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Framing and Freeing

Framing and Freeing:

Utopias of the Female Body
Lynda Nead
The standard definition of utopia is in two parts: it is at once ‘no
place’ and also the imagined location of the good society. *
Utopian fiction and non-fiction frequently tell the story of the
traveller who moves from the flawed world of the present to a
different region, geographically separate and remote, where the
problems and struggles of our everyday lives are resolved. 1 It is
in this sense of the mapping of utopia in terms of space and place,
that one can begin to speak of utopias of the female body. In
particular, I want to propose a connection between the vision of
utopia as a sealed and separate place with an idealisation of the
female body which has been pervasive within Western art and
aesthetics.

The best place to begin this exploration of utopias and the
female body is with the geography of Thomas More’ s Utopia (fig.

1, first published 1516). More begins his account of the society
and laws of Utopia with a description of the land itself. Utopia is

VTOPIAE INSVLAE FIGVRA

Figure 1. The Island of Utopia, from Thomas More, Utopia
(Louvain, 1516).

12

an island (not surprisingly, it is approximately the size of England). It is crescent-shaped, like a new moon, and between the two
horns of the crescent, which are some miles apart, the sea enters
and spreads into a broad bay. In the bay itself, the water is calm,
smooth and sheltered and the whole inner coast is one great
harbour. This contrasts with the outer coast of the island which is:

‘rugged by nature, and so well fortified that a few defenders could
beat off the attack of a strong force’ .2 The entrance into the bay of
Utopia is very dangerous, for the waters are littered with natural
and man-made obstacles. There are submerged rocks which make
the waters treacherous to navigate and in the middle of the channel
a fortified tower stands on the one rock that rises above the surface
of the water. The geography of Utopia seems to have been
designed by nature and by artifice to keep out intruders; equally,
it fulfils the function of keeping in the Utopians. This dual
function of exclusion and containment is focus sed on the mouth
of the bay, which is the only point where entrance or exit is
possible, and then only at great risk. The fortified boundaries of
Utopia recall the flawed condition of the commQnwealth itself attractive in some respects, but highly unattractive in others, with
elaborate constraints imposed on its citizens and with clear
restrictions on personal freedom.

There is one more point about the geography of Utopia which
is relevant here. The land, it seems, was not always an island.

Utopus, who conquered the country and gave it his name and who
‘brought its rude, uncouth inhabitants to such a high level of
culture and humanity that they now excel in that regard almost
every other people’ ,3 also changed its geography. After conquering the natives, Utopus promptly dug a channel where the land
joined the continent and thus caused the sea to flow around the
country. To civilise the land, to create Utopia, the king had first
to separate the land from the continent and to render it complete,
entire and bounded.

So, Utopia is an island with a rough, impenetrable outer coast
line and with one crucial point of access and outlet, which is the
treacherous entrance to the bay and its smooth, calm waters
within.

There is a striking analogy between the island of Utopia and
a particular utopian representation of the female body. Although
the association of a country or state with a woman’s body is a
common enough trope within Western political and cultural
discourses, the analogy goes beyond that allegorical one. The
Western tradition of the female nude is traditionally articulated in
terms of the transformation from the actual (the individual body
with its inevitable imperfections) to the ideal (the nude). It is the
move from a perception of unformed, corporeal matter to the

* This paper was originally given at a one-day conference on
utopian thought, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts,
London, 20 April 1991.

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

assertion of unity and control. It is this process of transfiguration
which renders the nude the perfect subject for the work of art. As
Kenneth Clark states in his book The Nude: ‘the nude remains the
most complete example of the transmutation of matter into
form.’4 But the resolution of matter and form cannot easily be
accomplished in the representation of the female body. 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, then imagine how much greater
the triumph for art if it is 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.

The question of containment and boundaries is thus a critical
one in representations of the female body. The integrity of the
female figure is guaranteed by the impenetrability of its framing
contours; the boundaries of the female form have to seem inviolate for the image to offer the possibility of an undisturbing
aesthetic experience. The artist who paints or sculpts a female
nude performs a similar act of transformation to that of King
Utopus. Both take uncivilised matter (the natives / the female
body) which is subdued and regulated by enforcing the coastline
/ outline. Utopia is created, but don’t forget the entrance to the bay
and its treacherous point of transition between inside and outside.

This relationship between boundaries and the female body is
continually reformulated within the Western high art tradition.

Take this allegorical painting of the virtue Chastity by the sixteenth-century Italian painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni (fig. 2).

The allegorical figure holds a sieve on her lap which is the symbol
of her purity and inviolability. The sieve is filled with water and
yet no liquid runs out, for Chastity is watertight; it is impenetrable
and allows no leakage. The miraculous water-filled sieve is a

metaphor for the ideal, hermetically-sealed female body. The
boundary has been made absolutely inviolate, a kind of armour
between the inside of the body and the outside. Of course, there
is something worrying and incomplete about the sieve as a figure
for the virtuous woman. Sieves may hold on to purity and dispel
the impure; or, they may retain the impure and relinquish the pure
substance. In either case, if nothing is allowed in or out, then the
female body remains a disturbing container for both the ideal and
the polluted. There is an ambiguity here which is reminiscent of
the entrance to the bay of Utopia. Keeping in or keeping out? The
dual function recalls the original uncivilised condition of the
inhabitants of Utopia and of the fem’!1e sexual body and the
necessity to subdue and regulate before the ideal can be achieved.

Woman is able to stand as an allegory of Chastity by displacing the worrying connotations of yielding and porous skin, or
oozing gaps and orifices onto the clear outline and metallic
surface of the sieve. But there are other ways in which this Utopian
desire for clear boundaries and definitions can be satisfied. The
female body can be re-formed, its surfaces reinforced and hardened by bodybuilding (fig. 3). Lisa Lyon won the first World
Women’s Bodybuilding Championship in 1979. About a year
later, she met the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and posed
for a series of pictures which were published in a book called
Lady: Lisa Lyon in 1983. Now bodybuilding is a mixed blessing
for feminism. On the one hand, it seems to offer a certain kind of
liberation, a way for women to develop their muscularity and
physical strength. But on the other hand, this revised femininity
seems simply to exchange one repressive Utopia for another; one
body beautiful for another, possibly racier, image of woman
which can easily be absorbed within a patriarchal repertoire of
feminine stereotypes. What is interesting in the present context,
however, is the way in which both Lyon’s bodybuilding and

Figure 2. Giovanni Battista Moroni, Chastity, mid-to-Iate 1550s.

National Gallery, London.

Figure 3. Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Lisa Lyon’, from Lady: Lisa Lyon
(New York: Viking Press, 1983).

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

13

Mapplethorpe’s photographic techniques
are discussed in tenns of bringing the
female body under control. Both Lyon and
Mapplethorpe are referred to in the book as
classical sculptors, in their search for a
physical and aesthetic ideal: ‘his eye for a
body [is] that of a classical sculptor’ and
she is ‘a sculptor whose raw material was
her own body’ .5 The sculptor metaphor is
one which emphasises the projection of
surfaces, the building and moulding of
fonn. Together, Lyon and Mapplethorpe
turn the raw material of the female body
into art.

Now in talking about these images of
the female body in relation to Utopias, I am
not referring to the projection of models of
Utopian societies but more to the presentation of a Utopian sensibility. Art, in this
case, offers the image of something better,
a means of escape from the inadequacies
of society. Through the visualisation of the
female body in tenns of order, symmetry,
hannony and contemplation, art constructs
its own sealed world, cut off from the
continent of the female sexual body and
female desire.

Nowhere is this Utopian drive better
demonstrated than in Kenneth Clark’ s The
Nude, which was first published in 1956
and is currently sold in the eighth edition
of a Penguin paperback. The book is subtitled’ A Study ofIdeal Art’ and the nature
of this ideal is neatly contained in the
following example from the book. Clark
compares two early representations of the
female nude: a prehistoric figure of a
woman (fig. 4) and a later, Cycladic doll
(fig. 5). These he respectively designates
Vegetable and Crystalline Venus. In the
first. example, the body is described as
lumpy and protruding, but in the second
image, ‘the unruly human body has undergone a geometrical discipline’ .6 This is the
important point; the female body has undergone a process of containment: of holding in and keeping out. In the Cycladic
figure the contour, the frame of the body
has been sharpened, thus hardening the
distinction between inside and outside,
between figure and ground, between the
subject and the space it is not.

One of the key features of a Utopia is
the desire for something which our day-today lives don’t provide and the awareness
of this inadequacy has to be present for the
escape to be effective. Thomas More’s
‘rude and uncouth’ natives haunt the civilised society of his utopia and, similarly,
the lumpy, wayward female body is only
ever momentarily controlled by the disciplines of art; its image is never entirely
absent. In looking at Kenneth Clark’ s idealising project, it is possible to be more
historically specific about the undesirable
state from which the connoisseur is seek14

ing to escape. In an essay on the Hollywood musical called ‘Entertainment and
Utopia’, Richard Dyer discusses the relationship between narrative sequences and
musical numbers in establishing the utopian relationship of social inadequacy and
escape. He states:

Figure 4. Prehistoric figure of a woman (The
WillendorjVenus), 21,000 BC. Vienna
Natural History Museum.

To be effective, the utopian sensibility has to take off from the real
experiences of the audience. Yet to
do this, to draw attention to the gap
between what is and what could be,
is, ideologically speaking, playing
with fire. What musicals have to
do, then … is to work through these
contradictions at all levels, in such
a way as to ‘manage’ them, to make
them seem to disappear. They don’t
always succeed. 7
Amongst the examples Dyer discusses is
The Gold Diggers of 1933, in which the
specific social problems of scarcity, depression, etc., are momentarily resolved in
the abundance and extravagance of the
musical numbers. I refer to this work because I think that it offers an interesting
model for understanding the nature of
Clark’s utopian vision. In her aptly-named
study of women in post-War Britain, Only
Halfway to Paradise (1980), Elizabeth
Wilson discusses the changing boundaries
of sexuality between 1945 and 1968. She
summarises the general tendency of the
period as one of ‘sexual enlightenment’. 8
The reports published by investigators such
as Kinsey (1948 and 1953) and Masters
and Johnson (1966) emphasised woman’s
right to sexual satisfaction and, whilst this
pleasure was still finnly located within the
marital relationship, an image of active,
desiring and responsible female sexuality
was nevertheless put in place. At the risk of
being a little reductive about this, it does
seem reasonable to suggest that one of the
social inadequacies from which Clark may
have been wishing to escape into his Utopia of regulated female bodies was precisely the new, post -W ar definition of female sexuality. And, of course, the fantasy
isn’t simply Lord Clark’s, but that of a
particular section of society which constitutes the audience for high culture and the
readership of his book.

But, as Dyer points out, Utopias play
with fire and for Clark, there is the constant
danger of the female nude returning to its
former, pre-utopian state. Considering
Georges Rouault’ s series of drawings of
prostitutes (fig. 6), he states:

Figure 5. Cycladic marble doll, 2,500-1,100
BC. British Museum, London.

All those delicate feelings which
flow together in our joy at the sight
of an idealised human body … are
shattered and profaned … from the
point of view of fonn, all that was

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

Utopia, I have discussed an ideal of
the female body which is grounded
in the containment and framing of
the female sexual body. But, as with
all Utopias, this image carries within
it the means of its own destruction,
for the female body constantly threatens to break free from its boundaries
What exactly has happened here? The
and to go beyond the protocols and
ideals of the nude – structure, geomcontours of art. And it is precisely
etry, harmony – have given way to
this image of a liberated, open and
unhealthy, unformed lumps of matunfinished female body which has
ter. The female nude is meant to tranbeen celebrated by some recent femiscend the marks of individualised
nist writers.

corporeality in a unified formal lanThe oppressions of the aesthetics of
guage, and when this fails, both the
containment are obvious enough, but
image of the body and the feelings of
it is also unlikely that feminist utothe viewer are profaned, or violated.

pian aesthetics are best suited for
And yet it is precisely this notion
exploring and expressing the comof the unbounded and fluid female
plexities of sexual differences and
body that has also been offered as an
identities. Within feminist cultural
alternative Utopia – one in which, to
politics, the balance between criuse More’s imagery, the civilised
tique and speculation has always been
Figure 6. Georges Rouault, A Prostitute, c. 1904.

Utopians regain their former, uncouth
a particularly difficult one to define.

state and in which the island is no
Bakwin Collection, New York.

Critique has been seen to operate at
longer separated and cut off from the
the expense of the positing of new
continent. In this alternative utopia the boundaries between inside
alternatives and speculation has been regarded as an avoidance of
and outside are dissolved. In this case, it is the social inadequacies
the pragmatics of the present. 12 But if feminism is to engage in
of containment and regulation which are displaced by an aesthetic
utopian reflection, then the future which we imagine must be one
of liberation and freedom from constraint. The opposition is
of change and process rather than a state of final, fixed perfection.

clearly exhibited in Bakhtin’ s frequently quoted evocation of the
Similarly, in transforming attitudes towards, and representations
carnival in Rabelais and His World, in which he contrasts the
of, the female body, utopia could simply be the state which
classical canons of Renaissance aesthetics and the grotesque
enables the projection of the female body freed from any kind of
realism of the Middle Ages:

aesthetic of perfection, offering instead the representation of
difference: of age, race, size, physical ability and health.

Contrary to modem canons, the grotesque body is not
separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed,
Notes
completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of
For discussion of this aspect of utopian writing, see Krishnan
1
the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts
Kumar, Utopianism, Milton Keynes: Open University Press,
1991.

through which the world enters the body or emerges from
it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the
Thomas More, Utopia (1516), George M. Logan and Robert M.

2
world.
Adams, eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.

realised in the nude in its first
creation, the sense of healthy structure, the clear geometric shapes
and their harmonious disposition
has been rejected in favour of
lumps of matter, swollen and inert. 9

So, as we suspected all along, it is the anal/vaginal entrance to the
bay which is the key to Utopia. Bakhtin’s account has more to do
with nostalgia than Utopia (although the two categories are
clearly interrelated), but it is, nevertheless, almost an exact
reversal of Kenneth Clark’s value system. Bring back the lumps
and protuberances; this is an escape from the smooth contours of
the Cycladic doll and a celebration of the fecundity of the
Willendorf Venus. For the female body is undoubtedly central to
Bakhtin’s definition of the grotesque body – the body in process,
liberated from boundaries and modem aesthetics.

This image of an open, unfinished female body is also celebrated in more recent French feminist writing. In this, frequently
utopian writing, emphasis is laid on those substances which
transgress the boundaries of the body – the mother’s milk, tears,
urine, etc. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva defines abjection
as that which ‘does not respect borders, positions, rules. The
inbetween, the ambiguous, the composite’. 11 For Kristeva, the
abject is on the side of the feminine, and the bodily state which she
likens to abjection is pregnancy; for in the condition of parturition, the maternal body stands at the borderline of categories and
dissolves the socially-constructed margins of identity and the
distinctions between life and death, self and other.

In starting with the topography of Thomas More’s island of

Radical Philosophy 60, Spring 1992

43.

3

Ibid.

4

Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, London: John
Murray, 1956, p. 23.

5

Bruce Chatwin, ‘An Eye and Some Body’ , in Lady: Usa Lyon,
New York: Viking Press, 1983, pp. 9, 11.

6

Clark, op. cit., p. 64.

7

Richard Dyer, ‘Entertainment and Utopia’, in Rick Altman, ed.,
Genre: The Musical. A Reader, London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1981, p. 185.

8

Elizabeth Wilson, Only Halfway to Paradise: Women in Postwar Britain 1945-1968, London and New York: Tavistock,
1980, p. 86.

9

Clark, op. cit., p. 333.

10

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. by H€Hine
Iswolsky, Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1968, p. 26.

11

Julia Kristeva, Powers ofHorror: An Essay on Abjection, trans.

by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press,
1982, p. 4.

12

For a useful summary of debates on feminism and utopia in
relation to the work of Luce Irigaray, see Margaret Whitford,
Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine, London, Routledge,
1991, pp. 18-25.

15

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