An Overview of Nudity in Art History
Having moved to Australia for 2 years now, and being away from the safety of the University Art building walls, I have come to realise that nudity is still such a taboo subject in today’s world. As an art student, you are never too far away from “the nude”, either it’s in your art history classes, or your life drawing classes or even in the professors’ examples and remarks. The nude figure has been well marinated in the art world that it has become commonplace in every degree.
As a budding artist whose portfolio revolves around the female nude and the beauty of the human figure, it can be tough trying to have your pieces hung in family oriented spaces. I think that people shy away from nudity so much because being unclothed is still a very private action. What people are most offended about are things that ring close to home for them. If we were to take a moment and really dissect this idea, you may come to realise that people aren’t offended by what they see but rather by the insecurity they feel about looking at what they see. Everyone knows what the naked body looks like, for when we take a shower or change our clothes we see ourselves in our truest form, but that is it; we only see ourselves. Thus, the idea of voyeurism comes into play. Basically, voyeurism is the act of looking onto something that usually we are not privy to. That is, a sexual act, something naughty or something that excites us. In a way, it is similar to a pep show. However, nude figures in artwork aren’t mainly for this reason, rather it is the celebration of the body in its purest form and its most beautiful and natural way.
The idea of voyeurism is not as prominent in modern artwork as it was in the past. A lot of recent artist use the female nude to evoke strength, beauty and female sexuality as a strong and determined character. With this idea of strength and control, the term voyeurism doesn’t match, for the figures know that the viewer is looking at them and the figure is in control of what the viewer sees. Therefore, the extent of arousal and intrigued is placed on the viewer, not on the actions of the figure. This to me is a very interesting concept. In the past, females were rendered demure and delicate, and the viewer was looking in on a private act. The act of voyeurism comes across as a naughty act. Something that you feel guilty about and I think even in modern times, this idea is there regardless of what the nude figure is representing. In a way, I think that many modern artists feel the sting of this when they use the nude figure.
There is so much that can be said about the use of the nude in art, and maybe in a way, this is the beginning of a series of blog posts. However, talking about it is the first stage of acceptance and with time, the welcoming factor to such an important part art will only become more and more.
I know that it has been far too long since I blogged, but with the Christmas break and all the stress of the holidays, I have finally returned to my regular routine and blogging shall continue. As promised, this is the part 2 of the Female Nude Saga. There is much to be said about the nude and trust me when I say, books and and more books have been written in entirety about this one topic. Today’s discussion has two streams of thought; The observance of Voyeurism and the well know fact of Social Conditioning.
Voyeurism can be defined as the “sexual interest or practice of spying on people engaged in intimate behaviours, such as undressing, sexual activity and actions usually considered to be of a private nature.” The viewer is enticed by what he/she sees and feels a sense of risk and exuberance while engaging in the act. The subject of the viewer is unbeknownst to the it and there is a predatory sense instilled in this practice. This is the root effect of rendering the female nude. In past times, the female body was revered as the temple of all things sexual and weakening to the male sensibility. Stories and paintings have been done to exemplify such. Despite the archaic nature of these thoughts, the sentiment is still engrained in modern society. Public nudity is uncalled for and is still very much a taboo in today’s world.
This brings me to my next point, the idea that Social Conditioning plays a large part in why the public views nudity as inappropriate outside the confines of a private space. Despite the fact that the Western Wold prides itself on forward thinking and being open to new ideas, much of our society can be considered very conventional in their sensibilities. With that being said, Religion and Breeding plays a large part in Social Conditioning.
Abrahamic Religion has drastically changed the way sexuality is expressed in society. During the reign of Pagan Religious practices, sexuality was revered as a natural part of the human sensibility and was to be embraced as part of one’s person. Thus, many on the Pagan Gods and Goddess were rendered with great prowess and virility. Abrahamic Religion shuns the idea that sexuality is as much a part of the person as any other aspect. These religions deemed sexuality as an animalistic trait, only to be curbed and denounced in order to be closer to the divine. Therefore, expressions of sexuality in a public space still possesses a sting of impropriety because Abrahamic religious sentiments as still very much alive in modern society.
Religion is very closely lined with social breeding. Conventional upbringing deals with sexuality as an adult and very private matter, only to be expressed with a partner in wedlock and for others with a long term relation. Despite the fact that many, including myself don’t agree with these ideologies, for I think I break with them on a daily basis, most of society do believe that the more conventional social conditionings are the way it should always be. This in part I think is the reason why as artists we try to compete with the convention and stand aside from it. As an artist, our purpose is to express that which we feel, for ourselves but also for others who can’t. In a way, that is why we as a public are still questioning why the nude is such a big deal. I do hope that in reading this, understanding can be had all round. The only way to learn is to question, and with these questions clarity can be found.
This is the last instalment of The Figure Nude. In this segment I will discuss the common concept of the female nude being a Temple of Sexuality. Sexuality is a topic of great interest in Fine Art. Many artists both past and present have tackled this topic in numerous ways. Some have viewed Sexuality as an innate characteristic, something to be embraced, others have even tackled it as a subject of abjection and disgust. Some artists have gone so far as to create sculpture and painting so grotesque and unappealing with natural human fluids and remains to evoke disgust in our own skin. This type of artwork is rather intriguing and of high interest for most. The juxtaposition of abjection and sexuality, two things that on the surface seem rather far apart in concept are actually closer upon inspection. Take for instance Andres Serrano’s work. Although at first glance his work seems putrid and grotesque, most of the underlying meanings are closely linked to physical manifestations of sexuality. Semen, breast milk, urine and other bodily fluids are used in his work to depict filth, dirt and a lack of cleanliness; adjectives all used in describing sexuality, at times. Other artists include Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith.
On a more superficial note, the curvature and the smoothness of the female form is probably the most notable manifestations of human sexuality. Skin is known as the most sensual part of the body, both for is appearance, and for its sensory notions. Renaissance paintings of the virginal female are all rendered with the most delicacy and patience. Layers and layers of translucent oil paint, soft tonal colours creating skin so soft the viewer can almost feel their fingers brush gently against it. Skin in Art history can be seen as the most precious and rendered aspects of any subject. This delicacy and use of soft lines illustrated the artist appreciation and infatuation of the female nude. Artists known for painting the nude always speak highly of their subjects, as if they were real. Despite the fact that they were rendered from real sources, the painted subject has a life of their own and this can be seen very much in the end product.
Modern Day Artists still hold the same sort of sentiment when depicting the human figure. Regardless of the genre in which they rendered there is still a sense of methodology and reverence for the figure. The female figure can be seen as one of the most difficult subjects for any artist, resulting in a sort of searching and wanting attached to rendering the nude. The artist wants to know more, explore the curves and the shadows the body makes, illustrate the story of the body, the undulations and the contortions the body can emulate. I believe that the female figure is an enigma. The more we try to render the body the more we can render the body. There is a hint of searching for the artist; a yearning to capture it all in paint or pencil. This is why the subject of the female nude will never fade.
As an young artist striving to create the most beautiful composition of the female nude, I believe that there is still much to be learnt. No two bodies are the same making each rendition unique to the artist, allowing for exploration of the same methodologies through numerous avenues. This is why I will continue to paint the nude.
I hope that this trilogy has brought some insight as to the wonders of the female nude. i hope that upon reading this, you will have much more appreciation and understanding when next you view a nude painting.