@ Sara Terry, (Re)Thinking the Dejeuner sur l'herbe
(Re)Thinking The Male Gaze
(Re)Thinking the Male Gaze is my response to the contemporary conversation about gender, power and representation. I’m engaging with some of the most famous paintings in art history, made by men of nude women, re-creating the paintings as gender-flipped photos. I carefully research each painting, learning about its cultural context, reading feminist critiques, understanding each work’s place in art history. And then I re-stage it, taking on the creator’s role as a woman, choosing backgrounds, time, place, objects, – grounding the work in my own female gaze, putting together my own narrative and critique of gender, power and representation. I also write a short essay for each work.
The project began with my re-creation of Manet’s painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. His larger-than-life image of a casual picnic marked a groundbreaking moment in modern art – due in large part to its bold depiction of a female nude, which shocked Parisian audiences in 1863 when it was shown at the now infamous Salon des Refusés.
But in many ways, what Manet painted was nothing new – it was just another depiction of a woman (a naked one), made by a man, for the pleasure of other men, through the lens of the notorious “male gaze.” It’s at the heart of centuries of history of the western world, from the early Christian church to renaissance nobles to Hollywood moguls: the representation of women as objects of desire commissioned by, paid for, created by and made for…men.
To be the object of someone else’s gaze: women know that power dynamic only too well. Even with the #metoo movement’s important insistence that women’s voices be heard, and their stories believed, the power dynamics of who gets to do the gazing hasn’t changed much. But it will.
© Sara Terry, (Re)Thinking the Birth of Venus
© Sara Terry, (Re)Thinking the Birth of Venus, annotated
The birth of Venus – the Roman goddess of love – is a creation story that begins with a most brutal act of violence. According to mythology, Cronus – the son of Uranus – cut off his father’s testicles with a stone sickle and threw his genitals into the sea. They caused the sea to foam – and out of that foam, Venus was born.
A man’s creation story of woman. The goddess of beauty and love born from sexual violence.
I respond the only way I know how – by telling a story of my own. With (Re)Thinking The Birth of Venus, I have appropriated this creation story on every level as a woman, including placing myself in the photo as the god(desse)s in the painting. In an era of angry men, I choose to create man from love – and rather than hold a cloak to hide his nakedness, as in Botticelli’s painting, I hold a mirror, inviting him to see himself without artifice, to know that bereft of power or prestige or brute strength, he is man. And this is enough for him to be. I want him to know that he is loved, that he comes from the nurturing earth, not an angry sea, and that he must in turn give back that love.
Mythology says that roses first bloomed when Venus was born. I surround the man in my creation story with sweet peas – inspired by Faith Salie’s essay in Time, on December 1, 2017, as the #metoo movement was rising. It’s titled How to Raise a Sweet Son in an Era of Angry Men.
She wrote: “Hours after I gave birth to my first child, my husband cradled all five pounds of our boy and said, gently, “Hi, Sweetpea.” Not “Buddy” or “Little Man.” Sweetpea. The word filled me with unanticipated comfort…I was witnessing my husband’s commitment to raising a sweet boy.
“Because this is what the world needs now, urgently: sweet boys and people who grow them.”
@ Sara Terry, (Re)Thinking the Grand Odalisque
@ Sara Terry, (Re)Thinking the Grand Odalisque, annotated
From my earliest thoughts about Ingre’s Grand Odalisque, I knew that I needed a white male photojournalist for this photo; I knew that I wanted to comment on the othering perpetuated by the white male gaze of my industry for decades. This was my response to learning that Ingres' Odalisque, painted in 1814, was used to justify French colonialism -- an othering of peoples in the Near East and North Africa as a way of "proving" that they desperately needed France's "civilizing" authority. It’s something that photojournalism, unfortunately, has done for a long, long time – justified a white, male Western point of view which has othered women and people and cultures of color.
In May 2019, in Sarajveo, at the annual general meeting of my photo agency, VII Photo, I asked my colleague Christopher Morris to pose for me, and he agreed, with some trepidation. Chris was a natural choice for me. There are connections between us. He covered the war in Bosnia; I covered the aftermath. The photo I made was also my invitation to him, to engage in a dialogue between artists about nudity and representation and who does the gazing. Over the past year or so, Chris had stirred a huge controversy among women photographers with images of female nudes he’d made and shared on his Instagram feed.
And we were in Bosnia, which was an important part of the Ottoman Empire – the very era which also prompted Ingres’ painting and othering of cultures France sought to bring under its subjugation. This was the place to make the photo, and Chris was the perfect model.
I’m weary as I write this. It’s the summer of 2019 and it’s America, and the president of the United States (I will not use his name in the same sentence as the word “president”) others someone or some group of people with almost every tweet he makes, almost every time he opens his mouth. White, male, western power – and the power of naming.
But we’re fighting back, and women are leading the way. Power is shifting, slowly but surely, and I believe images can help move that story forward. I am weary, as I said, but I am hopeful.
@ Sara Terry, (Re)Thinking The Death of Cleopatra
@ Sara Terry, (Re)Thinking The Death of Cleopatra, annotated
She was a skilled politician. A naval strategist. A linguist who spoke nine languages.
But ancient Roman writers – the chroniclers of her time – called Cleopatra “harlot queen” and wrote of her “lascivious fury.”
Not surprisingly, the story that stuck for centuries, repeated all the way through to Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood portrayal of her, was the one that men told. Men who were afraid of a woman with power, men who used their privilege and standing, their control of narrative, to frame a brilliant female politician as a lusty temptress who got what she wanted through sex.
And who committed suicide by allowing an asp to poison her – with a fatal strike to the nipple of her left breast, if the sixteenth-century Italian painter Giampietrino is to be believed.
It’s a fear that hasn’t gone away. Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid made that painfully clear. Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other new members of the largest bloc of female Congresswomen in U.S. history face the same belittling attacks. But they’re also winning important battles, and taking control of their own stories (as AOC did within days of taking office – laughingly berating the conservatives who tried to make a scandal of her dancing in YouTube videos while she was in college).
These women are writing their own stories, our stories. They give me hope.