The Nude – Is It Art pt 2

Well, if you haven’t read the first part of this post then I recommend that you do, namely because I explore the history of the nude, and also how the concept changed in the early 20th Century as we moved from the public to the private space. The other thing is that I am running through is the idea of where the line is drawn, and what we would consider offensive. One idea has suggested as to whether the image is sensual or not, yet there are works of art hanging on the walls of art galleries for everybody to see that are incredibly sensual. The other thing is that we are probably much more relaxed with regards to the naked body that the British of the Victorian era were, who were renown for being rather prude.
Obviously there is still a struggle between opposing forces in society as to what is considered to be art, and what is considered to be obscene. Obviously Google has taken the stance, and a good one at that, to move away from pornography. Okay, I’d hardly consider Google to be the go to place for internet porn, however with the changing nature of society (before the internet guys would throw on overcoats and sneak into the back entrance of adult bookshops) Google have adjusted their algorithm so that people don’t ‘accidentally’ get directed to such a site. Mind you, while they haven’t necessarily shut down any blogs that are overtly pornographic, they have made them somewhat more difficult to access.

Modern Times

In the early 20th Century art suddenly begins to head in a new direction, and this has a lot to do with the invention of the camera. Sure, impressionism had moved from the more realistic paintings of the past to a style that focuses on colour, and the majestic and the public had been swept aside to be replaced by the ordinary and the private. However, as we move beyond the impressionist phase we begin to see a different style of art taking place, and none is more dynamic than Picasso.
In the past the nude was seen as a form of perfection, and in a sense the artists had always been looking to create that perfect body, a body that someone could look at and state that it is a thing of beauty. The Ancient Athenians saw this concept of beauty in the male body, but as attitudes changed, particularly with the hetrosexual nature of the Christian west, this concept of beauty, from a patriarchal point of view, shift to the woman.
However, the cubists began to question the nature of the body, and we see this particularly with Picasso’s Seated Nude and Blomberg’s Mud Bath. Suddenly the concept has moved from the real to the subjective. Picasso reimagined the human body from the classical curves to more jagged edges with folds and shadows, while the identities in Blomberg’s painting disappeared to become a tangle of limbs all scurrying to hide from the voyer. This is no longer a question of sensuality but a question of reality. Like the impressionists, the focus moved away from trying to be as accurate as possible, namely because the camera could now do that, and artists now were exploring these concepts through colour and shape.


We now take a turn from the explorations of the cubists and into the subconscious of the surrealists. In a sense these concepts have arisen from the writings of Freud, who began to explore what it is that makes us tick, and how and why we do what we do. Sure, Freud and his students were psychologists, and explored these concepts from a psychological point of view, but the surrealists took this psycho-sexual identity and turned it into art. Mind you, men were still the dominant force in those days, and many of the paintings were from a male perspective, but it is here that we begin to understand the psychological differences between the genders.
I guess one of the strongest paintings in the genre would have to be Delveux’s Sleeping Venus. Here the nude is being taken out of the sensual and being thrown into the horrific. The night skies, the ruined temples, and the skeletal figures, all go turn this idea into something much, much darker. Once again we have one of the ancient gods, this time Venus (or Aphrodite), the god of sexual love, at least where the Greeks were concerned. However, we suddenly discover that this sensual idea has a much darker side to it, and this goddess of love is in reality a goddess of soul destroying lust.
Scylla is another form of art where the artist, this time female, is viewing herself in a different form. In one sense it is just her sitting in the bath with her thighs protruding above the water, but in another sense they represent the narrow straights through which Odysseus had to sail. Once again there is this shift away from the sensual to the violent. The idea of Scylla was that she was this monstrous serpent that would lie in wait for Odysseus’ men to pass through the rocks, and when they were not suspecting it she would leap down and devour them. In a way this is the image that comes out of the thighs as well, something that is alluring, yet destructive.
Bellmer’s Doll, is famous as it is haunting. In a way it is what is termed as a fetish, a object that has sexual meaning attached to it, and there is probably nothing that represents a fetish is the way that Bellmer’s sculpture does. However, what is really unsettling is how it simply turns the concept of sex with a relational act between two sentient creatures that desire to express their love, and into a purely physical act that simply exists to satisfy the cravings of a single person. However, the other thing is that this object is clearly created from the male view point, suggesting that the female desire is something that simply does not come to mind.
While I could go on with these paintings, in particular Man Ray’s Picsese (among others) I will finish off with Gruber’s Job. Here was have a thin and naked man sitting alone in a dark alleyway. This is the realism aspect of surrealism, were we move away from the ideal and enter into the real. Job is the Biblical person who lost his wealth and family, and then his health, and spends a bulk of the book trying to understand the nature of suffering. In a way what we see here is not the beautiful and idealistic, but the real, the dark, and the horrifying. It is not the beautiful nude that we see, but the vulnerable naked man.

The Erotic Nude

Here we come to the centre piece of the exhibition, Rodin’s The Kiss. At first I thought it was located in the gardens of his house in Paris, however it appears that the sculptures that are located there may not be originals. Actually, I had never heard of Rodin until I visited his house, and the only reason went there was because it was supposed to be one of the things to do when you are in Paris. However I’m not in Paris and this isn’t a post entirely on Rodin, though this sculpture is the main reason that attracted people to the exhibition.
The Kiss is based on a scene from Dante’s Inferno where the noble woman Francesca da Rimini falls in love with her husband’s younger brother, and is then caught by her husband locked in a passionate embrace. As was expected at the time, her husband Giovanni basically killed them, and they spent eternity in hell locked in that passionate embrace. However if you look closely at the sculpture you will notice that the lips aren’t touching, suggesting that the couple were killed before the kiss could begin, and this they spend eternity in this embrace, but never actually touching.
There are other sketches in this section, including some by Turner and David Hockney, who also challenged the society of the time. The Kiss was actually covered by a sheet when it was on display, which I had to admit is rather odd because if it was that offensive, or shocking, then why would it be on display. We also have Turner and Hockney who pushed the boundaries with their drawings as well, with Hockney in particular exploring the erotic nature of homosexuality in the years before it was legalised. In a way it seems odd that an act between two consenting adults could be considered a crime, but in many places around the world it still very much is.
Yet there is a line between the erotic and the obscene, and in one sense the etchings of Pablo Picasso (using his signature cubist form) could fall into the category of obscene. In a way something erotic is designed to titilate, to evoke our sensual nature, to draw us in. However the obscene goes in the opposite direction, in that it repels, it offends, and it drives us away. This is the nature of sex in our society – a constant struggle between the erotic and the obscene. There is the nature that is beautiful, however there is also the aspect which is just base, and to put it bluntly, quite degrading.

Body Politics

Which brings us to this section on the political aspect of the body. Up until very recently, women weren’t considered people, they were considered property – they were either the property of the father, or the property of the husband. There was no such thing as an abusive relationship because it was believed that if a woman was bashed by her husband then she obviously did something to deserve it. In fact, even in our age of recognisable human rights, there is still the belief, usually by the victim, that if they are assaulted then they were deserving of that assault. However, the political nature of the human body is certainly an incredibly hot topic.
For instance why is it that most women can only get into an art gallery as a nude model. Sure, there are female artists, though it is interesting to note that Susan Valladon, an impressionist artist from the turn of the 20th Century, began her artistic career as a nude model. Wilke also explored this idea with a nude photograph of her with the title ‘Marxism and Art, beware of Facist Feminism’. In a way this is true of the feminist movement – there is the feminist movement that seeks equal rights for women, and there is the movement that seeks to demonise all men and to establish a feminine hegemony. In a way what they want is to switch the gender roles to make the male the weak and oppressed and the female the strong and domineering.
Which brings us to Curran’s Honeymoon Nude, which is a melding of the renaissance ideal with the modern pronographic. In one sense the model is that of Bottecheli’s Venus, however she has taken a much more modern appearance, and is designed to be the modern ideal. She is standing on that line between the artistic and the pornographic – it both senses being the ideal and the erotic. The honeymoon aspect is that of the young bride who has just married, and she is presented to her husband in all her glory. However, she is a possession of her husband, and we should note that we do not see the male body in the picture – in a sense we, the art critic, are that male, being given the pleasure of gazing on her body. While it isn’t sensual as some of the other paintings, it is one that brings us very, very close to the line.

The Vulnerable Body

This was the final gallery, and I have to admit that I didn’t actually take any photos here (namely because all of the works were ‘no photograph’ works). However, as was indicated at the beginning, the difference between the nude and the naked is the aspect of vulnerability. The nude is a thing of beauty, something to be admired, where as the naked is something that is akin to vulnerability and weakness. In the historical period the nude was painted as something of the idea, but as we move closer to the contemporary period, and as boundaries have begun to be pushed, the ideal has fallen to the wayside to be taken over by the real, and in some senses the surreal.
The vulnerable body is now something that is being explored – not humanity in their unobtainable perfection, but humanity in reality. As society pushes us more and more to seek the unobtainable ideal, and how our young are being pummeled with images of perfection that nobody can possibly obtain, we in part need to put on the breaks and actually look at where we are heading. In a sense we need to pull our heads out of the clouds, realising where the reality and the normal is and whether we are seeking the ideal or the unobtainable. In the past the artist looked and sought the ideal, however in the present the ideal is becoming much more unobtainable, and the artist is beginning to throw that away to instead focus on that which is real.

Drawing the Line

Which brings us to the question of where is the line between art and pornography. Well, sometimes that line can be very, very hard to distinguish. In a sense pornography has been around for as long as people have been able to take photographs, and the sex industry has been around for much, much longer. Some have suggested that pornography is designed to excite, and to provoke a sexual response, yet there is art that is designed to do exactly the same thing, and they hang on the walls of public galleries. Does pornography exploit people? Well, some say yes, and others suggest that people go down that road through their own desires. In fact you will find people in the sex industry that are very comfortable with their job and believe that they provide a benefit to society.

Some would suggest that it is an ideal, but a lot of art seems to seek that ideal. In fact once could consider that there are forms of art that are seeking to recreate the concept of Plato’s ideal. Sure, with photoshop and such, images are touched up in a way that there is no way that a normal human could compete, yet the artists of the pre-photographic era did exactly the same thing. Then there are works or art that are designed to mimic pornography, but is not pornography but art. Personally, I don’t think I can give a precise definition, since art can exploit, and art can be little more than crass consumerism, and art can even titillate and excite.
Is porn art? I won’t go as far as saying yes, but I won’t necessarily suggest a no either. There is the obscene, and there is the erotic. However, in the end I guess it comes down to what it is used for and how it is viewed. Some people can view a work of art as little more than pornography, whereas others can view pornography as an erotic form of art. In guess it all comes down to the fact that a girl in Thailand could see the penis of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Universal Man and thought it was funny.

Creative Commons License
The Nude – Is It Art pt 2 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

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