Monday, July 16, 2012

Susanna as Spectacle

           Upon visiting the paintings at the National Gallery in London, three paintings referring to the story of Susanna and the elders sparked my interest. In order to understand the story behind the painting I must summarize a few of the main points. Basically, while bathing in her garden two lustful elders secretly observe Susanna. The two lecherous voyeurs approach Susanna and say they will accuse her of adultery unless she has sex with them. Due to Susanna’s virtues and beliefs, she refused to be extorted. However, unfortunately, she was arrested due to her resistance to be blackmailed by these two old perverts. Luckily, in the end, she was found innocent and the two elders were put to death for making false accusations against Susanna. The moral of the story celebrates the triumph of innocent virtue over villainy.
            In this painting by Ludovico Carracci, you notice Susanna’s presence, which is made up by her gestures, facial expression, the clothes draped over her lower body, and the surroundings. According to Berger (1977) every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not permissible within her presence. Due to her current presence one might conclude she might sleep with these two elders due her suggestive feminine presence. For example, she does not make an effort to cover her breasts with the sheet, while the two elders are clearly ogling her voluptuous and womanly assets. Berger (1977) says that the way a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. With this notion in mind, perhaps her exposed breasts may have suggested an invitation to the elders for sexual foreplay.
Susanna’s overall presence in this painting displays her entertaining the idea of sleeping with the two elders. According to Berger (1977), women are not the only ones who have a particular presence, men do too. However, a man’s presence is quite different from the presence of a woman because “a man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies” (Berger, 1977, p. 45). Additionally, Berger (1977) argues that a man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you, and the presence is always towards a power which he exercises on others. With Berger’s insight in mind, one can suggest that the elder’s presence imposes an authoritarian pressure over the young lady in which she feels burdened to do as they say. For example, her facial expression illustrates her thinking about having sex with these men, in a flirtatious manner and judging their worth or the power they have over her. For example, with the slight tilt of her head and her leveled gaze, shows she is evaluating the idea of sleeping with the two elders and calculating the potential gain from the sexual act (unlike the facial expression represented in the painting by Guido Reni).
            The facial expression in the Guido Reni painting looks at the event from a more feminine perspective. This painting does not portray the victim as a shy, coy, vulnerable, or flirtatious woman as it’s usually depicted by male artists like Ludovico Carracci. According to Berger (1977) most nude paintings of women were made for the male spectator because the ideal spectator is always assumed to be male. Although vulnerability can be seen through the facial expressions in both paintings, Reni illustrates and illuminates Susanna’s fear, repulsion, and disgust at the demands of the two elders looming over her shoulder. As a result, this is one of the few Susanna paintings showing the sexual assault by the elders as a traumatic event.
            Although this painting by Francesco Hayez tells the same story of Susanna, the two elders are not shown in this piece. The reason for not including the two elders was in order to illustrate the scene when Susanna realizes the two lurking elders have been spying on her from afar. Although the two elders are not shown in the painting, you know they are there because of her accusatory facial expression as she’s looking over her shoulder and catches an eye of her voyeurs. One can only imagine the death sate she is about to give to the two elders.
The most incredible aspect of this painting is her eyes, while looking at the painting you feel as if she is staring right through you. Furthermore, when you look at her, you start to feel as if you are as guilty as the two elders for admiring her pale naked skin.  Susanna is aware of being seen by the spectators and realizes she’s an object of vision or a sight/ spectacle.

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