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The Little We Know About the Nude and the Naked

What is it with the nude that induces such emotional reactions? One of the reasons might be that they often generate associations of intimacy, privacy and sexuality and, therefore, affect people deeply.

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What is it with the nude that induces such emotional reactions?

One of the reasons might be that they often generate associations of intimacy, privacy and sexuality and, therefore, affect people deeply. All visualizations of the body have this effect due to the fact that everyone has experiences with their own body and sexuality. However, the nude works also as a projection surface as it is displayed in public spaces yet evoking private associations. The connection between private and public is something complex for the interpretation of art and, especially, the nude.

Nudes, which are not always easy to distinguish from ordinary naked bodies, are, even in the most liberal contexts, often provocative and a subject of censorship.

This can be exemplified by the latest legal debate lost by Facebook when the social network, with its history of censoring nudes, removed one of its users for posting a photo of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), which depicts female genitalia. Another user who got his account blocked was a gallery owner who posted a picture of the artist Lisa Levy sitting naked on the toilet, an image that was promoting her upcoming performance piece titled The Artist is Humbly Present.

 

Lisa Levy “The Artist is Humbly Present” Courtesy of the Christopher Stout Gallery. Above: Gustave Courbet,, L’Origine du Monde, 1866, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Courtesy of the museum.

Lisa Levy “The Artist is Humbly Present”. Courtesy of the Christopher Stout Gallery.  Above: Gustave Courbet “L’origine du Monde” 1866, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Courtesy of the museum.

 

Clearly naked bodies and nudes differentiate: the former belongs to the real world and the latter belongs to the art world. Nude figures have been, and still are, one of the most classical subjects in the art of the Western world.  They have been peculiarly common throughout the history of art in various different genres and are also seen as essential objects of study in the academic study of the Visual Arts.

For a long time, nude figures were not meant to be related to any reality at all. As being part of an artistic expression, they were supposed to relate little to the conditions of everyday life and instead reflect a complex set of aesthetical ideals, philosophical theories and cultural concerns.  These complex sets developed and changed throughout time and space and varied significantly between different artistic eras.

The topic of nude figures versus naked bodies, ergo the different associations belonging to both, was not dealt with before Kenneth Clark’s book The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form was published in 1956. Clark’s text is still one of the most cited on the topic where he clearly defines that to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame. A nude on the other hand has no such connotations.

The border between the naked and the nude has shifted throughout the last century showing that it is in the beholder rather than in the work of art that this distinction is made. The beholder can shift between these two perspectives when looking at nudes.

 

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1865, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France Courtesy of the Museum.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1865, Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France. Courtesy of the Museum.

 

This shifting perspective can be exemplified with Edouard Manet’s Olympia, first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon. The painting shows a nude woman, Olympia, lying on a bed in a classic Venus position, being brought flowers by a black servant. Olympia’s confrontational gaze, which indicates that she is a prostitute, caused shock at its time. The fact that she looks in to the beholder’s eyes is a particularly important feature of the painting as it reveals her consciousness of being nude and observed at the same time. It made the painting more realistic and hence more immoral, in comparison to the traditional representations of naked bodies, where the gaze was drawn in another direction from the viewer, allowing the viewer to observe the painting in calmness. Olympia has, in later times, been inscribed in its academic canon and is today rarely discussed in terms of being too shocking.

The judgment of whether a particular work is nude or naked is ultimately subjective and has changed through history and through various cultures. Some may judge any public display of a naked body to be unacceptable, while some may find artistic merit in sexual images. The little that has been written and discussed in relation to the nude can be related to current permissiveness towards violence and ideas conveyed on the social network and paradoxically an extreme prudishness regarding the nude in art.

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