Feminartsy: The Male Gaze in Australian Art

This comment piece was originally published by Feminartsy.


The Male Gaze in Australian Art

In the words of Star Wars creator George Lucas, ‘you can’t do it unless you can imagine it.’ And it’s true. It’s why it’s so important to have diversity in dolls, and why toys shouldn’t be marketed by gender: if you can’t imagine yourself in a particular role, how will you find your way there?

Imagination as creation is also why it’s so important that the stories that a nation chooses to tell itself about itself are treated with the same cautious and critical eye which now runs along the kids’ aisle at K-Mart. And if you want to know what stories a nation tells itself about itself, you look to its hopes and dreams; its fears and nightmares. You look to its art and literature.

One of the most famous images of Australian art is rendered in simple vibrant colours mixed from house-painters’ enamel. An image of bold shapes, its central figure is a lone black armour-clad imagining of a human which rests atop a loping donkey-like mount. The childishly-drawn figure clasps an obscured rifle (I always thought it was a broomstick) and strides confidently towards the low-hanging fluffy white clouds which puncture the endless monotony of the desert. Artist John Kelly once described the story of this image as ‘a narrative of British colonial repression versus a quixotic insurrection doomed to failure.’ And indeed it could very well sit on the cover of an Australian translation of Cervantes’ famous sixteenth-century novel.

I’m speaking of Sidney Nolan’s 1946 Ned Kelly.

Nolan’s majestic and iconic Ned Kelly is not only a famous image of Australian art, it’s also a visual vocabulary and grammar for the male gaze in the post-war period. Triumphantly colonial and nationalistic, swaggeringly authorial, unashamedly white, above all; masculine.

The notion of ‘the (male) gaze’ comes from feminist work in art history and film studies. Drawing from psychoanalysis, theorists such as Laura Mulvey and Griselda Pollock argue that visual representations (such as paintings and films) act as snapshots of power relations in the societies which produce them: who is looked at, and who gets to look; who is active and who is passive; who is powerful and who is powerless.

In her meditation on her most famous essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey argues: ‘In-built patterns of pleasure and identification impose masculinity as ‘point of view’’. That is to say, in art and cinema the gaze – regardless of the gender of the viewer – is masculinised into an active and dominating scopophilia. The ‘male gaze’ is not simply one which belongs to a man. Rather it is a means of looking which renders those looked at as objects to be controlled. Whatever the gender or political leanings of the viewer, unless actively resisting the narrative presented by the snapshot, they are complicit in this gaze.

Nolan’s Ned Kelly lacks eyes, and yet the rectangular aperture of his black mask becomes a vehicle through which he sees – and therefore conquers and controls – the Australian landscape, acting as a snapshot of and mythology for a burgeoning Australian identity growing ever more comfortable within its stolen lands. Ned Kelly is drawn from a series of 27 paintings by Nolan produced 1946-47, in which the tale of Ned Kelly, his gang’s run from the law, and his eventual death acts as a smokescreen for Nolan’s auto-biographical meditation on ‘violence, love, folly, authority and personal responsibility.’

But there does exist a consort to Nolan’s centaur-like national hero confidently claiming ownership and power with every step. A decade later modernist painter Charles Blackman began work on his surrealist Alice series, whose inspiration was drawn from Lewis Carroll’s eponymous character. Although appreciation of Blackman’s work has been hampered by a holding of a significant number of his works in private collections, his Alice series remains one of the most celebrated works of Australian art.

In this series of 46 paintings, Alice stands for Blackman’s wife, Barbara, the white rabbit for Blackman himself, and the series explores the dilemmas facing the couple during the year of Barbara’s first pregnancy amidst the on-going issue of her worsening sight.

With Alice as the central figure, the series acts as a meditation on the experience and reality of Australian women in a post-war Australia dominated by Ned Kellys. In this series a blue veil – symbolic of Barbara Blackman’s worsening sight – lies across Alice/Barbara’s eyes; her own Kelly mask, hindering rather than aiding her entrance into the landscape and adventure.

Barbara was not the first woman whose story Blackman had painted. Indeed, his work – from the Alice and Schoolgirl series, to his portraits of friends and family – are concerned with three main areas according to writer and art critic Nadine Amadio: ‘the world of literature, the lost domain of childhood, and women.’

By turning his sights to the inner-worlds and personalised experiences of the women who populated his life and city in 1950s Melbourne, Blackman’s work offers a possible – though not unproblematic – resistance to the conquering male gaze which is canonical in Australian art. Whilst Nolan’s Ned Kelly is unashamedly masculine – rendering women not only invisible but possibly even imaginary/unreal – Blackman’s paintings take us into the far murkier and more confusing realm of gender relations.

For Pollock and Mulvey, the issue isn’t necessarily the presence or absence of women, but rather what women stand for when they are present. According to Mulvey (Fears, Fantasies, and the Male Unconscious):

[Women are] being turned all the time into objects of display, to be looked at and gazed at and stared at by men. Yet, in a real sense, women are not there at all…Women are simply the scenery onto which men project their narcissistic fantasies.

The presence of women cannot undermine the male gaze – or the viewer’s complicity with it – so long as the presence of female subjects is simply as a conduit for the exploration of male desire.

In attempting to capture and explore the inner worlds – the unconscious, the hidden desires, the tangible experiences – of women, Blackman’s work can be read and understood as a resistance to this gaze of masculinised desire. Eschewing both the masculine white colonialist bush imagery so familiar to Australian art and complicity in an active male gaze, Blackman’s painting of post-war Australian women attempts to step outside the frame of traditional relations of male/female, looker/looked at, possessor/possessed and attempts to create something that is not about men, but about the women under consideration.

But. There is a problem here. In their historicising of art and cinema both Mulvey and Pollock lament the continued association of the female with the internal world of introspection and the body, and the male with the landscape and adventuring. And Blackman cannot escape this tug.

Created in response to the adventuring Kelly and in a conservative era of gender relations, Blackman’s Alice had no where to go but inside: indoors from the already male-conquered landscape, and into herself.

Even as he forces open a door to female experience that was otherwise closed, Blackman cannot avoid aeons of gendered association that – with only two eyes – can only ever see in binaries of male/female, active/passive, outside/inside.

And so the image of Australia as nation continues to rest atop the shoulders of our quixotic hero loping into the horizon.

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