Through A Glass Darkly

“Female Nude” by Pablo Ruiz y Picasso @ Philadelphia Museum of Art

I can’t speak for all of America, but in my limited (undergrad, a long long time ago) sexology, sociology and psychology studies, we seem to have a reluctant relationship with public displays of nudity. In particular those of us who were raised in a religious tradition where covering parts of the body that are key to conventional sexual intimacy is “just what we do.”

We conveniently discard the fact that one can be equally aroused by a voice, by a face, by the hairs on a neck, by words themselves. We’re a practical people, and that would be significantly too much for even us to censor.

So we settle for making nudity our hill to die on, placing warnings on TV shows and films and computer games, and little black rectangles over images online (or blurring, or simply “error, error” and refusing to load).

Then you have your first visit to the local art museum, whether it’s a school field trip, a family outing, or you were late to the party and your high school buddy who’s kind of a nerd but writes beautiful poetry says, hey, want to spend the day at my church, by which he means, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) downtown — and there it is.

So. Many. Naked. People.

And I, as an American cis female, can attest to how uncomfortable that experience was for me, for a long time, after many, many visits to many, many museums – often with my parents, which I’m sure factored into my discomfort – yet there was something deeper at work there as well, as a coming-of-age, low self-esteem, identity-seeking teenager in the late 20th century who hated seeing herself in the mirror, who felt she was anything but physically beautiful, who defined her strengths as residing solely in her writing, her music, and her endeavors to be a force for good.

Those beautiful women and men in those beautiful paintings, those admired models and mystifying muses, were far from anything I could aspire to become.

My body was nothing like those bodies. My face, never those pristine baby-doll faces.

I spent many years avoiding further exposure to this type of art. Part the circumstance of becoming a wife and mother, but also part my reluctance to be surrounded by reminders of these unattainable standards of femininity.

Then one day, much, much later in life, after I’d settled into who I wanted to be, and learned to see beauty a little more clearly, and was even able to look at my entire self in the mirror without flinching, I went back to the DIA.

And I started to see myself, just a little bit, in those female nudes.

Not that they looked exactly like me, but I felt a kinship. I saw things that were familiar. I saw an experience that I could relate to, of being a part of someone else’s art, of being worshipped or condemned or pitied. Especially in the pieces where the artists start to deviate from the social norms of “pretty people” — fewer softened brushes and pastels, more hooked noses and angular jaws. Less muse, more personality.

Which brings me to this piece by Picasso, which I just recently encountered during my visit to Philly. I didn’t realize I was even looking at a woman at first — then after seeing the title, I did see her — and more than that, I saw that she was a woman I could truly relate to, who resembles more than anything I’ve ever seen, the mind’s eye picture I had of myself for so long as that awkward, shy, struggling girl. A figure that looks nothing like reality, but the more you look, the more she comes through, and the more real she is.

The eye of the beholder is truly a remarkable thing.

Shot on Pixel 6 Pro.

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