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Representation of the unclothed human form has been central to art almost since art began, on every continent where a culture arose. The Woman of Willendorf, a 4.25 inch plump nude figurine unearthed in Austria in 1908, is believed to have been carved over 27,000 years ago. (In the past she was The Venus of Willendorf, and presumed to be a fertility goddess. The assumption that every unexplained ancient artifact has a ritual function a modern affectation. Given her size and a shape that is sure to comfort a recently weaned toddler, she may be simply a child’s toy, a sort of Neolithic Barbie.)
In Europe prior to the Greeks, carved female figures far outnumbered males. Classical Greek and Roman sculptors, though, depicted male gods and great warriors as often as goddesses and paragons of the feminine form. The renaissance painting and sculpture of Michelangelo is testimony to the fascination and reverence held by a masterful artist for the human form, especially the masculine. The nude continues to hold a prominent place in modern art, and the male figure is making a comeback, as well.
The nude in pictures or sculpture produces an interesting tension between the esthetic and the erotic. Alexandros’ Aphrodite of Milos (or Venus de Milo, the Greek sculpture famous for having no arms) and Michelangelo’s David were clearly driven by homage to the beauty of the human body; their erotic content an inevitable (and not undesirable) accompaniment, but not the main purpose, of these works.
Among the art unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were pleasure resorts for ancient Romans, were numerous sculptures and mosaics with sexual themes, not unlike the images we use today to promote beach or gambling resorts–photos of buxom bikini babes and bronzed young men with six-pack abs. The Roman images often went beyond our own in terms of their sexuality, graphically depicting copulation—opposite sex, same sex, even with animals–perhaps overstating the pleasures to be had at these resorts. In these works, the erotic content is front and center. Though some of them are skillfully rendered and remarkably beautiful, they are erotic works that by today’s standards would be called pornography. These labels are not absolute, but rather ends of a spectrum. Most pictures with nude figures in them have both esthetic and erotic content in addition to any narrative content they may carry.
In photography, the spectrum is represented by three overlapping genres. Fine art figure photography concerns itself mostly with the interaction the contours of the body with light. Backgrounds and props are held to a minimum, lighting is often high contrast, the medium black and white. The face is not usually included with the figure, because faces inevitably result in an affective quality that distracts from the focus on light and shape. Narrative content is minimal since the image is about the beauty of the form, not the person in the picture. These pictures tend to accentuate the esthetic and restrain the erotic.
Glamour photography is different from fine art photography. It often has a commercial objective. The setting and props are important, interacting with the figure itself to produce the glamour while the figure adds “stopping power” to the image. The face is usually in the image because it adds affect that enhances the glamour. Glamour shots are often taken to promote celebrities, or taken of celebrities to promote a product. Figure, setting and narrative are all important in a glamour shoot, and sensuality is part of the point.
Pornography is all about sexual stimulation and the politics of interpersonal power–domination and submission. Esthetic and narrative values (beyond the raw depiction of sex acts) take a back seat (sometimes literally) to that.
During post-renaissance period in Europe the nude survived in a mostly mythic, exotic, or symbolic guise, such as the sensual odalisques of Ingres and David’s bare-breasted Liberty Leading the People. The female form once again predominated over the male. By sticking to exotic motifs artists were attempting to depict sensuality without demeaning modern womanhood. Neither Artemis nor Salome was any living man’s wife or daughter, nor did they live themselves; their bodies could be appreciated without immodesty or salaciousness, nor promoting a loved one’s jealousies.
The Victorians were so very protective of their women that when John Singer Sargent exhibited at the Salon the portrait of a real French society matron whose gown strap had slipped off her shoulder, Paris was shocked. Sargent was forced to flee to London in a storm of scandal, though in the tiny wardrobe malfunction he had illustrated, no naughty bits were actually exposed to view. Sargent “corrected” his painting, but xrays show the original scandalous position of the strap.
The era of realistic depictions of the fantastic or exotic nude reached its peak in the nineteenth century with such academic Salon painters as John William Waterhouse and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. As their techniques approached a classical perfection, however, much of the passion seemed to go out of their works. “I am convinced” wrote critic Frank Jewett Mather, “that the nude of Bouguereau was prearranged to meet the ideals of a New York stockbroker of the black walnut generation.” A.C.R.Carter complained that Waterhouse’s masterpiece Hylas and the Nymphs showed “none of the gladness which the classic legend’s undercurrent of blissful immortality contains.”
At this time a new spirit was rumbling through the art world, questioning the assumptions of Academic art and introducing new attitudes and techniques that would reshape art forever. The trend was away from the classical and towards the mundane. The nude was to play a central role in this revolution.
In 1863 Édouard Manet presented to the Paris Salon a large canvas called Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass, or The Picnic), which depicted two young dandies dressed to the nines in the styles of the day, having a picnic accompanied by two young women. One woman sits with the men on a cloth spread on the ground; she is inexplicably nude, and looks out boldly at the observer, defying reproach. The other woman, draped in a loose-fitting undergarment, is wading in shallow water behind them. The men are engaged in conversation between themselves, as oddly unaware of the beautiful nude women among them as the women are oblivious of them. The Salon rejected the painting as indecent, since it was a modern scene presented in a realistic style rather than classical myth or oriental exotica.
The same Salon exhibited Bouguereau’s La Naissance de Venus, which depicts young women (nymphs), children (cherubim), and men (satyrs or mermen), all in the throes of mythic ecstasy. Manet exhibited his work in the Salon de Refusés, where it found both acclaim and ridicule.
Manet’s next big painting, Olympia, is of a reclining nude reminiscent the odalisques of past masters from Titian to Ingres, but this nude is surrounded not by some exotic harem scene, but by the trappings of a Paris prostitute. “Look at me,” her fixed gaze tells the viewer, scolding us a little. “My beauty, my art, lies in my form itself, not in the narrative surrounding me. I am not ashamed of that beauty. Don’t you be!” Manet was freeing the nude from the tyranny of the exotic, and giving his models ownership of their own good looks.
Another bad boy on the Paris art scene then was Gustave Courbet; he was badder even than Manet, by far. Courbet was a realist, and for him realism demanded not only painting in a realistic style, but painting realistic subjects as well, eschewing myth and exotic locales. In this he was the forerunner of much of what was soon to come, from the domestic bliss of Mary Cassatt to the stark urban reality of the Ashcan School. In his hometown of Ornans Courbet painted stoneworkers, funeral-goers, and women out for a stroll. In Paris he painted Bohemian café patrons, other artists he met, and simply people on the street. In Normandy, where he met Monet and Whistler, he painted landscapes and seascapes.
And he painted women, clothed and nude. His women were not of the sculpted-figure, smooth-skinned perfection of the Academic paintings. His insistence on realism led to women depicted as they are, sometimes a little overweight, sometimes with blemished skin, always real with their sensuality intact. In the early 1860’s Courbet did a series of increasingly erotic paintings of women, culminating in Le Sommei (Sleep), depicting two sleeping women, their bodies entwined as lovers’ might be, in an erotic embrace, and l’Origin du Monde (Origin of the World), a gynecologist’s-eye view of a vulva which is nearly as shocking today as it was one hundred and fifty years ago. In the hands of revolutionary spirits like Manet and Corbet, the nude became a weapon that helped force European art down from Mount Olympus and into the street and boudoir, where it has flourished.
In the century and a half since then, the nude has grown more abstract. Matisse’s primitive ring of energetic dancers and Picasso’s tortuous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are examples of this trend. Paul Gaugin’s alfresco nudes were a natural consequence of his focusing his art on the simple life of the Tahitian people. In Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase #2 the figure is reduced to the differential calculus of her movement, uncovering a whole new kind of sensuality and beauty in the nude. Some of the brilliant floral works of Georgia O’Keeffe contain echoes of l’Origine du Monde.
Thanks to artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Willem de Kooning, and others, the nude has not surrendered its revolutionary position in modern art.