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The nude figure is mainly a tradition in Western art, and has been used to express ideals of male and female beauty and other human qualities. It was a central preoccupation of Ancient Greek art, and after a semi-dormant period in the Middle Ages returned to a central position in Western art with the Renaissance. Athletes, dancers, and warriors are depicted to express human energy and life, and nudes in various poses may express basic or complex emotions such as pathos. The nude is a work of fine art that has as its primary subject the unclothed human body, forming a subject genre of art, in the same way as landscapes and still life. Unclothed figures may also play a part in other types of art, such as history painting, allegorical, or religious art.
While there is no single definition of fine art, there are certain generally accepted features of most definitions. In the fine arts, the subject is not merely copied from nature, but transformed by the artist into an aesthetic object, usually without significant utilitarian, commercial (advertising, illustration), or purely decorative purposes. There is also a judgement of taste; the fine art nude being part of high culture rather than middle brow or low culture. However, judgements of taste in art are not entirely subjective, but include criteria of skill and craftsmanship in the creation of objects, communication of complex and non-trivial messages, and creativity. Some works accepted as high culture of the past, including much Academic art, are now seen as imitative or sentimental otherwise known as kitsch.
Modern artists have continued to explore classical themes, but also more abstract representations, and movement away from idealization to depict people more individually. During most of the twentieth century, the depiction of human beauty was of little interest to modernists, who were concerned instead with the creation of beauty through formal means. In the contemporary, or Post-modern era, the nude may be seen as passé by many, however there are always artists that continue to find inspiration in the human form.
The most often cited book on the nude in art history is The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form by Lord Kenneth Clark, first published in 1956. The introductory chapter makes the most often-quoted distinction between the naked body and the nude. Clark states that to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame, while a nude, as a work of art, has no such connotations. This separation of the artistic form from the social and cultural issues remains largely unexamined by classical art historians.
One of the defining characteristics of the modern era in art is the blurring of the line between the naked and the nude. This likely first occurred with the painting The Nude Maya (1797) by Goya, which drew the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. The shocking elements were that it showed a particular model in a contemporary setting, with pubic hair rather than the smooth perfection of goddesses and nymphs, and who returned the gaze of the viewer rather than looking away. The same characteristics were shocking almost seventy years later when Manet exhibited his Olympia.
Contemporary artists are no longer interested in the ideals and traditions of the past, but confront the viewer with all the sexuality, discomfort and anxiety that the unclothed body may express, perhaps eliminating the distinction between the naked and the nude. Performance art takes the final step by presenting actual naked bodies as a work art.
Even Kenneth Clark admitted that sexuality was part of the attraction to the nude as a subject of art, stating "no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals." He even admitted that the explicit temple sculptures of tenth-century India "are great works of art because their eroticism is part of their whole philosophy." Great art can contain significant sexual content without being obscene. However sexually explicit works of fine art produced in Europe before the modern era, such as Gustav Courbet's L'Origine du monde, were not intended for public display. The judgement of whether a particular work is artistic or pornographic is ultimately subjective and has changed through history and from one culture to another. Some individuals judge any public display of the unclothed body to be unacceptable, while others may find artistic merit in explicitly sexual images. The issue is rarely addressed in public reviews of art.
While the nude, and in particular the female body has always been one of the more obvious subjects of work in museums, in the United States nudity in art is also a controversial subject when public funding and display in certain venues brings the work to the attention of the general public. Puritan history continue to impact the selection of artwork shown in museums and galleries. At the same time that any nude may be suspect in the view of many patrons and the public, art critics may reject work that is not either ironic or fetishistic, and therefore cutting edge. “Artists who refuse to assault the body with stylishly perverse psychological or physical deformations are usually dismissed as being hopelessly out of tune with today’s art world.” Works that celebrate the human body are likely to be seen as too erotic by one group, and kitsch by the other. According to Bram Dijkstra, attractive nudes by American artists have been relegated to storage by museums, with only rare special exhibits or publications in recent decades. Relatively tame nudes tend to be shown in museums, while works with shock value such as those by Jeff Koons are shown in cutting-edge galleries. Simple beauty and pleasure have been devalued by the art world, however, such works from the past do exist and continue to be created.
When school (K-12) groups visit museums, there are inevitable questions that teachers or tour leaders must be prepared to answer. The basic advice is to give matter-of-fact answers emphasizing the differences between art and other images, the universality of the human body, and the values and emotions expressed in the works. However, the problems that might arise lead many teachers to avoid the subject.
In classical works, children were rarely shown except for babies and Putto. Before the modern era of Freudian psychoanalysis, children were assumed to have no sexual feelings before puberty, so naked children were shown as symbols of pure innocence. Boys often swam nude, and were shown doing so in paintings by John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, and others. Other images were more erotic, either symbolically or explicitly.
“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.
— Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
One of the most famous nudes is Michelangelo’s David, but it is one of the most problematical in that the ideal beauty of a male body cannot be contemplated with aesthetic detachment assumed when viewing the female nude. Until the 20th century, the homosexuality of Michelangelo was not acknowledged. Academic art history tends to ignore the sexuality of the male nude, speaking instead of form and composition.
For much of history, nude men represented martyrs and warriors, emphasizing an active role rather than the passive one assigned to women in art. Alice Neel and Lucien Freud painted the modern male nude in the classic reclining pose, with the genitals prominently displayed. Sylvia Sleigh painted versions of classic works with the genders reversed.
The Greek goddesses were initially sculpted with drapery rather than nude. The first nude female was the Aphrodite of Cnidus created in the 4th Century BCE.
The tradition of painting Venus as a reclining, passive figure was satirized by Honoré Daumier in an 1864 lithograph.
For the Lynda Nead, the female nude is a matter of containing sexuality; in the case of the classical art history view represented by Kenneth Clark, this is about idealization and de-emphasis of overt sexuality, while the modern view recognizes that the human body is messy, unbounded, and problematical. If a virtuous woman is dependent and weak, as was assumed by the images in classical art, then a strong, independent woman could not be portrayed as virtuous.
Until the 1960s, art history and criticism rarely reflected anything other than the male point of view. The feminist art movement began to change this, but one of the first widely-known statements of the political messages in nudity was made in 1972 by the art critic John Berger. In Ways of Seeing, he argued that female nudes reflected and reinforced the prevailing power relationship between females portrayed in art and the predominantly male audience. A year later Laura Mulvey wrote "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" stating the concept of the male gaze, which asserts that all nudes are inherently voyeuristic.
The nude has also been used to make a powerful social or political statement. An example is The Barricade by George Bellows, which depicts Belgian citizens being used as human shields by Germans in World War I. Although based upon a report of a real incident in which the victims were not nude, portraying them so in the painting emphasizes their vulnerability and universal humanity.
Naked female figures called Venus figurines are found in very early prehistoric art, and in historical times, similar images represent fertility deities. Representations of gods and goddesses in Babylonian and Ancient Egyptian art are the precursors of the works of Western antiquity. Other significant non-Western traditions of depicting nudes come from India, and Japan, but the nude does not form an important aspect of Chinese art. Temple sculptures and cave paintings, some very explicit, are part of the Hindu tradition of the value of sexuality, and as in many warm climates partial or complete nudity was common in everyday life. Japan had a tradition of mixed communal bathing that existed until recently, and was often portrayed in woodcut prints.
In Ancient Greece, where the mild climate was conducive to being lightly clothed or nude whenever convenient, and male athletes competed at religious festivals entirely nude, and celebrated the human body, it was perfectly natural for the Greeks to associate the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence. The Greek goddess Aphrodite was a deity whom the Greeks preferred to see clothed. In the mid-fourth century BC, the sculptor Praxiteles made a naked Aphrodite, called the Knidian, which established a new tradition for the female nude, having idealized proportions based on mathematical ratios as were the nude male statues. The nudes of Greco-Roman art are conceptually perfected ideal persons, each one a vision of health, youth, geometric clarity, and organic equilibrium. Kenneth Clark considered idealization the hallmark of true nudes, as opposed to more descriptive and less artful figures that he considered merely naked. His emphasis on idealization points up an essential issue: seductive and appealing as nudes in art may be, they are meant to stir the mind as well as the passions.
Christianity required no images of naked divinities, and new attitudes cast doubt on the value of the human body. The early Christian emphasis on chastity and celibacy further discounted depictions of nakedness. Unclothed figures are rare in medieval art, the notable exceptions being Adam and Eve, but the ideal forms of Greco-Roman nudes are transformed into symbols of shame and sin; weakness and defenselessness. This was true not only in Western Europe, but also in Byzantine art.
The rediscovery of classical culture in the Renaissance restored the nude to art; male athletes being the model for depictions of David and other warriors. And nudes in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel reestablished a tradition of male nudes in depictions of Biblical stories. The classical female nude returned as a new image of Venus as a recumbent figure, lying naked in a landscape or domestic interior. Although they reflect the proportions of ancient statuary, such figures as Titian's Venus and the Lute Player and Venus of Urbino highlight the sexuality of the female body rather than its ideal geometry. In addition to adult male and female figures, the classical depiction of Eros became the model for the naked Christ child.
In Baroque art, the continuing fascination with classical antiquity influenced artists to renew their approach to the nude, but with more naturalistic, less idealized depictions, perhaps more frequently working from live models. Both genders are represented; the male in the form of heroes such as Hercules and Samson, and female in the form of Venus and the Three Graces. Peter Paul Rubens, who with evident delight painted women of generous figure and radiant flesh, gave his name to the adjective rubenesque.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, classical subjects remained popular, along with nudes in historical paintings. In the later nineteenth century, academic painters continued with classical themes, but were challenged by the Impressionists. Eduard Manet shocked the public of his time by painting nude women in contemporary situations in his Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863) and Olympia (1865), and Gustave Courbet earned criticism for portraying in his Woman with a Parrot a naked prostitute without vestige of goddess or nymph. Edgar Degas painted many nudes of women in ordinary circumstances, such as taking a bath. Auguste Rodin challenged classical canons of idealization in his expressively distorted Adam. With the invention of photography, artists began using the new medium as a source for paintings, Eugene Delacroix being one of the first.
Although both the Academic tradition and Impressionists lost their cultural supremacy at the beginning of the twentieth century, the nude remained although transformed by the ideas of modernism. The idealized Venus was replaced by the woman intimately depicted in private settings, as in the work of Egon Schiele. The simplified modern forms of Amedeo Modigliani, Gaston Lachaise and Aristide Maillol recall the original goddesses of fertility more than Greek goddesses. In early abstract paintings, the body could be fragmented or dismembered, as in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, but there are also abstracted versions of classical themes, such as Henri Matisse's dancers and bathers.
In the post-WWII era, Abstract Expressionism moved the center of Western art from Paris to New York City. One of the primary influences in the rise of abstraction, the critic Clement Greenberg, had supported deKooning's early abstract work. Despite Greenberg's advice, the artist, who had begun as a figurative painter, returned to the human form in early 1950 with his Woman series. Although having some references to the traditions of single female figures, the women were portrayed as voracious, distorted, and semi-abstract. According to the artist, he wanted to "create the angry humor of tragedy"; having the frantic look of the atomic age, a world in turmoil, a world in need of comic relief. Later, he said "Maybe ... I was painting the woman in me. Art isn't a wholly masculine occupation, you know. I'm aware that some critics would take this to be an admission of latent homosexuality ... If I painted beautiful women, would that make me a non-homosexual? I like beautiful women. In the flesh—even the models in magazines. Women irritate me sometimes. I painted that irritation in the Woman series. That's all." Such ideas could not be expressed by pure abstraction alone. Some critics, however, see the Woman series as misogynistic.
Other New York artists of this period retained the figure as their primary subject. Alice Neel painted nudes, including her own self-portrait, in the same straightforward style as clothed sitters, being primarily concerned with color and emotional content. Philip Pearlstein uses unique cropping and perspective to explore the abstract qualities of nudes. As a young artist in the 1950s, Pearlstein exhibited both abstracts and figures, but it was deKooning that advised him to continue with figurative work.
Lucien Freud was one of a small group of painters which included Francis Bacon who came to be known "The School of London"; creating figurative work in the 1970s when it was unfashionable. However, by the end of his life his works had become icons of the Post Modern era, depicting the human body but without a trace of idealization, as in his series working with an obese model. One of Freud's works is entitled "Naked Portrait", which implies a realistic image of a particular unclothed woman rather than a conventional nude. In Freud's obituary in the New York Times, it is stated: His "stark and revealing paintings of friends and intimates, splayed nude in his studio, recast the art of portraiture and offered a new approach to figurative art".
The paintings of Jenny Saville include family and self-portraits among other nudes; often done in extreme perspectives, attempting to balance realism with abstraction; all while expressing how a woman feels about the female nude.
The end of the twentieth century saw the rise of new media and approaches to art, although they began much earlier. In particular installation art often includes images of the human body, and performance art frequently includes nudity. "Cut Piece" by Yoko Ono was first performed in 1964 (then known as a "happening"). Audience members were requested to come on stage and begin cutting away her clothing until she was naked. Several contemporary performance artists such as Marina Abramović, Vanessa Beecroft and Carolee Schneemann use their own nude bodies or other performers in their work.
|The Nude in Non-Western Art|
In art, a figure drawing is a study of the human form in its various shapes and body postures, with line, form, and composition as the primary objective, rather than the subject person. A life drawing is a work that has been drawn from an observation of a live model. Study of the human figure has traditionally been considered the best way to learning how to draw, beginning in the late Renaissance and continuing to the present.
Japanese prints are one of the few non-western traditions that can be called nudes, but they are quite different. The activity of communal bathing in Japan is portrayed as just another social activity, without the significance placed upon the lack of clothing that exists in the West.
Oil paint historically has been the ideal medium for depicting the nude. By blending and layering paint, the surface can become more like skin. "Its slow drying time and various degrees of viscosity enable the artist to achieve rich and subtle blends of color and texture, which can suggest transformations from one human substance to another."
Due to its durability, it is in sculpture that we see the full, nearly unbroken history of the nude from the Stone Age to the present. Figures, usually of naked females, have been found in the Balkan region dating back to 7,000 BCE  and continue to this day to be generated. In the Indian and Southeast Asian sculpture tradition nudes were frequently adorned with bracelets and jewelry that tended to "punctuate their charms and demarcate the different parts of their bodies much as developed musculature does in the male."
The nude has been a subject of photography almost since its invention in the 19th century. Early photographers often selected poses that imitated the classical nudes of the past. Photography suffers from the problem of being too real, and for many years was not accepted by those committed to the traditional fine arts. However, the work of many photographers has been established as fine artists including Ruth Bernhard, Imogen Cunningham, Anne Brigman, Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz.
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