There is probably very few things more controversial in art than the idea of the nude. Sure, artists have been painting, sculpting, and creating nude images for millenia, yet there is always this debate over whether it is right to display the unclothed human body, and whether we should prevent the young from being exposed to such images. The question always comes down to where one draws the line between art and pornography. Mind you this line is actually a pretty subjective line, and is also a line that isn’t necessarily set between gender identities – there are women who consider pornography to be fine, while there are men who are absolutely appalled by the industry.
Anyway, before I go into that space, the Art Gallery of New South Wales had an exhibition over summer on the nude, and while at first I wasn’t really all that interested in it, after reading a Christian article (I can’t remember for the life of me where it is), which as typical turned the whole concept into one of those joyless, we are Christians and fun is sinful, type of arguments, I decided, as I am prone to do, to break with tradition and visit Sydney, if only to see Rodin’s Kiss (a sculpture that I didn’t have the opportunity of seeing when I was in Europe).
The Classical World
Okay, the exhibition really only begins in the 18th and 19th Centuries, but the idea of the nude goes way back before them. The Ancient Greeks loved the human body and believed it was the highest form of art. Actually, when I say human body I should mention that it was the male human body, which is why when you look at Ancient Greek statues (namely the gods) the males are naked whereas the females are clothed. In fact a couple of years ago I actually traveled to Bendigo, which is a two hour train trek from Melbourne, to see an exhibition that was basically Ancient Greek Statues. Mind you, the nude statues were the male Gods, so the statues of contemporary men (and they usually were always men) were clothed – it seems as if there was some form of dignity amongst the Greeks as well.
An interesting definition of the nude was proposed by Kenneth Clarke: to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, to be vulnerable and exposed. The nude body, however, is balanced, prosperous, and confident. In a sense the definition could be considered highly erotic since there are times when we will refer to somebody as being naked, and times when they would simply be considered nude. For instance, a woman in a strip club who has removed all of her clothes (and it is not necessarily a woman in these settings) would hardly be called vulnerable, but probably more seen as being confident as she may (and this is not always the case) see that her body can be a way of making money. The same goes with lovers hidden away in the bedroom.
Anyway, the idea of the nude is an ideal concept, which is probably when in the Ancient times it was only the gods who were craved as nudes – the gods were idealised humans, and as such had idealised bodies. Yet interestingly it was only the males, which seems to be the opposite to what our world (which, despite some claiming otherwise, is still pretty much a patriarchy) sees as being the perfect body. Even then, opinions change even across short periods of time and across different cultures – what is considered the perfect body in Asia is not necessarily the same as in the United States.
One of the characteristics of the Renaissance was that it was trying to revive the Classical world, and we began to see a significant change in the style of art. This is seen clearly with Michaelangelo’s David and Leonardo DaVinci’s Universal Man. I remember wandering into a bar on Bangla Road in Patong wearing my DaVinci T-shirt, and all the bar girls were interested in was that they could see a penis. However, I doubt DaVinci drew this simply as a bit of toilet humour, and in a way turning what is in effect a work of art into something that children would snicker at is in a way quite insulting. Yet it goes to show how there are two ways of looking at the nude – a mature and an immature way.
Yet one thing that I noticed as I wandered through the Vatican Museum was that there were a large number of ancient statues lining the wall and somebody had come along and glued stone fig leaves over the genitals. This raises the question as to whether this was done so as not to cause offense, or whether it was done because the people who did this (not doubt the Vatican officials) were easily offended and didn’t understand the nature of art. I suspect it would be the second explanation, though we probably shouldn’t forget that Ancient Athenian statues did have erect penni on them.
The Historical Nude
I’m not necessarily sure whether we can say that things were beginning to change in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Okay, women weren’t allowed to draw nudes, particularly in a room with male models. However, this has something to do with the fact that women weren’t allowed to be artists, theologians, philosophers, or practically anything that didn’t involve staying home, cleaning the house, and looking after the kids (if you were middle class that is). For instance, Anna Merrit, with her painting ‘Love Locked Out’ needed to use a child for it was forbidden for her to paint an adult male. However, these days, a painting a nude child would bring about cries of outrage (and in a way rightly so), yet there was no concerns with displaying that painting at the Tate (or the Art Gallery of New South Wales).
One of the things about painting nudes was that they were considered to be one of the most challenging aspects of art. For an artist to truly be considered an artist they needed to create a nude. Mind you, artists seem to have their strengths, and their weaknesses. For instance my Grandfather never painted people because he could never paint people, and you will see that this is the case with a lot of painters that tend to do still lifes and landscapes. However you also have portraits, and interestingly enough one of Australia’s leading art prizes, the Brooker Prize, is all about painting portraits.
Yet let us consider Victorian England, because it was not really seen as being a time period when people were debaucherous. Yet artists painted nudes, though many of these paintings never saw the light of day, such as the works of William Etty – his works were considered to be way too sensual for the viewing public and tended to only land up in private collections. However artists did paint nudes, and many of these paintings existed in pastoral settings, though the pastoral setting is usually an idealised world in an idealised realm. However the impressionists, particularly Manet with his painting ‘Dejeuner sue l’herbe’ caused some outrage, particularly since the setting was much more realistic.
However not all nudes were considered outrageous. For instance Alma-Tadema’s, ‘A Favourite Custom’ which depicted some women in the baths in recently discovered Pompei, was celebrated and much loved. We also see some other paintings, including the Knight Errant and The Bath of Psyche, that didn’t bring about as much outrage. I guess in one sense it has something to do with the sensual nature of the painting, and in another sense it is the classical context. Yet I don’t think it is truly the classical context that defined what offended and what didn’t, but more to do with the idea of the prudish nature of Victorian England.
The Private Sphere
I guess one major aspect of the nude is that it tends to exist in a private sphere. Sure, anybody can probably walk into a free beach zone, but you will notice that there are certain clubs, bars, and pubs that tend to be closed off to the general public. However in the artistic sphere, at the turn of the 20th century, we begin to see a movement out of the public sphere and into the private sphere. Maybe this has something to do with the rise of photography, or maybe it is a reaction to an artistic world that was tightly structured and academic and experimentation wasn’t accepted. Well, when we consider that the impressionists were chided and ridiculed by the artistic community, this movement out of the public sphere and into the private sphere is not surprising.
In a way what is happening is that we are becoming voyer’s. We are being introduced into a world that is basically behind closed doors, and artists did this in numerous ways, including my moving things (such as the bathtub in Bonnard’s Nu Dans la Boignoire) to the side to create a more intimate feel. Deges did a similar thing in ‘Le coucher’, where it seems as if we are looking at a woman as she is climbing into bed. In a way the public space has been left for the academics to do what they will, and we are now finding ourselves in a new sphere were we get to see, and experience, a world that not many are allowed to see. In a sense we, the art lovers, are slowly becoming voyers.
Yet the question is whether it is sensual. Well, it seems as if Matisse’ ‘Femme nue Drape’ is certainly quite sensual. In fact it is something that I would probably expect to see in one of those girly magazines, yet for some reason it isn’t but rather it is hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Maybe it is because the image is more of a cartoon than realistic, yet I don’t think that is the reason either. In a way this painting is certainly hidden within the private sphere, yet in another is it is drawing us, the art lover, into the image, as if we are a standing in the room with the subject of the painting.
Let us also consider Nevison and his painting ‘A Studio in Montparnasse’. Is this a nude or is this a painting that happens to have a nude person in it. Personally, it is difficult to tell, namely because the subject is so small, and has his (or her) back to us. Mind you, I should mention that Montparnasse was the new artisans quarter of Paris during the 1920s and many writers and artists would sit in the cafes and wander the boulevards. These days Montparnasse is incredibly expensive, and not really a place where the bohemian artist can be found.
I want to finish off this post (which is part one because it seems there is a lot more I can write on the subject, and I am only half way through the exhibition) with the final painting I saw in this room, and that is Steer’s Seated Nude. There is an interesting anecdote about that painting, namely when it was acquired by the Tate Steer told them that this was the first time it would be shown in public, namely because his friends didn’t think that a nude should be wearing a hat, and in a way it destroyed the painting, and in another way it was offensive. Mind you, this idea sort of doesn’t make sense, though I guess it is one of those all or nothing arguments.
The Nude – Is It Art pt1 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me