In the Way of Seeing, John Berger notes that the artistic convention of the female nude, women exhibiting their unclothed bodies in a way that increases the viewing pleasures of an unknown male spectator, is unique to the European oil painting tradition. To be nude, he contends, is very distinct from simply being naked. Being naked is just the act of not wearing any clothes while being nude is the act of act of totally surrendering the agency of one’s own body to the scrutiny of others. Everything from the posture to expression to the way they are positioned in the painting suggest to the male spectator that they exist only for their pleasure, that they are ready to submit to their every will.
According to Berger, this tradition of presenting women’s bodies in painting for the sake of male strangers is not found in any artistic tradition outside of Europe such as Africa or India, or Mesoamerica. In those cultures, rather than being confined to women, nakedness is always mutual and always active. Rather than a disinterested woman posing for the canvas, in Eastern and African traditions both the men and women are equal participants in the expression of sexual attraction in which “the woman as active as the man, the actions of each absorbing the other” (53).
There exists, however, examples that question Berger’s claim about the depiction of the female body in non-European art. While he says that in “Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art – nakedness is never supine” (53), the works of the 18th century Japanese woodblock artist Utamaro (1753-1806), for example, often depicts beautiful women posing and exhibiting themselves in ways that were clearly designed to please the male spectator in much the same way as European female nudes. Many of these painting, like Western nudes, also feature the motif of women using mirrors, the purpose of which, according to Berger, “was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight” (51). Utamaro’s paintings were a very popular genre of woodcuts known as Bijin-ga, or “beautiful person pictures”, that thrived from the 17th to 19th centuries.