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Albrecht Dürer: Artist Drawing a Nude with Perspective Device

This illustration of a perspective machine was published by Albrecht Dürer in The Painter's Manual in 1525. In Postmodern criticism, this image has been used to illustrate the power of perspective and the strong patriarchal nature of early modern culture with the strong division of gender roles. It is also cited in discussions of the cultural construction of the nude in Western Art since the Renaissance.

The following are excerpts from contemporary critics exploring the implications of this image:


Svetlana Alpers, "Art History and Its Exclusions," pp. 185-187: When I refer to the notion of art in the Italian Renaissance, I have in mind the definition of the picture first put into words by Alberti. Though this dates from the fifteenth century, it remained, through what we have come to think of as several changes of style, the dominant notion of the picture in the West until the present century. Painting, and beyond that the fresco, is the ideal form. It is unique, unreplicable creation as contrasted for example, with prints. It is conceived of as a window onto a second world. The viewer, rather than the world seen, has priority. Alberti's picture originates with a viewer who is actively looking out at objects --preferably human figures-- in space. Their appearance is a function of their distance from the viewer. We can let Dürer's rendering of perspective practice represent the making of the Albertian picture. Though he was a northerner, Dürer's ambition here was to re-present the practice of the Italians he so admired. It is Alberti who instructed the artist to lay down a rectangle on the model of the window frame. The picture is the artist's construct, an expression in paint, as Alberti says of the intersection of the visual plane at a given distance from the observer. It could be argued that Alberti's greatest invention was this picture itself. The framed rectangle on the wall which became the basis of the art of painting in the West is distinct from the painted walls of Egypt, the scrolls of China, the pages of India or even the panels of Byzantium. The frame has priority in the ordering of the image which thus lends itself to formal (stylistic) analysis in its relation to its rectangular /p. 187 surround. Sight or vision is defined geometrically in this art. It concerns our measured relationship to objects in space rather than the glow of light and color. Finally, human figures are central. They dominate the world and, in the case of Michelangelo at least, they exclude all other phenomena. Creation in such art is of man....

The highest aim of such painting is to be like poetry. Artists elevated themselves from their craft status by allying themselves with privileged modes of knowledge: with mathematics on the one hand and with literature on the other. Iconography as a way of analyzing pictorial meaning, like the art itself, trusts basically to texts as a basis for all meaning. We look through the pictorial surface to the deeper meaning of the text. It is verbal meaning or the narration of stories that we take away from such pictures. In both the art and the analysis of it, completed composition is asserted over the craft and process of making, and meaning dominates over representation and its functions. In its ordering of the world and in its possession of meaning, such an art, like the analysis art historians have devoted to it, asserts that the power of art over life is real. Many aspects of Renaissance culture --its painting, its literature, its historiography-- are born of this active confidence in human powers. Dürer's woodcut tellingly reveals it in the relationship of the male artist to the female observed who offers her naked body to him to draw. The attitude toward women in this art --toward the central image of the female nude in particular-- is part and parcel of a commanding attitude taken toward the possession of the world.

Barbara Freedman, Staging the Gaze: Postmodernism, Psychoanalysis, and Shakespearean Comedy, Cornell University Press, 1991: p. 1: Albrecht Dürer's woodcut of a perspective painter plays out, reverses, and so complicates positions of right and erring spectatorship. Dürer's multiplication of pictures within this picture creates the theatrical effect of a dramatic interplay of looks. Not only do the windows frame nature much as the artist would frame woman, but we in turn frame the painter as well. The painter as a privileged spectator is himself displaced by being made the object of our act of looking. The complex relay of looks among painter, model, and spectator not only stages our look, but reflects it back to us in a way that we cannot but identify as theatrical.

/p. 2 The very concept of right spectatorship and the conditions under which we identify with voyeur, exhibitionist, or both are at least partly a function of gender ideology. Since this famous woodcut documents the development of painter's perspective, we usually identify with the male as the appropriate bearer of the look, the female as the proper object of that look; we identify with reason against sexuality, activity over passivity, and seeing instead of showing. The scenes framed by the windows further encourage our identification with masculinity as culture against feminity as disorganized nature. The fullness of the potted tree frames by the artist's window suggest disorderly nature made fertile by the artist's containing vision. In contrast to the strong vertical lines of the tree, the draftsman's posture, and his viewing rod, the horizontal lines of the woman's reclining body are reinforced by the low rolling hills seen through her window. These visual cues facilitate our identification with the painter and encourage the equation of right spectatorship with a controlling patriarchal perspective.

Once we adopt the woman's perspective, the picture neatly reverses itself. The woman lies comfortably relaxed; the artist sits upright, rigidly constrained by his fixed position. The woman knows that she is seen; the artist is blinded by his viewing apparatus, deluded by his fantasy of objectivity. The draftsman's need to order visually and to distance himself from that which he sees suggests a futile attempt to protect himself from what he would (not) see. Yet the cloth draped between the woman's legs is not protection enough; neither the viewing device nor the screen can delineate or contain his desire. The perspective painter is transfixed in this moment, paralyzed, unable to capture the sight that encloses him. Enclosing us as well, Dürer's work draws our alarm.

Lynda Nead, Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality, Routledge, 1992, p. 11: A partially draped female model lies on a table opposite the draughtsman. They are separated by a frames screen which divided into square sections. The artist gazes through the screen at the female body and then transposes the view on to his square paper. Geometry and perspective impose a controlling order on the female body. The opposition between male culture and female nature is starkly drawn in this image; the two confront each other. The woman lies in a prone position; the pose is difficult to determine, but her hand is clearly poised in a masturbatory manner over the genital. In contrast to the curves and undulating lines of the female section, the male compartment is scattered with sharp, vertical forms; the draughtsman himself is up and is alert and absorbed. Woman offers herself to the controlling discipline of illusionistic art. With her bent legs closest to the screen, the image recalls not simply the life class but also the gynaeocological examination. Art and medicine are both foregrounded here, the two discourses in which the female body is most subjected to scrutiny and assessed according to historically specific norms. Through the procedures of art, woman can become culture; seen through the screen, she is framed, she becomes image and the wanton matter of the female body and female sexuality may be regulated and contained.

The distinctions between inside and outside, between finite form and form without limit, need to be continuously drawn. This requirement applies to representations of the female body in high and mass culture. It extends to the way in which the categories of art and pornography are defined and maintained. In nearly every case, however, there is a point where the system breaks down, where an objects seems to defy classification and where the values themselves are exposed and questioned. If you know the terms of the debate then they can be played with, disrupted and this opens up the possibility for challenging and progressive representations of the female body.

p. 18: If the male signifies culture, order, geometry, then the female stands for nature and physicality. Woman is both mater (mother) and materia (matter), biologically determined and potentially wayward. Now, if art is defined as the conversion of matter into form, imagine how much greater the triumph of art if its the female body that is thus transformed--pure nature transmuted, through the forms of art, into pure culture. The female nude, then, is not simply one subject among others, one form among many, it is the subject, the form.

p. 28: Through visual perception we may achieve the illusion of a coherent and unified self; the gaze of the draughtsman in Dürer's print symbolizes the aesthetic distance and control invested in the visual image [and the objective distance of the rational thinker in scientific discourse ]

H. Diane Russell, Eva/Ave: Woman in Renaissance and Baroque Prints, Washington D.C., 1990: pp. 21-23: It is clear...that throughout the Renaissance and baroque periods, artists increasingly assumed a position of control in relation to the images they were creating. More and more artists rejected the medieval idea that art was one of the crafts and saw the making of art, instead, as an intellectual as well as a creative endeavor. They did not aim solely at reflecting the sensory world in their images. They subjected all parts of the world, animate and inanimate, to their scrutiny and judgment, ordering it, reconstructing it, recreating it. They pitted themselves, as it were, against Nature (Natura, Mother Earth) in the sense that they sought to probe Nature and understand her by rational means rooted in mathematical perspective and theories such as those of human proportion.

One of the artists who quintiessentially personifies this kind of approach and who was instrumental in effecting it was Albrecht /p. 23 Dürer. Dürer, who was both a painter and printmaker, wanted to raise the status of the German artist to the level he had seen occupied by contemporary Italian artists. To this end, in his maturity, he wrote three books aimed at German artists and artisans. These were intended to acquaint their readers with rational, mathematical approaches to visual imagery. In addition to composing the texts, Dürer made woodcut illustrations for the books. Having worked as a young man on making woodcuts for printed books, he was well aware of the power of both images and text.

In one woodcut for his treatise on geometry, he showed how the reclining human figure may be drawn in perspective by use of a reticulated net set up between artist and subject. The artist can simply transfer the image as seen in the small units that divide the net onto a piece of paper with corresponding squares. In another woodcut, Dürer demonstrates how a portrait painter, by using an eyepiece, can sight his subject and draw in the subject's contours onto a piece of glass.

The illustrations help to make the text clear, and the methods of rendering the human image are in these cases both clever and practical. At the same time, beyond the obvious artistic methods being suggested, gendered messages are being conveyed, perhaps quite unconsciously. The reclining figure is a half-nude female who has her eyes closed. She is an object on a table, just as are a lute and vase that are shown in two other perspective woodcuts in the treatise. In the portrait illustration, by contrast, the subject is a man. He is fully dressed and sits upright in a chair, a posture that bespeaks inherent dignity. He, moreover, looks directly and alertly back at the artist.

Val Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, p. 3: "The concept of reason provides the unifying and defining contrast for the concept of nature, much as the concept of husband does for that of wife, as master for slave. Reason in the western tradition has been constructed as the privileged domain of the master, who has conceived nature as a wife or subordinate other encompassing and representing the sphere of materiality, subsistence and the feminine which the master has split off and constructed beneath him. The continual and cumulative overcoming of the domain of nature by reason engenders the western concept of progress and development....

p. 4: [R]acism, colonialism and sexism have drawn their conceptual strength from casting sexual, racial and ethnic difference as closer to the animal and the body construed as inferiority, as a lesser form of humanity lacking the full measure of rationality or culture.

p. 43: Key elements in the dualistic structure in western thought are the following sets of contrasting pairs:
body (nature)
matter (physicality)
animality (nature)
mind, spirit
necessity (nature)
nature (non-human)
primitive (nature)
reproduction (nature)


...[T]hese dualisms are key ones for western thought, and reflect the major forms of oppression in western culture. In particular the dualisms of male/female, mental/manual (mind/body), civilised/primitive, human/nature correspond directly to and naturalise gender, class, race and nature oppressions respectively....

Aristotle Politics, book I, chaps. 4-5: It is clear that the rule of the soul over the body, and of the mind and the rational element over the passionate, is natural and expedient; whereas the equality of the two or the rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good for animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better natur than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle extends to all mankind. Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals (as is the case of those whose business it is to use their body, and who can do nothing better), the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master. For he who can be, and therefore is, another's and he who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have such a principle, is a slave by nature.....

Consider the contrasts between the Dürer image and this SKYYBLUE ad.

Jenny Saville, The Plan, 1993.

Sylvia Sleigh, Philip Golub Reclining, 1971.