Danish photographer Mathilde Grafström has filed an official complaint after local police denied permission to display her ‘Female Beauty’ photography exhibition on Copenhagen’s Nytorv Square. The collection features various female models, photographed nude in natural surroundings. Grafström states on her professional site that the aim of the project is to encourage people to question negative beliefs about their own bodies and inspire a sense of body confidence. She says of her models that, “it is not about how she looks physically, but about the life energy and beauty she contains.” This message is surely one that should be received with praise; after all, the human body in its naked form is not only one of the most natural subjects, but has featured heavily throughout art history. But it would seem that the collection is too provocative, even for Denmark, which, along with its Scandinavian counterparts, is generally noted for being a very liberal nation. The models in the photos are in no way restricted and indeed the images are intimate and sensual, as well as being expressions of feminine self-expression.
If they are shocking to some, perhaps it’s rather a question of the connotations that have become intrinsically linked with the naked body, namely surrounding sexualisation that has become so commonplace in modern society. Recent campaigns such as ‘Free the Nipple’ have endeavoured to reclaim the female body from sexual objectification, however it would seem that there is still a long way to go to change attitudes towards the naked body. Reading through comments under the Independent’s article about the decision to cancel the exhibition, I was somewhat shocked and saddened to see certain comments, amongst the various others that either abhorred the evident repression of artistic expression or commended the police for ridding the public of such indecency, that took on a more misogynistic and sinister tone. “Save it for your art gallery, sweetheart”, “Pics of birds with their kit off belong in Playboy mags” and “The poses are distinctly erotic and not candid at all. Not that I’m complaining: I’ve downloaded a few of them already, thanks.” I find it difficult to read such comments, both as a woman, amongst many women who continue to find their bodies defined by standards set outside of their control and viewed as objects of the male gaze, and as a fellow reader and human being, who finds such negativity deplorable and attitudes entirely ignorant. Using pet names to address women obviously doesn’t connote any level of respect; it undermines and belittles the opinion of others by playing the archaic sexism card, which gives such comments an air of superiority whilst making them hardly worthy of note in any serious discussion. Suggesting that the naked female body should only be seen in the context of providing sexual pleasure is totally contrived and quite sickening. I find the tone of such statements far more offensive than photographs of naked women, the message of which is, at its core, empowering and positive.
Herein lies the problem with the ‘Female Beauty’ exhibition. It doesn’t lie with the photographer, whose simple, if naïve, vision of encouraging women to find their own sense of beauty and accept their natural bodies is declared through these un-edited photographs. Nor does it lie with the models, who are shown to be comfortable in their own bodies and certainly inspire a rare state of body confidence and unity between the natural human form and its natural surroundings. The problem is a greater one that is deep-rooted in society. Whilst Grafström’s message is clearly stated, the sexualisation of the naked body is, unfortunately, not to be easily overcome. Whether people are offended by such photos, or just cannot seem to view them as anything more than pornographic images, these attitudes all derive from an implication that the naked human form is not only immediately constrained by its connotations of sexuality but is ultimately defined by it.
We should be doing all we can to embrace and inform people of such projects, projects by individuals who believe they have a vision that can change the world in some positive way. When we allow negative comments and connotations to be associated with something as pure as our own natural bodies, we are denying the right for our own natural bodies to transcend the objectification of others. Yes, I myself found some of the images rather more provocative than I had imagined when I first saw them. But was this due to the image content itself, or to societal convention and the imposition of taboo status on the subject matter? I hasten to suggest that our conceptions of the photographs stem from the latter. Grafström’s vision unfortunately may not be readily accepted in a society where people continue to cling to such prejudice without questioning where these attitudes originated from.
It would be beneficial to take note of a more positive attitude that seeks to get beyond our discomfort with such photographs, which are fundamentally an artistic expression, and question why these might exist. In Grafström’s own words, “if you think your naked body is dirty and that you should be a shamed of it, you are wrong. It is your attitude that needs cleaning, not your flesh.”
[Cover photo: Thomas Eakins – ‘Female Nude’ 1883]