Article Title

Nudes Under Siege


Heather Dawkins, The Nude in French Art and Culture 1870-1910. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xii, 231. $70.

Heather Dawkins's The Nude in French Art and Culture 1870- 1910brings together feminist art history and the emerging field of visual studies. Visual studies is a touchy subject for many art historians, who foresee the eclipse of their discipline and its special skills by this vast and ambiguous field of inquiry. Nevertheless, many feminist scholars have welcomed visual studies as an "indiscipline," a new area of inquiry at the margins of art history unbounded by canonicity. W.J.T. Mitchell, Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, one of the best-known advocates of visual studies, defines the enterprise broadly as the study of the social construction of vision. Mitchell's thinking, like that of many of his colleagues, is indebted to Jacques Lacan's work on the structure of the scopic field and the dynamics of the gaze.

The Nude in French Art and Culture straddles two broadly related topics: censorial spectatorship on the part of courts and government officials in the French Third Republic, and challenges to the discourse of the nude by women in France in the late-nineteeth and early-twentieth centuries. Mass-produced visual images were consistently ranked as more dangerous than the printed word by France's Chamber of Deputies, on the grounds that images speak to all ages, sexes, and the illiterate, arousing the senses and emotions, in contrast to the more intellectual effect of text. Dawkins approaches censorship as a form of spectatorship rather than an apparatus of repression, since government censorship of images of women was a conspicuous failure, especially after liberalized freedom-of-the-press laws were enacted in 1881. Censorial spectatorship, she argues, was a construct shaped by tensions in republican ideals, class conflict, state institutions, and the liberalization of print culture.