Anatomy of rape

Anatomy of rape

Over centuries, artists have responded to the theme of rape. However, some have courted controversy, like Magritte, with his ‘The Rape’, observes Giridhar Khasnis.

According to author, feminist and activist Susan Brownmiller, throughout history, no theme has gripped the masculine imagination with greater constancy and less honour than the myth of the heroic rapist.

“Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe,” wrote Brownmiller in her bestselling book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (Simon and Schuster/1975). “From prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

Over centuries, artists too have responded to the theme of rape. One can recall instances such as Peter Paul Rubens’s ‘Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus’ (1618); Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s marble sculpture, ‘The Rape of Proserpina’ (1621–1622); ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’ by Nicolas Poussin (1637-38); as well as more recent ones like Kathe Kollwitz’s 1907 etching, titled ‘Raped’; and Frida Kahlo’s painting, ‘A Few Small Nips’ (1935).

Flemish-Baroque painter Rubens was just entering his 40s when he painted ‘Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus’. The work, based on Greek mythology, shows four figures — Gods Castor and Pollux carrying off the daughters of Leucippus. The painting has the typical Rubens’ touch — movement, dynamism and vigorous fleshy life, but as some art historians have pointed out, there is hardly any violence in the depicted scene; some even see that the suggestion is more of rapture rather than rape, the overall effect being curiously unerotic.

On the other hand, René Magritte’s controversial painting, ‘Le Viol’ (The Rape), has been a subject of multiple interpretations and numerous artistic debates ever since it was created in 1934. The 28 3/4 inch by 21 1/4 inch oil on canvas shows a bizarre face made up of some essential features of a female body — the breasts have become the eyes, the navel the nose, the pubis the mouth.

Magritte (1898-1967) was at the centre of a flourishing group of Surrealists which produced witty and thought-provoking images. A big admirer of detective novels and films, he loved the idea of paradox and, in his work, sought to provide alternative and often intimidating views of life. Hailed as the master of hybrid image, the Belgian artist used ordinary objects such as fruits, food items and furniture, and transformed them into extraordinary images by splitting, stripping and rearranging them in unusual contexts.

In the process, he ‘put the real world on trial’ and subversively overturned customary ideas and perceptions. His images carried a touch of black humour, melancholy and melodrama, which often created a sense of confusion, disquiet and discomfort among the viewers.

“The objectivity of collage — taking an image from outside and putting it, whole and entire, in the fictional space of the painting, appealed to Magritte, because he liked standardised images,” observed renowned art critic Robert Hughes (The Poker-Faced Enchanter/ Time Magazine/ June 24, 2001). “It was their encounter and rearrangement that created the magic, more than the things themselves.

Turned balusters, game pieces, the little round horse bells known as grelots, cut-out paper doilies, wood paneling, views through a window, fire, a birdcage, a rifle, a tuba, a pipe, loaves of bread, a naked woman: there wasn’t much in Magritte’s repertoire of images that couldn’t have been seen by an ordinary Belgian clerk in the course of an ordinary day.”

Subversive idea

‘Le Viol’ (The Rape) is an exceptional painting and considered to be one of surrealism’s most powerful and violently-charged images. It was evidently created out of a subversive idea; and it was clearly intended to shock. It first appeared as a drawing on the front cover of the pamphlet by Andre Breton, titled ‘Qu’est-ce que le Surréalisme’ (What is surrealism?), in 1934.

The painting was created subsequently, and over the decades became subject of many comments, interpretations and debates. The iconic image in which the female protagonist seems to mysteriously, if dreadfully, transform herself into a sexual anatomy has intrigued critics and commentators who are divided about the moral and aesthetic questions it seems to raise.

While some feel that the painting is in line with the shock tactics adopted by surrealists to disrupt conventional bourgeois morality, others see it as an image that humiliates, demeans and dehumanises women.

“The violence done to the face of the woman is not arbitrary in nature,” writes Marcel Paquet in his book on Magritte. “If a rape indeed takes place here, then it is that of the painting itself, which, not content with reproducing the world of visible appearances on the canvas, seeks to transform it, to force it open...

The principal concern here is not so much to copy reality or to glorify the manifestations of objects of the world, but rather to create a picture of the body so as to reveal its deeper, hidden nature, a nature customarily hidden from the observer’s gaze, yet nonetheless existing inside the head.”

Art historian Robin Adèle Greeley too sees ‘Le Viol’ as a difficult, unsettling and violent image. “Blinded by her own anatomy, the sightless female body in ‘Le Viol’ is forced violently to accept the construction of her body through the male-gendered gaze of the viewer. She is the visible construct of our desires. The title forces us to recognise the extreme violence done to the female body in this situation.”

Writers like Susan Gubar assert that there can be no disinterested position for ‘Le Viol’, and wonder whether it deserves to be placed in the category of ‘pornography’; they insist that the painting doesn’t sufficiently disrupt the pornographic tradition of male voyeurism.

“Magritte’s disturbing work dramatises the contradictory ways in which sexually explicit representations can be, and have been, defined as antonyms, synecdoches, or synonyms of art,” writes Gubar. “That the experimental strategies of surrealism (including those of Magritte) are so enmeshed in violence against women means that formal (as well as content-oriented) elements may function as framing devices that simultaneously justify and perpetuate female degradation.”

When all is said and done, what remains to be answered is: “Where does one draw the line?”

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