest with her arm covering her breasts. The flattened realism and empty setting are characteristic of Weyant’s work and give her subject a timelessness that allows us to imagine it depicting a scene that was as likely to have taken place yesterday as it was 500 years ago.

The decision to explore a single part of the traditional female body, rather than the entire body or the idea of ​​femininity or femininity itself, makes this exhibition purposefully limited. It promotes a particularly abstract, formal view of the chest: how has this beautiful, specific thing inspired artists? The curves, the colors, the undulations of skin and flesh are much more the subject of the works here than the cultural ebb and flow of breasts and the people who have them.

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It also opens up space for a conversation about who has breasts. Prune Nourry is the only artist to survive breast cancer, and her work, Œil Nourricier #6, is a fragile, round glass sculpture of a breast that raises questions about the fragility of life and health. Many breast cancer survivors no longer have their own breasts, so the mobility of this sculpture reflects the way breasts can be something that is removed from the body.

Breasts can also be added to the body, as in Sherman’s photo, or in Jacques Sonck’s photo of a trans woman in Ghent. Sonck’s photo of a bare-chested man is also included, reminding us that literally everyone has breasts of some shape or size – but when we say “breasts” we almost always mean women’s. These works challenge the biological essentialism that still underlies the way we think and talk about gender and bodies. If breasts can come and go from bodies of different gender identities, how does their cultural significance evolve?

The exhibition is part of a larger trend in the art world of exploring embodiment, which is often driven by female artists and a feminist gaze. This has led to some wonderfully nuanced and substantive explorations of bodies and gender in art, such as Lauren Elkin’s recent book Art Monsters., but also to a lot of nonsense about bodies that are only superficial. Women’s bodies have been the central motif of Western art, and a critical engagement with these women is long overdue. Breasts are just breasts without the person they belong to – but what about hair? What does she think?

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