Clever women can be naked too?

LARA FERRIS looks at Caius DoS’ Dr Victoria Bateman’s naked portrait.

| UPDATED Anthony Connolly Bateman caius DoS Dr Victoria Bateman Economics Gonville and Caius

A few nights ago in Caius hall, I was sitting with my friends, dissecting the mystery meat on our plates, and talking about Dr Victoria Bateman.

Bateman, the third year Economics DoS, had apparently stripped for a full-frontal naked portrait by Anthony Connolly, which was currently hanging in some gallery in London. We discussed the possibilities of making a pilgrimage to see the picture, but a second-year Economics student said they’d rather not, if it meant they would have to see their next-year DoS naked. The conversation then turned to whether or not you would want to see your DoS naked, and while some were against it, others were fully in favour (I suppose it depends on the DoS). By the time dessert arrived, we were laughing about something else, and that was that.

The Caius to modern feminism?

…until the painting started cropping up in the national news. The Daily Mail bizarrely wrote half an article on the painting, and the other half on Oswald Mosely’s great-great nephew and some other guy pretending to be a tramp, so whatever. On the other hand, Bateman’s own opinion piece in the Guardian talked about why she posed ‘naked and natural’: to show our hypersexualised society an image of a ‘real woman,’ without ‘fake implants, false nails, fake tan, or other types of aesthetic treatments.’

If Dr Bateman wants someone to paint a naked portrait of her, that’s fine. But she should try not to talk about it as if she was a crusader for justice and the female body, showing us all what a ‘real woman’ looks like. At the end of the day, hers is still a painting of a female nude, a painting tradition going back thousands of years, often used to exploit or idolise the female body, and so whether it’s an attractive or ugly picture, it still evokes all the standard connotations of this art form.

In terms of stripping back the artificiality to reveal the realness of women’s bodies, there are other paintings out there that argue this point much better. Lucien Freud’s portrait of Kate Moss, for example, is much more political than Bateman’s in its nakedness. We are used to seeing her body all done-up-and-photoshopped in a glossy magazine, and so this natural portrait makes a much stronger statement about society’s unrealistic concept of female beauty.

No make-up: a Moss-take?

Also, this style of painting, painting of what you see, warts and all, is a standard technique of contemporary portraiture. Have a look at another of Freud’s portraits, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, and you’ll get an idea of what might be a called a shocking painting of a ‘real woman’: a real-life naked female body. In comparison, Bateman’s portrait is a rather conventional painting of a (conventionally attractive) female nude.

Super-sized supervisor

I think any realistic portrait of a woman that gains national coverage can only be a good thing: Bateman speaks the truth when she talks of a society that reduces women to sex objects. It’s just that this portrait is not the great feminist statement that Bateman makes it out to be.

And then there’s something rather disturbing about saying that viewers “are often shocked when they realise that the naked image stood before them is an intelligent woman.” Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t really believe that anyone is particularly shocked by the revelation that clever women can be naked too. And I’m not sure what I’m meant to get from the knowledge that the woman has a high IQ – that all the women who pose naked and aren’t Cambridge academics are somehow less intelligent? That they are manipulated or coerced into posing? It sounds like only clever women can make the decision to be naked and keep away from the reductive ‘sex object’ label.

By separating herself, an intelligent Cambridge academic, from women who have got ‘fake implants, false nails, fake tan, or other types of aesthetic treatments,’ the implication is that women who do have boob jobs, or acrylic nails, or use sunbeds, or dye their hair, or wax their legs, or shave their bikini line, or have ‘other types of aesthetic treatments’ are less clever than the Caius Economics DoS. These choices, although not inherently feminist, are not signs of stupidity. Our society has incredibly narrow definitions of what is acceptable female beauty, and we should be supportive of each other’s attempts to navigate our way through them, without implying that women who have boob jobs are less intelligent than those who don’t.

While I think it’s great that Dr Bateman has posed for a portrait, as a feminist statement, it doesn’t quite ring true. Yes, it’s fun for the students at Caius, but “providing an antidote to this societal disease”? Less so.