It’s hard to understand why Czech photographer Marie Tomanova's self-portraits are showing at New York’s Sex Museum (MoSex), a venue that offers explicit views of sexual practices, and bills itself as a place to discover “the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality.” Granted, her photos show her in the nude, but they’re mostly shot from the rear. Contrast that to the truckload of Old Master depictions of undressed and slumbering women with their genitalia exposed, which can come across like peep shows.

Time to wake up

I’m thinking of Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” and Ingres’ “Sleeping Odalisque” portrayed flat on their backs, out cold and without a stitch.

A lot of artists in the past painted similarly posed women in the buff, which invited the male gaze without having to concern himself with her mindset. By the look of art history, bared and dozing females were the pinups of the ages. When times changed and they were pictured awake, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who was given to picture a ton of females in their birthday suits, waxed nostalgic about the lost male fantasy: “In former times, women freely sang and danced in order to be winsome and pleasing to men. Today they must be paid off: the charm has gone.” Edouard Manet’s "Luncheon on the Grass" may have defined that moment when the inert female nude was allowed to open her eyes and look at the viewer, as if to ask, “What are you looking at?”

The Met as a sex museum

But Renoir didn’t have to worry about the end of undressing females for the fun of it.

After all, such imagery is on view in huge numbers in art museums throughout the world. Eighty-five percent of nudes displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art are said to be of women. But you don’t have to dip into history to see them continue to be objectified. Consider Gustave Klimt who did the Old Masters better by sketching a stripped, supine female face up but with splayed legs that allowed him to detail her pubic hair.

This image doesn’t just hang on a museum wall. It appeared in a 1989 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine as an ad hawking Bel Ami fragrance, an eau de toilette for men with the words: “To his fragrance, she surrenders.” Where is the Advertising Standards Authority when you need them? The Klimt image would be a good choice for the Museum of Sex.

Are Tomanova’s rear views? Hardly.

Where’s the rest of me?

And the hits keep coming. Talk about passive nudes, Irving Penn’s photos make the case that the ideal woman of yesteryear is not dead. His "Nude #1," a seated model with her arms behind her back, clearly demonstrates her lack of volition and calls to mind the somnolent females. But Met curator Marie Morris Hambourg praised it, saying, "Penn's figures are always complete in their partiality; although they lack limbs and heads, they seem whole.” Incomprehensible!