The nude figure has always been the source of inspiration for the artists over the course of history. There is something mysterious and utterly beautiful in the depiction of a human body, especially a nude figure which has drawn the eye of the viewers and critics to investigate the artworks in depth many a time. The body is flawlessly flawed, and as such represents the true nature of a person immortalized in the painting, sculpture, or a photograph. The mere sight of a nude figure strips (pun intended) the viewer of inhibitions and makes him or her see past the usual constraints of clothing, revealing the raw, natural, real beauty that shines from the naked human being that vulnerably offers their body to the public eye. Over the span of centuries, the nude human figure has been painted, sculptured, photographed, etched, and illustrated, it shocked the public, it was banned, it was a taboo, it was celebrated, criticized, praised, and exhibited, and it has caused many people to feel a whole range of emotions, from anger, to happiness, from excitement to melancholy. The nude figure in art was, and continues to be, one of the most popular forms of expression, and today, in the world of contemporary art, depictions of naked people are everywhere, blurring the line between what is truly artistically valuable, and what is verging on pornography.
The origins of the nude in the art can be traced back to the prehistoric times, namely to the Willendorf Venus, a tiny statuette discovered near Willendorf, Austria, in 1908. The small sculpture depicts a rather corpulent nude figure of a woman, and the scientists agree that she must have represented a kind of fertility symbol, or, in modern terms, the ideal of beauty. Fast forward to ancient Greece where we encounter the statues of ideal proportions of a male body, so different from the prehistoric voluptuous female figure. The reason behind these perfect bodies that the ancient Greeks liked to create probably lies in the fact that they represented the ideal heroic nudes, the flawless depictions of gods, mythical heroes, and Olympic champions we all know and read about.
After Christianity rose to prominence, the portrayal of a nude figure in the Western world has plummeted. The only semi-nudity that was not frowned upon was in the realm of religious art, as seen in examples of paintings of Adam and Eve who usually had their genitalia covered. Nudity became the signifier of shame and sin, but when the classical antiquity started in the 13th century in Italy, nude figure became a frequent subject of artworks. Artists like Giotto and Pisano did not shy away from the unclothed human physique, and when the golden age of Renaissance came in the 16th century, the great Leonardo da Vinci began depicting the naked body in his works related to anatomy. Of course, we cannot but mentioned the famous Michelangelo’s David which to this day remains an ideal of male beauty.
These idealized depictions of the body were usually bereft of sensuality, however, the Italian artist Titian began introducing the idea of sensuality in his works in the 17th century, and was followed by the Baroque painters, especially in the works of Caravaggio. Rubens was the one who was not afraid of portraying the more realistic nude figures, still inspired by the Italian Renaissance, but much more sensual and well endowed. The 19th century brought about the Impressionists who continued to paint the naked body, with Renoir and Degas who offered their own views on the glorious nude. Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, depicting four prostitutes in provocative poses, invited the Cubists to present their own portrayals of the unclad body.
Which brings us to contemporary art. With all the history we have behind us, and with the Freudian psychology in our pockets, with all the smut and low-quality attempts of recreating these artistically valuable works, and with the pornography-driven mindset of the modern man, the nude figure has received a complete revival and reconstruction. Sexual urges seem to drive the modern world, and sex sells, as the advertising experts like to say. The depictions of nudity today seem to walk a thin line between art and pornography, often leaving the viewers perplexed when faced with the “in your face” nakedness. Today, we are seeing not only the outsides but the insides of the vagina as well, extremely provocative poses that the ladies of times past could never be caught in. We are faced with the new-age third-wave feminist art which blatantly offers the vagina as a work of art on its own, often using it as a tool in the process of creation, and using the menstrual blood as a statement and paint, exposing the insides of the body rather than focusing on the outside.
Worry not, things are not so dark and eggs falling out of vaginas are not the only examples of nude art in the contemporary world. Lucian Freud was the brave soul who ventured on to a journey of depicting a nude figure in 1970 when that type of art was not as popular as it is today. His nudes are realistic, without a sign of idealization, which can be seen in his 1995 painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, portraying an obese model sleeping on a couch. Jenny Saville is another painter known for her large-scale nude pieces done with thick brushstrokes and in extreme perspectives. John Currin, a New York-based contemporary artist has come to prominence with his provocative and sexualized nude figures, mixing the classical portraiture with a modern vision of a female body. Tracey Emin’s drawings and paintings are dreamlike and abstract pieces with a strong message. But one of the foremost painters who operated in the realm of nude figure depiction was definitely Francis Bacon, a British artist known for his often grotesque, raw imagery. The disfigured bodies that occupy his canvases are disturbing at times, but not lacking in great artistic value.
The installation and performance art brought a new approach to the depictions of a nude figure. Performance art is probably the most popular form of expressing and showing nudity, as seen in Cut Piece by Yoko Ono, where the members of the audience were invited to the stage to cut her clothes until she was left naked. Marina Abramovic is also famous for her version of nude art. Her iconic 1977 performance Imponderabilia showed two performers completely naked standing in a doorway, and the visitors had to squeeze between them if they wanted to pass, and simultaneously make a choice which one of them they were to face.
Drawing, especially in the fine art programs has promoted the presentation of nude figure even further. Academies of fine art in Italy even have a special program called scuola libera del nudo, which, translated into English means “free school of the nude” where students sit in a circle drawing a model in the center. In this program, backgrounds are irrelevant, and all the accent is on the model’s unclothed body. The academy figure has been around for ages and it has been and still is a common practice in art schools and academies, making the idea of painting the bare body appealing to students and their viewers later on.
Nowadays, when photography is at the peak of popularity, it is no wonder that the nude figure is shot and exhibited around the world. Even though the nude has been a significant part of photography since its inception, today, it is more popular than ever. Fine art nude photography is here, and it’s here to stay. However, since capturing the perfect shot is never easy, the risk of art slipping into the realm of pornography and glamor shots is high. While eroticism is not frowned upon in the world of fine art photography, one must be extremely careful not to cross that fine line that distinguishes art from smut. Erotic interest is only a secondary element in fine art, but in glamor photography, which focuses on getting the shot of the model looking as attractive as possible, and in pornography, which has the purpose of sexual arousal of the consumer, eroticism is the primary goal. One of the most distinguishable differences can be found in the gaze of the subject: in glamor and pornographic shots the model usually looks directly into the camera while in fine art photography they tend to look away. Some of the greatest fashion photographers have produced a number of nude figure photographs, including Helmut Newton, Annie Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn, who was actually one of the first ones to tackle this theme, often shooting fashion models like Kate Moss in the nude. We have recently done an interview with an amazing photographer Nikola Tamindzic who chooses to photograph nude models on the streets of New York, proving that nudes are going stronger than ever.
Body image has become one of the main issues when it comes to the portrayal of the uncovered human physique. While the society has no problem with the earlier idealized bodies that old masters and ancient artists had immortalized, today, more and more people are feeling “left out” due to the contemporary understanding of what the perfect body is. The old paintings often depicted voluptuous women, unburdened by the fact that their belly rolls or thick thighs are to be judged by others for the rest of eternity, nowadays, in the modern politically-correct world, we are seeing more and more criticism towards the artists who chose to paint, sculpture, or photograph women who are tall and thin. The debate surrounding the touchy subject of body hair is an ongoing one, as today it is considered more attractive to have perfectly smooth skin while at the time of L’Origine du monde, it was perfectly acceptable to flaunt the natural looking genitalia. As for the male population, the depictions of naked men are not as common as those of women in the world of today, and such works are not exhibited as often, and there is still an ongoing taboo surrounding the nude male figure.
No one can safely say what the future of nude figure portrayal will look like. In the light of computer art, we are seeing more and more digitally produced artworks that depict the most natural thing in the world – the bare human body. We are presented with works made not from oil or marble, but from color swatches or tiny clothes put on penises. What is next? Will photography continue its reign or will the painters and sculptors choose to become more active in this field of art? What we would like to see is more equality when it comes to male nudes, as their bodies have been unfairly disregarded in the 21st century. The author would love to see what the future holds for the infamous feminist art and their continuous obsession with vaginas and things that come out of vaginas. What is certain is, the nudes aren’t going anywhere, and even though nowadays they are worlds apart from their ancestors from the Renaissance period, they are still aesthetically pleasing and offer a raw, natural view of the artist’s understanding of beauty. The human body will definitely continue to be a source of inspiration, and it is upon us to filter the pornographic material from the true works of art so that the stigma that surrounds the portrayals of nude figure stops being a stigma, and becomes something everyone who loves the fine arts can enjoy without the, unfortunately, still common side commentary of people that connect the art with the smut.
All images are for illustrative purposes only.
Featured image: Irving Penn - Nude, No 40, 1949–50 via christies.com