Compared to the Tate Modern Museum, the National Gallery is a more traditional art museum. Statues in Trafalgar Square surround the gallery and monumental pillars hold up the building. The first thing I recognized was the giant blue cockerel we saw at the beginning of our time here in London with our tour guide Simon. I did some research on this bright blue rooster and discovered that it was created by a German artist named Katharina Fritsch. The fact that a female artist designed a cockerel to be placed near the National Gallery struck me as a humorous approach at feminism. Surrounding the National Gallery are predominantly male figures such as lions, men on horses and pedestals, and the unsubtly tall Nelson’s column in the center of the square. Along with the immense pillars in front of the gallery, the square was screaming with phallic symbols making it clear that London is a male dominated culture. Ironically, a female would then create a giant rooster (cock) to be placed among these figures to highlight and mock male dominance and ultimately imply that the roles are now changing.
The humorous implication of Fritsch’s statue contrasts the formal statues to emphasize gender equality. With this theme in mind, the two paintings I chose to contrast were of the naked female versus the naked male body. The first painting by Diego Velazquez entitled, The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus) is the only surviving portrait of female nudity because it was disapproved by the Church. The subject was rare in Spain and the fact that is was disapproved when nothing offensive can be seen shows that the female body is not thought of as beautiful and innocent but controversial. Velazquez tastefully paints the backside of Venus, the goddess of love and most beautiful of the goddesses, looking at her reflection showing that she is in control of her beauty and the audience. The audience for nude paintings was meant for men revealing the role of male dominance and implying that this painting was meant for pleasure. But Venus’ body turned away from the audience demonstrates role reversal. She is somewhat concealed from the male eye and her son, Cupid, is also nude holding the mirror showing that the naked body is a symbol of beauty, creation, and innocence not to be corrupted by men or seen as improper. This painting ultimately challenges the ideals of the National Gallery as a whole by Venus changing the depiction of the naked female body.
Velazquez’s painting conflicts with the painting possibly by Anthony van Dyck titled Drunken Silenus supported by Satyrs through the portrayal of the drunk and robust male body. (‘Possibly’ is used because the painting was thought to be created by a compilation of artists in Rubens’ studio.) I saw this as a conflict with Velazquez’s painting because here male nudity is more acceptable because it represents a figure of massiveness and power, whereas female nudity is seen as seductive. During the Renaissance, Silenus was seen as sophisticated yet in this painting his state of drunkenness and flowing fat is the central focus. Hints of pubic hair are even visible and he is reaching for more grapes, a symbol for wine, with leaves in his hair drawing attention to his disorientated state. However, compared to the elegant portrait of Venus, this painting is considered more sophisticated because it is a male even though he is drunk and fat. Velazquez’s painting thus challenges the idea of males assuming the dominant role through the gracious beauty of Venus.