I am interested in why the figure of a woman reclining, in repose, lying displayed, abandoned, fallen, beached, awake, asleep, or dreaming, returns in the work of women film-makers and photographers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This figure appears in the narrative films, documentaries, slide shows, and still photographs I examine.
I imagine the images of a naked woman reclining that are seen in the world. They are images of a girl after her bath, of a pregnant woman examined, of a mother lying in bed. They are images of a woman lying reading in an enclosed apartment in summer. They are images of a lover in sheets, a nudist swimmer in water, or by the lakeside. They are images of a woman exhausted after work, stretched out asleep. They are images of anomie, depression, and numbness. They are images of the ill lying in hospital, naked parts of the body gaping. They are images of the dead. These are all images of the closest intimacy, of desire, happiness, rest, absorption, exercise, tending, care, vulnerability, emergency, numbness, and grief. These moments of being, of living, and of dying are apparently remote from the timeless serenity of the European tradition of the reclining nude, yet disconcertingly these images and paintings share a pose, an attitude, the same proneness, the same repose.
I use the English term ‘reclining’,3 referring both to the classical pose in nude paintings and also, as per the usage of the term beyond the art history context, to other situations of lying down, of being prone. If the term is often used to express relaxation and repose, I stretch its meanings outwards, referring to all manner of situations of horizontality. French, the language of the artworks I discuss, has no direct equivalent to the word ‘reclining’, coming closest to the reclining nude, in the language of painting, in the term nu couché, nude lying down, and nu allongé, nude stretched out, the terms carrying, like reclining, connotations of being in repose, on a sofa, or in bed. Yet French carries too the figure of the nu renversé, the upside-down nude, the nude who has been overturned, knocked over, lain prone, with connotations of disarrangement, of falling away from the vertical.