Comparing girls’ night out photos to Renaissance masterpieces, because they are art
Look, you either get it or you don’t
It’s 4am in the kebab shop, you and your mate are sprawled on the floor, your tights are laddered and you’ve just spilt garlic mayo down your top when somebody takes a picture. What would people like Daily Mail and Sarah Vine do with these drunken photographs? Use them to write an article about the state of women today of course; we’re “alcohol-sodden, helpless and hapless wrecks” the lot of us.
But young women can do as they please, thanks, and with an enlightened view, these pictures and the women in them emerge as art. It’s time we critiqued pictures of girls’ nights out in a more fitting way, by comparing them to great Renaissance paintings.
Trasfigurazione di Gesù Cristo, Raffaello, 1511-12
Is this woman throwing her hands in the air like she just does not care, or is she in fact mimicking Jesus Christ dying on the cross? Her outstretched arms, tightly closed eyes and wailing mouth suggest this is in fact the case. Her wild hair sways as if trying to break free.
It’s hard to ignore that the woman flanking the front left is a reference to Longinus, the Roman soldier who stabbed Jesus three times when he was on the crucifix. Holding an imaginary object in her hand, just out of frame, she turns her back to the crucified – casting a sinister smile.
Harmony or The Three Graces, Hans Baldung, 1543
This photograph bears a striking resemblance to Renaissance representations of The Three Graces, this painting in particular. These women from Greek mythology always appear as a three, and they represent grace, youth and beauty. In both images, the three girls might as well be one spirit – their body language mimics each others, and they lean in closely to become one. They smile gently, pout seductively and push forward their chests coyly.
Like the Three Graces know they’re subject to the Male Gaze, these three women are aware of the photographers all-too-familiar gaze, but still act accordingly.
Bacchanal of the Andrians, Titian, 1523-25
The Bacchanal of the Andrians is set in Andros, a town associated with wine and intoxication. Gods, men and children unite in the celebration of the effects of wine, the consumption of which, in Philostratus’ words, “makes men rich, dominant, generous to their friends, handsome and four cubits high.” The girls in this photograph depict this scene perfectly with their relaxed, reclined bodies, warm smiling faces and their closeness to each other.
The girl on the lower right hand corner perfectly mimics the body language of Titian’s reclining nude, leaning on one arm and throwing the other up in the air.
The Birth of Venus, Botticelli, 1480s
At first, it appears the only visual connection between this photo and Boticelli’s Venus is the long, flowing tendrils of hair – a typical characteristic of the classical Greek art that fuels Renaissance painting. Her loose tendrils blow in the air, as if tossed about by the sea breeze that Venus emerges from.
But on closer inspection, it’s so much more than hair that links this photograph to Botticelli’s masterpiece. It seems like her whole pose mimics that of Venus’. Her contrapposto pose (a mixture of tense and relaxed muscles) is similar to Venus’, which is also a direct reference to classical sculpture.
Like Venus, her head is tilted, her features symmetrical, her gaze serene with a slight upwards curve to her lips. Even the general composition of the two images is similar, most notably by the woman in the far right corner. In The Birth of Venus, this is a Nymph reaching out to cover Venus’ naked body with a cloak. We are unsure of what the woman in the photograph is about to do – but chances are she’ll be doing the same thing.
Furthermore, the crowd of people in the background is softly out of focus, to the point where they almost resemble the floating flowers and sea ripples visible in Botticelli’s painting. Though she’s in a busy club, the image appears serene and calm – she, the goddess of love, is all that matters.
Bacchante, Gaston Casimir Saint-Pierre, 1872
Another reference to the Greek god of wine and fertility – Bacchante is one of Bacchus’ female followers. It is worth noting that this picture is post-Renaissance, but the naturalistic style, use of depth and links to classical architecture make it similar to one from an earlier century.
Bacchantes are depicted as mad or wild women, running through the forest, tearing animals to pieces, and engaging in other acts of frenzied intoxication. In both images, the women appear intoxicated with their heads swung back, their eyes gently closed with with gently ecstatic smiles on their faces. Their body language is loose as if they could topple at any moment, their hair wild and ruffled. They both hold up grapes, the symbol of wine, which they teasingly dangle into their mouths.
The girl in the photograph’s intoxication is emphasised by the almost-finished drink she clambers onto with her other hand. It looks as if it could slip at any moment. Both images appear to be clouded in a smokey haze – a Renaissance painting technique called Sfumato.
Adam and Eve, Cranach, 1533
Maybe it’s the snakily entwined bodies, the symbolically held out palm or the longing eyes – but this picture could be mistaken for a reenactment of the Serpent tempting Eve with an apple.
Clearly, the girl holding up what appears to be an apple (definitely not a club logo) is Eve, before original sin. She stretches out her arm and holds her palm flat, as if holding the juicy apple. She stares longingly at it,her eyes widened and her mouth in a huge grin. The girl next to her acts as a symbol for the snake.
She smiles sinisterly at the viewer, something Art Historians call a “Preemptive Gaze”, as if she’s warning the viewer of the chaos that is about to unfold. She snakily wraps her limbs around Eve, tempting her to take a bite.
Frans Snyders, Flanders, 1618-21
This comparison is not about its female sitters. It isn’t about the composition or the lighting. This comparison is to do with the most worthy subject of them all: the small, floofy and remarkably uncomfortable dog that takes centre stage. In most Renaissance paintings, dogs act as a symbol of fidelity or loyalty, but not here.
In both the photograph and the painting, the dog looks startled, unhappy – is being alone so much to ask? Must humans interfere with the pure inner beauty of these small silky creatures?
Drinking Bacchus, Reni, 1623
In his classical inspired oil painting, Reni illustrates Bacchus – the god of wine, intoxication and fertility. Visually, the links are remarkably obvious between this young woman and Reni’s Bacchus.
Just like Bacchus, the woman in the photograph tilts her head and rolls her eyes back in ecstasy as she downs the bottle without another care in the world. In mythology, Bacchus is often accompanied by dancing women – just like the woman dancing closely behind in the photograph, so close they almost frame her.
Her grip is firm, like a baby fondling it’s bottle, and her relaxed posture and body language hints at her intoxication.
Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, 1510
One question must be asked: is the bond between these men as pure as that of God and Adam? For those not familiar, the scene depicts the Biblical creation narrative from the Book of Genesis, where God breaths life into Adam. They stare into each others eyes in the same manner as Michelangelo’s Al Fresco painting, whilst stretching their hands forward for an intimate touch.
Amidst the madness, the pair remain serene and stare at each other with knowing eyes, their focus fixed on this spiritual moment.
The Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538
Who wouldn’t compare this woman on a sofa to Titian’s Venus of Urbino? The woman’s seductive pose in the photograph clearly echoes Titian’s painting, the Renaissance’s biggest exercise of female eroticism. Before I get to the comparison, I’ll begin by explaining the context of Titian’s painting.
There are multiple readings to the image, but it’s generally perceived to be a gift from husband to wife – the picture of the ideal Renaissance woman. She gazes longingly at the reader, yet her seductive pose emphasised by her hand placed loosely over her genitals. The woman in the photograph’s pose is almost identical. Loose and sensual, propped up by her arm, one leg bent one stretched, pouting and gazing tempestuously at the viewer.
Both are products of the Male Gaze, playing up to their expectations and seemingly enjoying it. Venus holds a bouquet of flowers, presumably a morning-after gift from a suitor, while the woman in the photo holds a classically feminine pink cup and sits behind a bouquet of flowers – one can only assume both are gifts from a potential lover.
Both recline on lavish furniture, and something lies at their feet. For venus, the dog represents fidelity and loyalty, whereas the coat in the photograph is just a coat.
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