‘Orphan Black’ and the female body


The female body, a maternal pillar, one that has been documented for over thousands over years and more recently in visual culture too. This essay seeks to discuss, critique and contest the female body with regard to feminism theory. This essay will critically analyse and discuss the TV series Orphan Black  and comment on the recurring theme of the maternal body therein. Orphan Black is a tv series that began in 2011 and is beginning to show its fourth season. The essay will also make reference of the article Mom’s with Guns; Woman’s Political Agency in Anti-Apartheid Visual Culture by Kim Miller (2009), Shelia De Rosa’s article Mother, dear Mother, 2004, J Wingate’s article,  Motherhood, Memorials and Anti- Militarism (2008)

This essay will cover themes such as fertility and the use of the female body to give life as well as the maternal body as a soldier, being able to carry a gun in order to protect her family, the mother being the sole caretaker of her children. The aim of the essay is to discover weather the feminist theories are in favour of the depiction of the maternal body in visual culture, or wether they are fought against.


To understand the theme of the essay, one first needs to define what a maternal body is and how it fits into feminist theory. Feminist theory firstly, is said to explore gender inequality and gender itself.  The maternal body is more specific as it then focuses of the female, concerning, conniving a child, giving birth, the ability to become a mother as well as the ability to grow and develop with the infant that is her child. This theme is touched on in  visual media and throughout time, however in this television series it is a very evident theme.

A brief overview of the tv series is given, in order to understand where and in what time frame the series was created. Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction series that is set in Toronto, Ontario about a woman called Sarah Manning, played by Tatiana Maslayn and directed by John Fawcette. In the first season, Sarah discovers that she is a clone and has over twelve identical ‘sisters’ all over North America and Europe. However of those clones, she is the only one who can conceive a child, she has a daughter, Kira Manning. There is a great emphasis on finding her ‘defect’ as all the other clones were designed not to reproduce. All the main characters, except one (Felix Dawkins, who is gay), are strong and distinctive females, who are all fighting for the good of their protection and sadly of their family.

As Miller (2009) says in her reading on Mom’s with Guns women in the Anti- Apartheid South Africa are meant to be seen as soldiers. Women have substantial muscles that are visibly taut, demonstrating great physical power. The “good mother” is active and empowered, focused pri- marily not on her child, but on a larger political goal. In one hand she holds a gun, ready to fire, while on her back sleeps her child.

This characteristic of being fit, strong and able to physically protect her children is evident in the character of Sarah Manning too. Sarah is seen doing parkour, while her sisters are also staying fit and strong doing their own exercises such as gaming (Aliosn), and bench press ups and sit ups (Helaina). Each character focuses not on keeping in shape, but on being physically strong enough to be able to fight, if they need to, especially when needing to protect their family.

Figure 1: Alison about to open the door to her house. Image available from locker dome.com

The characteristic of the mother with a gun is often seen. More prominent in Sarah’s won mother, Siobhon, who almost always greets her visitors with a gun before letting them into her house, where she protects her granddaughter. When Sarah first learns that she is a clone, her instinct is to protect herself, as did her sisters. Her clone sister Alison teachers her how to shoot, and says that her own reason for learning how to become a professional shooter is ‘to protect my family’.

Sarah is also seen posed with a gun ready to fire, in season 1, episode 5, when she has to keep the scientists away from her daughter.

As Annelise Orleck notes, “[F]or many women in cultures around the world, motherhood is a powerful political identity around which they have galvanized broad-based and in uential grassroots movements for social change” (Orleck 1997:7). The idea that mothers need to stand together and behind a gun to protect their children, often in the absence of husbands, is one that connects women around the world. In South Africa particularly where a large amount of women are single mothers and raise their children with their own mothers, there is often an absence in the father figure in the children’s childhood. The same can be said for Sarah Manning, who is a single mother raising her child with her mother, Siobhon, who was also a single mother. Mother-activism can reinforce patriarchal appeals to women’s maternity (as actual or potential mothers) as the primary basis for their worth (Miller).

The beginning of this protective mother emerged in the second World War, when artists such as Bashka Paeff, created her sculpture The Maine Sailors and Soldiers Memorial, seen in Fig.2, as read about in Jennier Wingate’s reading Motherhood, Memorials and Anti-Militarism (2008). The sculpture depicts a strong and masculine mother shielding her small child from the revenges of war around her.

Figure 2: The Maine Sailors and Solders Memorial. Bashka Paeff, 1926. 

The sculpture was one of the first to acknowledge the hardships of a mother, firstly by allowing the child to go to war and believing that it would be for the better good of her country and the next is that maternal body becomes a figure of protection and a physically strong being. Although, contemporary reviews regarded her work to be more of a success story as she was a woman sculpture during the 1920’s and not as radical political advancements. Reviews about her work were often accompanied by a ‘rags to riches’ bibliography of her life, although they were not necessarily true.

When watching Orphan Black one can see that the fear of portraying a mother as a fighter and protector in the war too has disappeared and evolved into one of the main themes in the series. One particular moment is in season two, episode 3 when Sarah as well as Siobhan are armed and out in the streets protecting Kira.

Another point that feminist theory comments on is how motherhood has been reduced to a ‘battleground in which growing numbers of women choose to conceive and rear their children without men’, according to Shelia de Rosa in her article Mother, dear Mother (2004). While women have suddenly been able to obtain career positions that are decision making positions and therefore also an economic value, women are still expected to raise the children, as they have done for thousands of years. De Rosa says that as third wave feminists, women should embrace their new opportunities and take advantage of the new freedom to climb the financial ladder to achieve a ceo position. Meaning that the maternal life should not be separated from the career life.

Figure 3: Sarah dropping Kira off at school. Image available from projectfandom.com

When looking specifically at Sarah Manning’s character, she is unable to be the maternal mother as well as the working mother because she gave her daughter to her mother, Siobhan to look after while she went to do freelance work as a designer. Her sister, Alison defies de Rosa’s ideology and is a stay-at-home-mom, also often called a ‘soccer mom’, as seen in Fig.3. While Siobhan remains the only mother who raised her children and worked as an undercover detective.

Figure 4: Alison as ‘stay-at-home-soccer-mom’. Image available from hypable.com

What can also be read of de Rosa’s reading is that women are no longer needing a man to even conceive a child. In recent medical advancements it is possible to conceive a child without the female or male body ever interacting. This of course is the main theme in Orphan Black as it deals with clones that have been created in test-tubes. All of the clones are science experiments, which is where the moral issues of the institutes come in, saying that the clones belong to the institute and therefore have to be controlled as observed as a proper experiment. All the clones do all have a ‘monitor’ someone who gives daily reports to the institute to record their activities, usually the monitor is also a spouse or boyfriend.


In the series Orphan Black feminist topics such as the mother as a protector, a single mother and a working mother as seen. The female body as a soldier and protector as Miller describes mothers of the modern world to be is evident in characters such as Sarah Manning, Alison Hendrix and Siobhan Sadler. All three women are seen as physically strong, as well as being able to pull a gun in a situation when needing to. This advancement in the depiction of motherhood began with feminists sculptures in the 1920’s. The single mother that De Rose mentions in her article is Sarah Manning who raises her child with the help of Siobhan. de Rosa, comment that women are living in a battleground of trying to raise their children without men, firstly financially and then physically without the presence of the father or even his conception. Finally, after analysing Orphan Black I feel that this series might be the most feminist series there is out there as every power decision, even within the institute is lead by a woman. Not just any woman, but a clone, a child born out of a test-tube. All the female characters are seen as fiercely independent and protective of their family and clone family. All women are never seen in need of a man to help them out, there are smaller characters given to the men but all the main characters as well as power characters are lead by mothers.


Brooklyn Museum. (2011, 27 December) What is Feminist Art? [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QbdobcKNhM. [Accessed on 7 May 2016].

De Rosa, S. (2004). Mother, dear Mother. Journal of Visual Art Practice. 3 (2), p83-89.

Orleck, Annelise. 1997. “Tradition Unbound: Radical Mothers in International Perspective” In  e Politics of Motherhood: Activist Voices from Le  to Right, eds. Alexis Jetter, Annelise Orleck, Diana Taylor, pp. 3–23. Hanover NH: University Press of New England.

Miller, K. 2009. African Arts. Mom’s with Guns; Woman’s Political Agency in Anti-Apartheid Visual Culture. 68-75

UCL Arts and Humanities, Social and Historical Sciences. (2015, March 10) . UCL History of Art: Griselda Pollock – Making Feminist Memories – Part 1. [Video file]. Retrieved from – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhCLvdZPy1o. [Accessed on 7 May 2016].

Wingate, J. (2008). Motherhood, Memorials and Anti- Militarism.Woman’s Art Journal. unknown (1), p31- 38.

Feature image: Vignette. Orphan Black. [Online]. Available from http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/orphanblack/images/b/b1/OrphanBlack2x10HelenaKiraAlisonCosima.jpeg/revision/latest?cb=20140809025905. [Accessed on 14/06/2016].

Figure 1: LockerDome. Orphan Black, Seanson 4 Trailer. [Online]. Available from – https://lockerdome.com/tvovermind/8486966341795860. [Accessed on 7/05/2016].

Figure 2: Wingate, J. (2008). Motherhood, Memorials and Anti- Militarism.Woman’s Art Journal. unknown (1), p31- 38.

Figure 3: Project Fandom. Orphan Black S1E4 – Instinct. [Online]. Available from – http://projectfandom.com/orphan-black-s1e2-instinct/. [Accessed on 7/5/2016].

Figure 4: Hypable. Nine things you don’t know about Orphan Black. [Online]. Available from – http://www.hypable.com/orphan-black-talks-to-hypable/. [Accessed on 7/05/2016].



Social Media saves the Environmental Issues (a little bit)


This blog will discuss how digital tools (blogging and social media), visual research methods (photo- elicitation) and photo essays can be used to generate and disseminate an awareness and understanding of environmental concerns. It will make reference to Carew, J’s reading .Online environmental activism in South Africa: a case study of the #IAM4RHINOS Twitter Campaign, which comments on the use of twitter as well as the power of the hashtag that was used during 2013 for the rhino campaign. The blog will also use Pauwels, L’s reading Conceptualising the ‘Visual Essay’ as a way of generating and imparting sociological insight: issues, formats and realisations, Pauwels, L’s other reading on ‘Participatory’ visual research revisited: a critical-constructive assessment of epistemological, methodological and social activist tenets and Thaler, AD et al’s reading Digital environmentalism: tools and strategies for the evolving online ecosystem, in Environmental leadership: A reference handbook, with sort reference to Tinkler, P’s reading Using photographs in social and historical research.

The blog will discuss the basics on creating an account for a specific purpose, how to get as much attention about it as it can, specific terms that are used in the cyber world, the emotional connection people make towards the cause, visual stimuli in photographs and in art,


Basics on twitter 

Twitter is a blogging space that allows for a user (persional, business, politicians or brands) to say what they need to in 140 characters, this allows for precise and direct communication towards thousands of people. The introduction of environmental issues in social media, opens up a wide range of new followers, the target audience broadens and suddenly more normal people who are not necessarily in the field are exposed to the issues (Carew, 2014). Subsequently mass media has been forced to adopt social networks such as twitter to engage with audience members. Campaigns form to raise awareness, especially in emergency cases, such as the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings in 2011. These campaigns call on users to show their support for a cause by donating money, sharing content or posting a tweet featuring a specific hashtag. Environmental movements are increasingly using social networks as platforms to recruit members, to promote their causes, to facilitate fundraising efforts and manage campaign activities (Carew, 2014).

Important people re-tweeting

Many of the campaign supporters mentioned prominent celebrities in their tweets, petitioning them to get involved in the cause. It must be noted that influence is often associated with a person’s level of interest in, or a vast amount of knowledge about, a topic.

Using Images and art as stimuli 

The technique whereby images are used as a stimulus in the context of an interview was originally applied in psychological research. It was subsequently adopted by a number of social scientists and is now primarily known as ‘photo-elicitation’, though in fact many types of images can be used (still and moving, paintings or drawings, etc.), and thus ‘image-elicitation’ or ‘visual elicitation’ would be a more appropriate term. The visual materials used as ‘stimuli’ to obtain unique kinds of information from respondents and informants may include pre-existing ‘societal imagery’ (historic or archive pictures of cities, advertisements, etc.), as well as researcher- or respondent-generated materials (Pauwels, 2013). Pauwels also says that having images make the interview more productive, saying that the interview is no loner interested because of limited stimuli.

Another approach to visual/photo based stimuli is to have artwork based stimuli. The essay is now considered a visual/photo essay. History of the visual essay can date back to the 1940’s with the beginning of glossy magazines. Today the visual essay has found its place in art and educational spheres as well as on social media platforms and in mass media and in activist forms (Pauwels, 2011).

Emotional stimuli  


It is important to briefly highlight the emotional appeals that formed part of the initiative. Emotional citizenship is a commitment to and sense of responsibility toward one’s community, and it is these emotions that drive individuals to act. Describing emotions as ’social relationships,’highlights how an emotion like anger represents a relationship between the angry person and a provocateur.


Cyber terms 

Another term that arises through social media is ‘slaktivisim‘. ‘Slacktivism’ is a combination of the words ‘slacker’ and ‘activism,’ which sees an individual showing support for an issue with little to no tangible result other than to allow the person to feel good about having contributed in some way . This type of support requires little more than the click of a button and very seldom has any real impact according to research from the University of British Columbia, which found that wearing a cause-specific bracelet or ribbon, liking a page on Facebook, retweeting a hashtag or signing a web-based petition rarely served as a precursor to actual social action (Carew, 2014).

Online activism – also known as cyberactivism, digital activism and electronic advocacy – involves the use of the Internet and mobile communication tools to organise and facilitate protest efforts and to garner support for a cause or movement. This new breed of activism, enabled by modern technology, is a source of public discourse directly linked to changes in how citizens respond to powerful figures in society.


Although one may expect that the backing of these famous faces would generate the most interest around the cause, it was actually the support of a handful of passionate Twitter users who had the most influence, generating sizable amounts of traffic around the hashtag. In fact, it was the efforts of a small group of Twitter users that indirectly contributed to a significant amount of the hype generated around the rhino conservation conversation, showcasing that influence can be gained spontaneously.

Reference list

Carew, J. 2014. Online environmental activism in South Africa: a case study of the #IAM4RHINOS Twitter Campaign. Global Media Journal. African Edition 8(2):207- 230.

Pauwels, L. 2012. Conceptualising the ‘Visual Essay’ as a way of generating and imparting sociological insight: issues, formats and realisations. Sociological Research Online 17(1):[sp].

Pauwels, L. 2015. ‘Participatory’ visual research revisited: a critical-constructive assessment of epistemological, methodological and social activist tenets. Ethnography 16(1):95–117

Thaler, AD et al. 2012. Digital environmentalism: tools and strategies for the evolving online ecosystem, in Environmental leadership: A reference handbook, edited by D Gallagher. London: SAGE.

Tinkler, P. 2013. Using photographs in social and historical research. London: SAGE.

Performance Art

In his book Relational Aesthetics (1998) Nicolas Bourriaud describes art as from the 1990’s to take it’s theoretical framework from “the realm of human interactions and it’s social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.” Bourriaud condemns everything from traditional painting to installation as it is an obsession with surface and objects. He says meaning is created and elaborated on collabrotory (between artists and medium and artist and audience).

What I think this means is that art is no longer a 2D object that is framed and bought to hang in your house. It is no longer a private, intimate object this evokes pleasing feelings. Art from the 1990’s onwards is an interaction between artist and the public on social matters. This blog will elaborate on this statement by giving examples from the works of Marina Abromovic as well as Anthea Moys. Firstly by explaining participatory art as a medium and a genre in fine arts with reference to the practice of Anthea Moys and Marina Abromovic. The blog will also comment on the different approaches to performance which is followed by these two artists and to what extent the idea of participation reveal meaning in their work.

What is Performance Art?

Basically, it is a combination of visual/fine arts with dramatic arts, not limiting one from the other. What makes a performance artwork different from a staged dramatic performance is that there is no knowing of the outcome of the artwork. The artist has no idea how the audience will influence or take over the artwork. The artist has an outline of how they will do the artwork but not of the outcome thereof.

What Marina says is performance is; “mental and physical construction in a specific time space, in front of an audience where an energy dialogue happens- audience and performer make the piece together. The difference between performance and theatre is huge; in the theatre the knife is not a knife and the blood is just ketchup, in the performance the blood is the material and the knife is the tool. It is all about being there in the real time and you can’t rehearse performance because you can not do many of these things twice, ever. ”

Why performing arts is a fine art?

Performance art has turned into a way of reshaping ones mindset on certain aspects. For example, Moys says, that owners of public spaces should consider what their public space is really for. For example a pavement, is the soul purpose of the pavement to walk on? Therefore artists are constantly trying to reshape the use of public spaces as well as the onlookers perception of what a specific public space can be used as. Just as fine artists of thousands of years have tried to reshape the views of people.

Performance challenges the notion of a valuable art object which can be bought and such a setting – the body of the artist cannot be sold. Performance art challenges the notion of the valuable, lasting art object as well as the commodity value thereof. The body within contemporary art has become an important medium of expression, concerning aspects of identity, sexuality and corporeality. The wound, according to Jones (2009:53), through its inscription onto the body, is what makes the body a “representational field”.

Fiona Siebenthaler says that Anthea Moys is amongst a few artists who comment on the (in)visibility that is within our society. Performance art opens a space for artists to comment on the (in)visible lines between social barriers of class, race and previous apartheid tension. Moys does so in her artwork Nessun Dorma where she physically brought together two different social groups to watch the performance; the northern suburbs, richer, traditionally white people together with the local urban, poorer, black people in the area, in Joubert Park opposite the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Moys joins two extremely separate spaces: the no-go-zone of Joubert Park and the highly secured homes of wealthy people in the northern suburbs, who hire private security companies to protect them. In this piece she has blurred the (in)visible lines that exist between social barriers.

Figure 1 : Anthea Moys, Nessun Dorman (None Shall Sleep Tonight), 2008.

Kinds of Participatory art within performance Art

Performance art specifically participatory art, creates a relationship between people and a social space, as well as people and groups of people, then finally blurring the relationship between artist and viewer. The audience becomes integrated into the artwork. The scope extends beyond the artwork and addresses larger social issues. The everyday context of the viewers become important. The artist involves more than just art viewers into the artwork, but also general public.


Types of participatory art within performance art; re-repersetation, (Jones) who felt feelings of unenergizing, unpersonal, or in untransformative (feelings one should feel when looking at art?) re-doing of own work. Her argument here is that the re-enactment actually establishes itself from the get-go as simultaneously representational and live (it is a live re-doing of something already done in the past — it is a reiteration, a performative re-doing — and one that itself becomes instantaneously “past,” raising questions about its own existence in time and in history) (Jones, 2009).

Marina reenacted Seven Easy Pieces (2005) where she reenacted other artists performance pieces, amongst Joseph Beueys How to explain Pictures to a Dead Hare another one was her own previous work, Lips of Thomas.  This kind of reenactment is based on subjectivity and previous experiences if the ciders to create their own interpretation.


Figure 2: Marina Abramovic, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 2005

Anthea Moys, South African artist, looks into performance specifically into play, sports and games. She herself has a work titled The Artist is Arm Wrestling (2015) which is taken from Abramovic’s piece, The Artist is Present. The artwork focuses on the same principle of trying to have the audience and artists within the same presence in order to create the same atmosphere where an artwork can be born.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 5.47.48 PM
Figure 3: Anthea Moys and Marina Abramovic’s posters for their performances. 

Her brief for the artwork is : For this year’s Art Fair I will challenge artists, security guards, curators, cleaners, volunteers, organizers and members of the general public to a test of strength, as I take on all-comers in the ancient discipline of arm wrestling. “The Artist is Arm Wrestling” is a playful re-imagining of the Marina Abramović work “The Artist is Present” (2010) – a 736-hour and 30-minute performance piece during which the artist sat immobile in MOMA’s atrium while members of the public were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. Some participants wept, others fled, whilst others stood their ground and held her gaze. By inserting an arm-wrestling contest into the space between the artist and the public, I introduce the rules and create a completely different game. ‘The Artist is Arm Wrestling’ explores how rules paradoxically encourage play, and reveal true character. How and why do we compete, and for what?

Figure 3: Anthea Moys, The Artist is Arm Wrestling, 2014.

Frozen/ live art

Both art forms claim to destroy presence. Theories say that the artwork is always already in passing and the body already in action, as in the expression itself is thus representational. The body becomes ‘frozen art’. Experienced artists know this and use it in a self-reflective way. ‘If you are not performing the performance it is dead’- Abromovic, this is true as it the artwork only lasts while the artists is doing it. The performance is only alive at the very moment that it starts. The documentation of the performance is what fixes  the artwork in history. The Now is already over and the present is always already the future. Reenactment is seen as trying to secure the original. But the artwork is always already gone. Abromovic does not aim to commoditise the reenactments, but they always end up being so.

Documentation as Reincation

Moys takes the role of a temporary playful leader, directing diverse groups into a space that is charged and unknown to them to create a shared, communal space—even if it is only for a moment. Moys tries to overcome this somewhat self-imposed exclusion by bringing certain target groups into areas that they normally ignore, avoid, or even fear for different reasons, but mostly because of crime, neglect, or simply out of habit and everyday routine. She does this predominantly with interactive interventions. This is important as it gives evidence to why performance art is important in the fine art world, as just like in ‘traditional fine arts’ the artists are constantly trying to push boundaries as well as alter mindsets.

Participation gives meaning to the works

In Anthea Moys works, ‘play’ forms a central meaning in her works. Through play her viewers momentarily forget the roles prescribed to us by society. The onlookers are the players in her performances. Play is a very post-modern idea as it is ambiguous.
The work is a continuation of two performance cycles Moys has staged over the last year – Anthea Moys vs. The City of Grahamstown (2013) and Anthea Moys vs. The City of Geneva (2014), and also represents the continuation of her long-standing engagement with participatory performance practice in contemporary art, and her interest in play, risk, and failure.
Figure 4: Anthea Moys, Anthea Moys vs The City of Grahamstown, 2013.

In Abramovic’s work Role Exchange (1975) the artist exchanges roles with a prostitude in The Red Light District. The prostitute attends Abramovic’s gallery opening, while she is in the Red Light District. The artwork comments on, amongst other things, the expectation the viewer has that they will see the artwork in the gallery. In this case the participation comes from the prostitute and her acceptance to the the role. In this work the element of play is also central to the performance.

Figure 5: Marina Abramovic, Role Exchange, 1975. Image of the prostitute in the gallery and the artist in The Red Light District.


Reference list

Youtube, 2015. An Art Made of Trust, Vulnerability and Connection | Marina Abramović | TED Talks. [Online] available from – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4so_Z9a_u0. [Accessed on 11 June 2016].  

Youtube, 2008. Anthea Moys: Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep Tonight). [Online] Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRNF8TvjhSg. [Accessed on 16 June 2016].

Figure 1: Bechance.net, 2008. Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep Tonight) 2008. [Online] Available from https://www.behance.net/gallery/10938979/Nessun-Dorma-(None-Shall-Sleep-Tonight)-2008. [Accessed on 16 June 2016].

Figure 2: ImagesArtNet, 2005. Weekend Update by Walter Robertson. [Online]. Available from https://www.behance.net/gallery/10938979/Nessun-Dorma-(None-Shall-Sleep-Tonight)-2008. [Accessed on 16 June 2016].

Figure 3: Bechance.net, 2014. The Artist is Arm Wrestling. [Online] Available from – https://www.behance.net/gallery/21755597/The-Artist-Is-Arm-Wrestling-2014. [Accessed on 16 June 2016].

Figure 4: Bechance.net, 2013. Anthea Moys vs The City of Grahamstown. [Online] Available from https://www.behance.net/gallery/11098465/Anthea-Moys-vs-The-City-of-Grahamstown-2013. [Accessed on 16 June 2016].

Figure 5: MossArtOnline, 2010. Marina Abramovic. [Online] Available from http://massartonline.org/dbarneschi/2010/08/marina-abramovic/. [Accessed on 16 June 2016].

Renoir and Degas: who depicts Bathers better?


This blog will discuss the genre of the nude during the Fin-de-siècle (turn of the century) by comparing the works of Renoir and Degas, focussing on their Bather series. It will make use of N. Brood’s reading,  Degas’s ‘misogyny’ (1977) as well as T. Garb’s reading, Renoir and the natural women (1985). The blog will begin by explaining what the key terms; Fin-de-siècle is as well as the context of the nude within the Fin-de-siècle. The blog will then continue to discuss the important concepts such as reshaping nature through culture, voyeurism, castration complex and fetishism.


Fin-de-siècle is french for end of the century, similar to ‘turn of the century’, refers to the end of the 19th Century (more or less 1870 -1910). It is also known as the period of degeneration, boredom, cynicism, pessimism and decadence. There was also a reaction to materialism, hope for new beginnings through a revolt against rationalism, positivism, the bourgeois, liberal democracy. The Fin-de-siècle like any other culture had a counter culture and that was to reject social order.

The Nude (in the Fin-de-siècle)
The nude was considered an acceptable representation of nakedness, in art before the 20th century. It was considered the reiteration of beauty and a base on which to transform nature into a culture. Male nudes were typically gods and warriors, while female nudes were venues and odalisques. There was aways an element of perfection, godly status, goodness, beauty and immortal life.
Figure 1: Francois Boucher, The Toilete of Venus. 1751. Oil on Canvas.
However, during the Fin-de-siècle artists wanted to depict the female nude for what they were; actual reality. The nude became an expression of erotisissim, ascetic enjoyment and pornography. Without surprise, the new ‘artistic nude’ was not highly approved of.
Figure 2: Gustav Courbet, L’Origine du Monde. 1866. Oil on canvas.


Reshaping nature through culture

‘The very act of painting is male, culture is male, and that which is represented exists in the order of nature so that ‘women’, Renoir’s most frequent subject is seen to operate on the physical and ‘primitive’ level of culture.’ (Garb, 1985, p4). In this quote about Renoir’s choice of depicting women, one can see that the men are seen as cultured while women are not, meaning that men have the power to reshape the way nature/women are seen in culture. Renoir’s nudes reinforce a patriarchal society, by depicting them as an extension of nature. All his nudes are at one with nature, blend into the background of nature are at total peace and in bliss with nature. As seen in Figure 3, the painting depicts naked women, bathing in a forest. The colours of their skin is an extension of the colours used to depict nature, therefore they are an extension of nature. The fact that the are bathing also implies that they are only capable of very primitive activities.

Figure 3: Pierre-Augustine Renoir, Bathers in the Forest, 1897. Oil on canvas.

Renoir also likes depicting his female figures doing household chores and looking after pets and children, reaffirming their place in society.

Renoir’s depiction of women as a timeless, mythic version of women often leads to the assumption of praise (Garb, 1985. p5) but this idea must be oppressed as it shows the lack of engagement into the reality of a females life. Many other thinkers, writers and artists at the time were documenting on the fact that women were denied the same rights as men. Renoir is a misogynist as he did not want women to gain equality in society. Therefore he places them in roles that are submissive to men and reinforces the myth of women. Renoir also believed, along with many other theorists of the time, that if women altered the particle system, they would alter nature too.

In controst, Degas depicted his female nudes as slaves to the male viewer. His dancers and bathers express the pain and effort it takes to look effortless. This is seen through the expressions of hardship, the distorted bodies (see figure 4) and the ‘furious opens, displayed as bodily distortion and disarticulation’ ( Bernheimer, 2014 p159). Degas stripped away societal norms and revealed true identity, which was not well received by society.

Figure 4: Edgar Degas, Bather stretched out on the Floor, 1886-1888. Pastel.



Voyerism is  expressing a sexual interest or looking and spying on people, that are not aware of the voyeur, engaged in intimate behaviour.

In the case of Renoir Bathing series of paintings the paintings have a distinct feeling of voyeurism. This is seen in the females obliviousness to the male eye and their ease at playing amongst themselves (figure 3).

Castration complex

Castration complex is the fear of being emasculated.

According to the psychoanalytic account,the male voyeur is trying to escape anxiety by obsessively reenacting an original trauma, his imagined perception of female castration, from a situation of mastery and control (Bernheimer, 2014). The male voyeur sees the absence of the phallic and concludes that the female is considered the other in his eyes. He is then relieved with the thought that he as not been castrated, like the female is.


In Renoir’s bather paintings one can distinctly see that the women is submissive to the man, emphasising that he has mastery over her (Garb, 1985 p8). This is seen in the way that the women are depicted naked, as a submission to the viewer, bodies are often twisted to expose breasts or thighs, expressing a harmful playfulness. Renoir also expresses how he prefers his women not to be able to read but only to take care of the children, implying that he has a fear of women becoming an equal to him. He then argues that women would not become elevated, through an education, but denatured and debased.  His ideas of women as household essentials is reinforced by his paintings of women doing household chores with ease. He also mentions how the best exercise for a women, is to be scrubbing floors, once again emphasising his fear of a women being an equal to a man.

In Degas’ bather series one can see the castration fear play part, as the females are depicted alone, extraordinary self-sufficiency, separateness, and sensuous privacy of the women is depicted. The male viewer is not invited to watch and feels almost like a trespasser. The women are rendered as physical beings in their own right rather than as projected, complicit objects of masculine desire (Brenheimber). The women are not only averted from the male gaze but are also completely unaware of it. The images invite empathy and the contemplation of narcissism.

Degas also emphasised on expressing women as individuals, not as subjects that were meant to emphasise charm, grace or prettiness.

Figure 5: Edgar Degas, The Tub, Pastel on cardboard, 1886



Fetishisation is to make a fetish of something – excessive devotion or obsession for something/someone

Renoir’s fetish is clearly the womanly body.


In conclusion this blog has explored the theme of the nude within the Fin-de-siecle between the artists; Renoir and Degas, focusing on their bather series. In N. Brood’s reading,  Degas’s ‘misogyny’ (1977), one learns that——– .  While in T. Garb’s reading, Renoir and the natural women (1985) we can understand the depiction that Renoir made of women, by pronouncing them to be a part and extension of nature and less than men. Renoir does this by depicting women as primitive and beautiful. In Garb’s reading one can see that Renoir also had a fear of castration, for he feared that women would be an equal to him and he therefore would no longer find them attractive. In Bernheimer’s reading Degas’ Brothels (2014) with reference to Degas’ pastels of women bathing, the reader can understand that Degas saw women to be slaves of the male viewer, Degas depicted the pain and reality of an individual woman through his paintings.


Bernheimer, C. 2014. Degas’s Brothels: Voyeurism and Ideology. University of California Press. pp158-186


Broude, N. 1977. Degas’s ‘misogyny’. The Art Bulletin 59(1), March:95-107.

Garb, T. 1985. Renoir and the natural women. The Art Oxford Art Journal 8(2):3-15.

Leeks, W. 1986. Ingres other-wise. The Oxford Art Journal 9(1):29-37.

Figure 1: Bc.Edu, 2010. Francis Boucher The Toilette of Venus. [Online] Available at http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/his/CoreArt/art/anc_bou_toil.html [Accessed on 1 June 2016].

Figure 2: Huffington Post, 2015. Facebook In Legal Trouble After Censoring That 19th Century Painting (NSFW). [Online] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/23/facebook-origin-of-the-wo_n_6535912.html [Accessed on 1 June 2016].

Figure 3: Lenin Imports, 2015. Pierre-Augustine Renoir. [Online] Available at: http://www.leninimports.com/pierre_auguste_renoir_bathers_in_the_forest_canvas_print_24.html [Accessed on 1 June 2016].

Figure 4: Painting and Frame, 2010. Edgar Degas After the Bath or Reclining Nude. [Online] Available at: http://paintingandframe.com/buy/edgar_degas_after_the_bath_or_reclining_nude_art_print-1783.html. [Accessed on 5 June 2016].

Figure 5: Study Blue, 2013. Impressionism/post-impression. [Online] Available at: https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/impressionism-post-impressionism/deck/16058424. [Accessed on 5 June 2016].