Staring back at the male gaze

By Jesse DhurMisch PautschLex Kleren

Who's looking at whom? In art, as in society, the dialogue between the viewer and the visual can be complex. By playing with these perspectives, some feminist artists challenge the "male gaze" and its objectification of not only female bodies. Lëtzebuerger Journal has taken a look at their work.

From her first art school projects to her most recent work, Deborah de Robertis has relentlessly sought to unveil and upend power dynamics in the art world and beyond. In her struggle against the abuse of power, sexuality, and consent, nudity has become her signature tool for protest and critical thought. Her unconventional performances polemicise and unsettle, often confronting viewers with their own voyeuristic gawking. "My art is like a mirror: When I use my naked body, my vagina to be precise, the way society reacts to it is a good reflection of the patriarchal or male gaze, " says the Luxembourgish artist.

When she first presented this subversive approach on an international stage at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris in 2014, the act caused quite a stir. In response to Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, a realistic depiction of a naked woman's closed vulva, Deborah de Robertis sat down in front of it and held her labia open, Franz Schubert's Ave Maria playing in the background. The performance entitled Miroir de l'Origine was a political gesture, emphasises the artist, and a necessary consequence of her previous work. It was, in fact, the culmination of her desire to speak out against the misogynist and sexist patriarchal structures of the institutions.

Revealing the absent gaze

"I often say that when I open my vulva, I open my mouth. So there I was, silently screaming with my tiny vagina, and yet it felt like I could eat the whole place with it, " she recalls and adds: "Because it wasn't just a cry of rage, it was essentially a strategy to reverse the power roles by using the same spaces that have used and abused women, amongst other, for so long. Throughout art history, female and other marginalised models have been objectified and portrayed as passive bodies, ready to be penetrated by the viewer. Therefore, by showing my vagina, I revealed the absent gaze and re-installed the female perspective."

You want more? Get access now.

  • One-year subscription

  • Monthly subscription

  • Zukunftsabo for subscribers under the age of 26


Already have an account?

Log in