What happens when you open up? What happens when you reveal your motives or intentions? What happens when you’re honest? What happens when you share your secrets? What happens when you make yourself vulnerable?
It’s extremely tough to open up and become vulnerable. You fear what people may think or say of you. Will they approve? Will they disapprove? Will they think of you differently? Will they care? An endless array of questions run through your mind, but in our world of curation and disguise, I want to speak on the value in vulnerability.
In a letter to her mother in 1899, Paula Modersohn-Becker wrote: “I have such a firm desire and determination to make something of myself, something that won’t have to be afraid of the sunshine […] To realize that the people closest to us disapprove of our actions is the source of great sadness. But we must remain ourselves, we must.”
Paula Modersohn-Becker was a German painter at the turn of the 20th Century, and is recognized as a pioneer for expressionism and the representation of women in art. While there had already been a number of female artist to precede her as well as an endless number of nude female form, Paula’s nude self portraits were nothing short of audacious and brave.
Prior to Paula, representation of the female nude was entirely expressed through a masculine perspective. Not only is she the first female artist to produce a nude self portrait, but she had done so in such a way that completely categorized her work as her own and directly challenged the representation of women in art.
Most artist’s self portraits featured the artists at work, fully clothed, and tools in hand. Paula takes a very different approach, one which challenges this convention. She was on a mission to define herself as an artist and to rise above the rest, and she was well on her way to do that. Her “Self Portrait with Amber Necklace” depicts her with breasts exposed, flowers in both her hands and hair, a seemingly devious but extremely subtle smile, and eyes daringly gazing off to the side.
This is the beginning of the 20th century, during which many women still didn’t have much control over their income and largely relied on their husbands. Paula, unhappy with her marriage and ambitions far beyond what her living situation permitted, saved up whatever money she could and left to make a name for herself in Paris.
Paula was on the edge of the Modernist movement, she was giving everything she had, pouring herself into her work, but her brief career as an artist was a constant struggle. Despite being on the edge of the Modernist movement and truly helping define it, her work lacked recognition or popularity. Despite the honesty in her work, people were uncomfortable with her vulnerability. When her first nude self portrait was displayed, it was displayed without a title because this was never done before and they felt they couldn’t title it “Nude Self Portrait.” It wasn’t until later that it was given the name “Self Portrait with Amber Necklace.”
As so many stories go with wonderful artists, their artwork remained recognition-less during their life time, and Paula at the age of 31 passed away just 18 days after giving birth to her daughter Mathilde. In her short lifetime, Paula had produced over 700 paintings. Not only did her vulnerability enable her to create more art with conviction, but she paved the way for so many female artists to follow. Her honesty started a new conversation within art, one of the female perspective, which had never been truly discussed. Her vulnerability served as a foundation for the female voice in both Expressionism and Modernism.
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” – Frida Kahlo
In a similar fashion, Frida Kahlo constantly delivered the raw and emotional truth of her life—her physical and emotional struggles. Her quote above relates to Paula’s words of “But we must remain ourselves, we must” in the way the two struggled with who they were as individuals but recognized the importance in being unapologetically and openly yourself.
As with many artists, these two dealt with both criticism and skepticism before experiencing praise, and in Paula’s case, never truly experiencing praise. However, both of these artists created physical work—paintings—which allow for a certain level of disconnect to occur. There’s an ambiguity to the medium in that viewers may ask, am I being deceived? Starting in the ‘70s, Serbian artist Marina Abramović also began exploring the notion of vulnerability in her performances.
“Nothing happens if you always do things the same way,” she says. “My method is to do things I’m afraid of, the things I don’t know, to go to territory that nobody’s ever been.”
Marina’s performances often extend beyond herself and include the audience as a part of the medium. In contrast to paintings where viewers can become disconnected from the work, Marina’s performances tend to feel personal to the extent in which viewers seemingly feel responsible for what is taking place.
In her 1974 performance, Rhythm 0, Marina put a variety of objects on a table with instructions which read:
There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.
I am the object.
During this period I take full responsibility.
Duration: 6 hours (8 pm – 2 am)
On the table, there was bread, grapes, wine, water, a rose, perfume, but then there was also things like a chain, hammer, knives, metal wire, and a gun with a single bullet loaded.
During this period in art, performance art was ridiculed, and Marina had thought, “I’m going to make a piece to see how far the public can go and the artist doesn’t do anything.” She was in a way posing the question, what happens if you make yourself entirely vulnerable to your surroundings?
In the beginning of the performance, the audience was rather tame. People would give her the rose, give her a drink of water, feed her bread or grapes, but as the night went on the audience grew more and more ruthless. They picked her up and carried her around. They chained her legs together. They laid her on a table and stuck a knife between her legs. They cut off her clothes. They cut her neck. Eventually, someone grabbed the gun and held it against her head. She continued to play her role as an object—she just stood there. It took the help of someone else to stop the man from pulling the trigger.
When 2 am hit, the guards had announced the performance was over. Marina was no longer an object. She was a human being. “I start moving. I start being myself because I was there like a puppet just for them. In that moment, everyone starts to run away. People could not actually confront with me as a person.”
In this performance, Marina not only pushed the limitations of her own mind and body, but inherently pushed those limitations of the public. By allowing herself to become exposed and vulnerable, she in turn made the audience vulnerable. She exposed their inner weaknesses, self consciousness, desires, fears, and most horrifyingly, their true selves. In the case of not only Marina, but with Frida and Paula as well, their vulnerability was more revealing of the viewers than it was themselves.
In 1994, Stefan Sagmeister set out to form his own studio. To announce that he was setting up shop, he sent out a mailer featuring himself naked. At the time this mailer was sent to an exclusive amount of people, but managed to have a very positive effect. In 2012, Jessica Walsh joined forces with Stefan and to announce this new partnership, a similar promotional was creating featuring the two fully nude.
While Stefan’s original mailer yielded positive results, a lot of people gave the Sagmeister & Walsh studio hell for their promotional material. Many found this to be unprofessional or had “nothing to do with design.” I’d argue it had everything to do with design. Because it had everything to do with exposing not themselves, but others. There was nothing to hold against them. It helped weed out the people who didn’t align with their vision or beliefs, and instead allowed them to focus on the people that resonated with their point of view.
Even as they hire more employees, the studio continues their tradition of nudity. When you’re comfortable in your own skin and your own body, and if your clients or audience are comfortable with you as a human being, so much more can be accomplished because so many walls have already been taken out of play.
When I was in high school, I had no formal education in art and I had very little knowledge of its history. In 2011, I photographed myself in the nude and I found myself following the pursuit of so many artists that had preceded me without truly knowing it. With this photograph, I blurred out my penis and placed text over it which read, “STEREOTYPE THIS.”
I was just 16 at the time, and without consulting anyone I decided to make this my profile picture on Facebook. There was no caption to go with it. Nothing to describe it. Nothing to tell you what it meant. It was just the photo of myself in the nude with the words “STEREOTYPE THIS.”
This was intended to be entirely provocative, and it was intended to be totally revealing. The immediate response was confusion. No one understood it (not too surprising considering it was high schoolers with no experience of interacting with or interpreting art). Along with the confusion, not long after posting it, my dad was receiving calls from relatives asking, “What does it mean? Why would Matt do this?”
This forced people to think and it made them uncomfortable. To settle the confusion, I began to explain myself. “I’m putting myself out there saying that I’ve given all that I have, and I’ve been left with nothing. So here I present myself, as true as I can be, questioning if I’m still vulnerable to being stereotyped.” The engagement on the photo is very interesting. People I suspected would understand it, didn’t. And many people I didn’t suspect to see it or understand it, did.
This seemingly became the talk of the town for a while. Even when I got to school, teachers had heard that I did this. It seemed as though the question on everyone’s mind was why? The result of this entire interaction is why I did it. It was an act of vulnerability and exposing myself as much as I could. There was nothing else any one could hold or use against me. As with so many of the stories which came before me, I discovered those who understood me and aligned with my values, and those that didn’t.
Vulnerability requires risk. It’s scary. In the pursuit of gaining control, you must learn to intentionally let it go. In the act of exposing yourself and becoming vulnerable, you’re in turn forcing the same upon the audience.
Vulnerability creates opportunity to do great things because it directly resists conformity and openly challenges conventional thinking. Through total exposure, and essentially taking off your skin, the audience is forced into self reflection—making them cautious of their own subconscious. It is when we make ourselves vulnerable that we tear down the walls which surround us and unveil great potential. When we tear down these walls, it’s not just for ourselves, but for others.