BOOK REVIEW / Manufacturers of the ideal woman: The female nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality by Lynda Nead, Routledge pounds 35/ pounds 10.99

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The Independent Culture
WHEN the suffragette Mary Richardson, angry at the Government's treatment of Mrs Pankhurst, attacked the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery with a knife, she was dubbed Slasher Mary. Velasquez's perfect nude was cast by the press as the victim of its attacker's deviant, hysterical sexuality - a typical reaction, argues Lynda Nead, who in this interesting but arcane book shows how the art world regulates the wayward female body by reflecting back, in the nude painting, an idealised version of woman.

From the Renaissance onwards, art school training consisted of three principles - the antique, the life class and anatomy - in preparation for what was seen as art's highest form: classical and historical studies. The Modernists' destabilisation of the nude was a metaphor for their rejection of the conventions of representation. The life class, Nead argues, helps to define masculinity and artistic identity, the male artist transforming the base metal of the model's passive body into the 'gold' of great art.

If the female body is legitimated only by turning it into art, then the real crime of pornography may be that it leaves the nude worryingly corporeal. A 1976 painting manual warns against too much detail or colour on the nipples. Blondes pose particular technical problems: the outcome is more likely to be soft porn than art, the manual advises. Jo Spencer's photographs of her own body after surgery for breast cancer invite the word 'obscene' because of their enormous distance from our conditioned expectations of the nude as an icon of beauty and elevated form.

Defining pornography has created difficulties for both critics and activists. Nead's 'reading' of the nude, in art and porn alike, shows that it is heavily invested with cultural meanings, most of which ignore the possibility of a female viewer. She suggests that when women attempt to reclaim their own bodies in art, they must operate along a narrow frontier: between the 'pure', transubstantiated female body and the profane, sensual realm of mass culture. By challenging the boundaries which patriarchy imposes, women whose bodies fall short of the 'ideal' can assert their visibility and redraw the female form.

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