[NSFW] A Brief History of Nudes

The naked truth about history's most beautiful – and scandalous – artworks  

A recent spate of TV shows featuring naked people dating and surviving in the wilderness seems to indicate society’s fascination with the undressed body. Yet wanting to look closely at the human form is nothing new. Just wander through any art museum and you’ll see room after room of painted and sculpted nudes. Nude figures, as old as art itself, appear in the art of most cultures, but are particularly present in the history of Western art. So what’s so interesting about naked people? Let’s take a trip through history to find out...

1. Naked Greek athletes

The nude first became a significant feature in Western Art with the Greeks, whose interest in the naked male form was an extension of daily life. In Ancient Greece, men competed in the nude for athletic events and also disrobed for parties called symposia, where they would eat, drink, and socialize in the buff. It is no surprise, then, that art imitated life and that Ancient Greek sculptors associated the naked male form with values such as triumph, glory, and moral excellence. This Kouros, or statue of a nude boy, embodied Greek ideas of moral and physical beauty, nobility, and youth.

Kouros, Unknown, 530 BCE or modern forgery (Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museume)

2. Female fertility

If the nude male sculpture was associated with athletic talent and high moral values, the female nude had a different genesis: she embodied fertility and procreation. Naked female fertility deities have been found in very early prehistoric art and, in historic times, were a recurring feature of Near Eastern and Egyptian art. This naked Mesopotamian goddess is thought to represent either Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or Ereshkigal, Ishtar’s sister and rival who ruled the Underworld.

The Queen of the Night, 1899/1700 BCE, made in Babylonia (Collection: British Museum)

3. Scandalous Aphrodite

Although the Greeks had no problem showing their male Gods and figures without clothes, the same did not apply to women. Even Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, was always sculpted wearing loosely-draped robes. But in the mid-fourth century BCE, a sculptor named Praxiteles gave form to a naked Aphrodite. His Aphrodite, undressing for her bath and completely naked, her right hand modestly covering her pubic area, was the first life-size representation of a nude female form.

Originally commissioned as a cult statue for a temple in Kos, Praxiteles made two versions: one clothed and one nude. The temple bought the clothed version, but private citizens of the town of Knidos bought the nude version and put it on public display in an open air temple. The naked Aphrodite soon became a sensation: people came to visit it from all over Greece, numerous copies were made, and the statue was written about throughout the Mediterranean. Praxiteles’ statue has not survived. But because it was one of the most copied statues in the world, Roman replicas and descriptions that survive today give us a pretty good example of what the original looked like. This Roman Venus is a smaller scale copy of Praxiteles’ original.

Statuette of Venus (Venus de Clerq), 175-200 CE (Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum)

4. Naked and Afraid in the Middle Ages

With the arrival of Christianity, nakedness all but disappeared from Western art, except for depictions of Adam and Eve, whose nakedness revealed their sin, and Jesus, whose naked body revealed his wounds. Being naked was no longer associated with male athleticism and female fertility, but rather with weakness and defenselessness. Bare-breasted, nursing Madonnas and naked baby Jesus’ were an exception to this rule, their bodies exposed for theological reasons.

The Gothic nude was very different from the Greek and Roman classical ideal: Gothic bodies were long and slender, rather than shapely and athletic, and Gothic painters emphasized women’s rounded stomachs rather than their hips.

Hugo van der Goes, The Fall of Man and the Lamentation, 1470/1475 (Collection: Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien) 

5. Erotic Art

Nudity was also an obvious feature of erotic art, which existed long before Playboy and Playgirl made naked bodies mainstream. Every civilization, ancient and modern, has its form of erotic art. In some countries, representations of sex are entwined with spiritual beliefs, in others, they portray cultural practices. Before photography, erotic art circulated via private paintings, small sculptures, and on decorative objects. The idea that erotic images were “pornography” was a Victorian invention; until the mid-nineteenth century, looking at erotic representations was legal and probably more commonplace that one would think.

Sculptural ceramic ceremonial vessel that represents a scene of sexual union of a man and a woman, Salinar Style (Peru), 1250 BC - 1 AD (Collection: Museo Larco

6. Males with Breasts?

Renaissance sculptors such as Donatello and Michelangelo helped bring male and female nudes back into classical art. Donatello’s naked David (1408-1409) was the first free-standing statue of a nude since antiquity. A few decades later, Michelangelo made a larger-than-life version. Even though Renaissance sculptors may have had access to female models, they preferred to use male models. By consequence, Michelangelo’s women often appear to have male bodies with the addition of breasts. Although some historians argue that this was because of Michelangelo’s preference for the male form (it’s commonly thought that he was homosexual), others say that the normative human body in the Renaissance was male. The most beautiful female bodies would be those that were the most androgynous.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Archers Firing at a herm, c.1530 (Collection: Royal Trust Collection, UK)

7. Shock value

Nudity was a popular feature of mythological and allegorical genre painting in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Western art. But the French Impressionists pushed against the conventional notion of allegorical nudes by painting and exhibiting bold, and sometimes surreal, nudes. Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe was an example of how the Impressionists refused to conform to convention.

The woman has no explicit reason to be naked--she is not a mythological figure but a normal lunch companion--and her partners are both clothed. The nudity wasn’t even the almost shocking part of this painting though. Manet’s painting style and his refusal to make subtle gradations between the light and dark part of the painting, as well as his deliberately shallow depth and perspective, were also considered avant-garde.

Edouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863 (Collection: Musee d’Orsay, Paris)

8. Nudity and Japanese modernism

The nude body was mainly absent from Japanese art for centuries. Although male and female nakedness was a routine part of life, specifically within bathhouse culture, Japanese artists didn’t develop an interest in representing the naked body until the nineteenth century, when their work became influenced by Western art. Laws in Japan allowed painters to depict nudes if they were allegorical, although painters often bypassed this rule.

Tetsugoro Yorozu’s Nude Beauty (1912) is important because it showed Japanese audiences a non-idealized, ‘Japanese’ body rather than that of the idealized Western woman typically featured in nineteenth-century Japanese art. The woman wears a red koshimaki, or traditional Japanese female underwear, and is shown reclining against a Japanese landscape. Yorozu’s refusal to ‘justify’ the nudity of his woman by putting her in Western surroundings was radical for its time.

Tetsugoro Yorozu, Nude Beauty, 1912 (Collection: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo) 

9 . The Female Gaze

Since most artists documented in art history are male, the female nude has often been associated with the “male gaze” - the idea that women (both within and outside of art) are meant to be passively ‘looked at’, while men are in the active position of viewer. The rise of female artists in modern and contemporary art allowed women to explore this issue in their own work. Contemporary women artists such as Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Nan Goldin, and Vanessa Beecroft are known for using their own nude bodies or bodies of other women to make statements against sexism within art history as well as society at large.

For this 1999 performance for the Kaldor Public Art Project, the 40th in Beecroft’s series of works, 20 models stood in formation for periods of two and a half hours. Dressed in red Wolford tights and Prada heels, the models were given a sheet of papers with 54 rules such as “hold position; look plain, boyish, quiet.” As Beecroft explained in the exhibition statement, “The practice is to stand, not talking, and to wait until it ends, being watched as a picture and photographed as though on a photo shoot.” Beecroft turns the ‘male gaze’ on its head, and interrogates femininity and desire within modern consumer culture.

Vanessa Beecroft, Kaldor Public Art Project 12: Vanessa Beecroft 1999 (Collection: Kaldor Public Art Project)

From Egyptian deities, to classical Greek ideals, through Peruvian erotic art, and up to Kim Kardashian’s naked selfies, the history of nudity in art has a long and interesting trajectory. The biggest change of the past one hundred years has been the inclusion of female artists in the mix. Yet, the basic reason for wanting to depict unclothed figures has remained constant over time: the human body is a wonderful sight to behold, both clothed and unclothed.

By Maude Bass-Krueger
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