On “The Victorian Gaze: A Reading of the Ambivalent Victorian Mentality towards the Naked Body of Colonial Subjects” by Sneha Pan

Based on Lacanian psychoanalysis and poststructuralism, Homi Bhabha, a key
figure in postcolonial studies, came up with the concept of ‘ambivalence’ – it
demonstrated how the colonial discourse failed to establish itself as a monolithic
structure because of the differential relations between the identities of the
colonizer and the colonized. This paper analyzes the problematic aspects and
ambivalent nature of the Victorian gaze over the body of women living in
colonized nations – who, according to Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna
Rutherford, experience a “double colonization”: once by patriarchy and then
again by colonialism.
Focusing on various conceptions of the “unclothed body”, this paper interrogates
the distinction between “naked” and “nude”, accorded by art critics like Kenneth
Clark and John Berger - both are distinct “ways of seeing”. With reference to Jean-
Lois Baudry’s concept of the ‘cinematic spectator’ and Foucault’s ‘panopticon’, it
advances its investigation into the Victorian gaze. According to Baudry, the viewer
arrives at a correlative that is “subjective” rather than “objective”, by combining
the diverse images that appear before her (thereby deriving meaning from that
collective image). Foucault’s ‘panopticon’ works through the individual
‘interiorization’ of surveillance. Both, in turn, collaborate to influence the gaze,
which is not just an activity, but a process.
The paper then proceeds to point out some obvious differences between the
British paintings of Indian women and those of their Indian counterparts, and
then seeks to establish a dialogic relation between the British and the Indian
aesthetics of the 19 th century.
One finds that the unclothed colonized native, for the Victorian sensibility, was
considered as being primitive, uncivilized and ahistorical. “A most poor credulous
monster!” remarked Trinculo on seeing Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The sculptures and statues of ancient Greece, on the other hand, idolized the
naked male body as being the pinnacle of Western aesthetics.
India, during the colonial period, went through a lot of cultural changes – the
world of art being no exception. Indian art gradually became more conservative
under the influence of Victorian art, which was characterized by bourgeois
morality. A popular anecdote- the Victorians considered leaving the legs of their
chairs and tables uncovered as being immoral.
The notion of ‘Woman’ was frequently reduced to mere objects with respect to
art, much more than men. An obvious corollary of this was the emergence of
different forms of representing women, which addressed the wider socio-political
issues of the time. The British denizens often patronized painters to create works
that catered to the Victorian audience. The Indian painters, on behest of their
patrons, had to adhere to the conservative European notions of femininity.
Instead of transparent clothing, which Indian art was comfortable with, the
women, painted for British eyes, had to wear thick clothing.
Painters like Raja Ravi Varma, who were exposed to western education, created
works that seamlessly integrated the two different traditions. As the paper
repeatedly points out, much of what is considered as ‘Indian Culture’ in the
present day, are actually traces of the Victorian sensibilities from the 19 th century.
Traditionally, Indian women wore clothing that was uninhibited and could freely
interact with men, without the fear of being ostracized by society. In paintings of
the 17 th and 18 th centuries, scenes depicting sexuality were normal, and totally
Victorian ‘high’ art, in contrast, sought to avoid the raw sexuality exuded by
paintings and photographs of the colonized natives. The idea of nakedness as a
‘shameful’ act has its roots in the Judeo-Christian origin story, where Adam and
Eve are forced out of their innocent and untainted pre-Lapserian world after
eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Yet, this is also known as “felix
culpa” or the “fortunate fall” – the idea that something good would eventually
follow – like the Christian redemption and the hope of Heaven. This implies that
the ‘naked’ native would be forever lacking in grace, without any opportunity of
redemption. During the 19 th century, there was a huge influx of Christian
missionaries in India, who imported Christian ideals into the cultural psyche.

The colonized native’s nude body, and the nude woman in particular, stands for a
nostalgic, unsullied past; it becomes an archetype for an ideal that does not exist
beyond the canvas. An ideologically gullible viewer engaged in a ‘scopophilic’
activity absorbs these fictional identities with which they begin to look at
themselves. They put on a ‘mask’ which is far from being a perfect fit, thereby
experiencing a schizophrenic condition, as observed by Frantz Fanon in the
context of Algeria and its French colonial occupation.
The body becomes a space within which the various social, political and cultural
mores engage with each other. Simultaneously, it becomes both the object and
the subject that ‘interpellates’ and is ‘interpellated’.


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