Katya Lukina explores the artistic portrayal of pubic hair on female bodies
It was my visit to the Modigliani exhibition at the Tate Modern that sparked my interest in portrayals of pubic hair in art, and what these reflect about society.
I discovered that apparently during Modigliani’s only lifetime solo exhibition in 1917, a police officer demanded his work be taken down; he was offended not by the nudity of the subjects portrayed, but by their pubic hair.
The fact that at the time art was full of smooth, hairless women will have played a role in the officer’s reaction. In fact, the representation of bald lady-parts date back from 28,000 BCE, and it is a style that never really went out of fashion. In ancient Greek art – one of the most influential types of art in Western culture – most of the female bodies in sculpture have no body hair. For the ancient Greeks, depictions of the human body were often tied in with perceptions of the ‘ideal’ body, thus suggesting that an ideal woman should not have any body hair.
This manner of representing the female body continued to be fashionable throughout the art movements that followed. During the 17th-19th centuries, it was precisely the hairless nature of female nudes that made it acceptable to look at the subjects without it being considered as voyeurism, because their hairlessness placed them outside of reality and into the realm of fantasy and myth. You were no longer looking at an average female human – these shaven figures now occupied the same space as the likes of goddesses. The shaven body was comparable to that of a higher being, while body hair was associated with scruffiness and impurity.
As soon as one steers away from this norm and depicts pubic hair on a female body in a painting, alarm bells tend to go off for those who have learnt that hairlessness is the only state a woman’s body can be in in art. For instance, Goya’s La Maja Desnuda’ (1797) and Gustave Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du Monde’ (1866) are earlier examples of breaking this trend which brought about controversy at the time. The former image was deemed as too provocative for public display and was the reason for which Goya was later called before the Inquisition. As for Courbet’s painting, it still shocks people today due to its provocative subject and realistic nature.
However, the same embarrassment and offence is still prevalent today. Leena McCall’s 2012 painting ‘Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing’ depicts a semi-undressed female model with some visible pubic hair; it was called to be taken down “amid fears it might be inappropriate for children to look at”.
But what happens if children are never exposed to female body hair? The lack of body hair becomes simultaneously the norm and the expectation, which pushes women to shave and men to expect them shaven. This painting was deemed as too inappropriate, yet one could argue that images in shop fronts showing women modelling underwear are of a comparable immodesty. Are these only acceptable because they are hairless? They are far more revealing and sexualised than ‘Ms Ruby May’, not to mention more publicly accessible; the painting is in a gallery, where one has to make a conscious decision to enter and look at the art.
Another current example of a controversial work of art that tackles taboo subjects is Balthus’ ‘Thérèse Dreaming’ – a painting depicting an 11-year-old lost in thought, seated in a casual position which exposes her underwear. It was recently called to be taken down from its home in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as critics have suggested that its exhibition means “The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children”.
It may be true that the sitter’s underwear is visible and that her position is not very elegant, but when Balthus was asked about the provocative pose, he simply stated that, “It is how they [young girls] sit”. For Balthus and other critics, the realistic representation of Thérèse defies the expectation that girls must be composed, polite and well-mannered. Regardless of the intention, the Met have since refused to remove the painting.
The good news is that nudes painted by artists like Modigliani can now be displayed in major galleries without causing controversy. This should be celebrated, especially as Modigliani’s nudes depict women as powerful. He challenges the tradition where women lie passively as objects of the male gaze. Instead, they take up huge proportions of the canvas, are given agency and are thus presented as symbols of sexuality and defiance.
Of course, there is still room for improvement. Why are we imposing outdated depictions of the ‘ideal’ female body onto the public in commercial arenas such as underwear shops and, at the same time, censoring realistic representations in galleries? We consume what we are surrounded by, so the more we see of the bush, the more normal it will become. However, this is not to say we should reject hairless ladies – for instance, it is a pleasure to look at Alexandre Cabanel’s ‘Birth of Venus’ – but we should certainly be more open about hairier representations of the female body.