The nude is the most enduring subject in art. According to Robson (1995) the term nude, has become synonymous with female nude because over time the latter has been most common. This may be because most artists were men. The consistent element running through the nude in art of all ages is sexuality and for centuries in European art the nude was an inspiration of artistic creativity. The naked form provided the visual embodiment of ideas and views about the most basic human concern, love whether this was earthly or sacred. This philosophical stand point joins both Eastern and Western culture.
During the classical period of the Greek and Roman Empires, the nude, was mainly male figures and models of human idealism were celebrated as icons of strength and beauty. The nude to the Ancient Greeks represented deity whereas real people were clothed.
Early Christian Art
According to Genesis God created man in His own image and likeness. After the third century of the Christian Empire all this changed and the nude became an expression of sin. Earlier Christian Art depicted the nude as innocent, depicting acts of appropriation. However by the fourth century a fig leaf mentality prevailed and the naked body was painted as a temptation and sin. Many of the early Christian paintings were destroyed or covered up, only a few early Christian erotic images exist.
Between the 14th and 16th century, the Renaissance rediscovered the classic ideals of the perfect body and the nude again became an emblem of abstract concepts such as beauty, genius, friendship, truth or sacred love. The Judo-Christian belief that the Devine was the source of perfection meant images of humans, made in the image of their maker, were idealised. Florentine artists of the fourteenth century, such as Giotto di Bondone portrayed nudes as symbol of sin but imbibed them with human characteristics including expressions of emotion. During this time the economic and the aesthetic were paired in grandiose style. Vasaclus then reinvented the classic nude using the new perspective which gave figures a three dimensional appearance. The artist was associated with a new movement where the characteristics of the classic were combined with the Christian to present the natural beauty, with guiltlessness and innocence. Savenorola was a preacher at this time and spoke widely on the sinfulness of nudity. Botocelli created the Birth of Venus, but was also moved by the beliefs of the evangelist and destroyed several of his works featuring naked models. Despite this the artist was able to combine both Christian and the classical to present a nude as something beautiful and something to celebrate. When Michelangelo created David he not only reintroduced the male nude but incorporated the classic with ordered proportion. No longer idealised the figure looked outward, challenging the viewer. He did the same in his paintings incorporating his own sexuality within the religious compositions. What Michelangelo did for the male nude Titian did for the female, with his magnificent Venus of Albino (1538). The subject was inspiration for many painters capturing the reclining nude, eyes engaging the viewer as if they were voyeurs. Her hands covering her genitals in both innocent and suggestive way, with the recline and surrounding furniture as if something has just happened or likely to happen. In short, woman as a Goddess and sexual being. Only when the church allowed dissection did artists like, Leonardo d’ Vinci begin to represent true anatomical nakedness. This coincided with a greater acceptance among artisans that humans were not necessarily sinful and man, not God, had become the image to be depicted in all its glory.
Until the 17th century art was commissioned by the monarchy, church or aristocracy and used to enforce power and position. As a consequence of the Reformation, the Catholic Church supported a new movement in Art called Baroque. Reuben’s was commissioned to paint the monarchy ascending to heaven, heavily decorated with nude figures. The Baroque celebrated absolutism and the supremacy of the monarchy. The Enlightenment challenged this and instead featured the individual, the citizen, as the central feature of art. By the 18th century the population was increasing as the west became industrialised, the developing middle classes aspired to change. The depiction of the nude changed from previous times to become celebrations of equality before God. The depiction of the nude now based on scientific dissection meant the nude became mortal and was used to the celebration and vulnerability of the human condition i.e. from strength to pathos. The new movement of Neo Classicism reworked the classical nude into forms of grandising (larger than life). John Augustus Domincan Am (1862) painted nudes, which were in the neoclassic style but deeply sensual (from a men’s perspective). Until the late 19th century women were not allowed to draw nude figures. The Enlightenment forged the nude to become a political propaganda.
As the popularity for everyday subjects became vogue, the nude declined in the 18th century only to be resurrected by the Impressionists of the 19th century. The next movement called realism depicted the nude as it was. Rodan became the champion of realism and again the centre of controversy (1877). By this time photography had developed. Many exhibits of photography were removed form art galleries because they were considered scientific and not artistic. Gustave Courbet was a realist painter and by the 1860 was a bohemian artist of radical political beliefs. L’ Origine du monde (1866) until now nudes had been the prerogative of the aristocracy now it was available to the masses. The rise of the Society of Suppression of Vice (1866-1880).
By far the most popular nude was a reclining figure introduced by Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. This was new and had not been taken from classical art. An extraordinarily varied range of images has been granted ostensible respectability. It is thought Giogione and Titian were the first painters to use a reclining nude woman as the subject of a painting. They elevated the reclining nude to a significant status. It was this very status which the Christian Church took exception to and opposed all things carnal. Reclining figures did appear in Roman sarcophagi but were incidental to the design and not an entity by themselves.
Renoir’s Nini in the Garden was inspired by Monet's work the painter had been experimenting with the motif of young women in the garden: in size, format, and orientation. Nini in the Garden (1875-76) may be loosely grouped with Woman with a Black Dog, (1874) and Umbrella (1878). The paintings are identical in size (24 by 20 inches); each explores the problem of integrating the clothed female figure in ambient daylight and achieving a harmony between elegant Parisienne and exuberant nature. Young Girl on the Beach the model, Nini Lopez, sits on a similar garden chair wearing identical dress, but her presence is more assertive and now the chief element in the composition. Both paintings convey the delight that Renoir experienced in the large garden at the rue Cortot. His chief interest was to record the sunlight as it filtered through bushes and trees onto the diminutive and fashionably dressed Parisienne. He had already investigated these effects on the nude; Nini in the Garden marks an early stage in such treatment of the dressed figure. Somewhat tentatively, Renoir painted the reflections of foliage on Nini's face and the larger shadows on her dress. Her golden brown tresses are overwhelmed by the greens and browns of the background foliage; the forms of her dress dissolve in the dappled light and shadow. Renoir's exploration of light dancing over the human figure would achieve full expression in The Swing and Moulin de la Galette. In Nini in the Garden such effects are rendered a little hesitantly, but with the daring of experiment. Much of these works were commissioned by the affluent for their private viewing.
The Modern movement started with Manet’s Olympia (1863). She had a classical pose but engaged her viewers confidently and shamelessly. The modern nude came to represent issues of contemporary society such as prostitution. Manet’s painting contains Tableaux Vivants (living pictures) qualities which reflect the contemporary development in photography.
By the 20th century the nude became relatively uncommon but some of the most shocking art has been in this format. This lead to impressionism spearhead by Picasso and Matisse. Picasso used multi perspectives, which led to Cubism, and Matisse forged Fauvism in his nude studies. Both these movements reflected the developing realism forged by the science and art of photography. In 1907 Picasso synthesized the ancient art form of Africa with the geometric style of Cezanne to produce cubism. His painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was in the cubist style. Matisse had a radical approach in 1905 and led a school of painters who used brilliant colours, expressive brush work and flat composition. This was called Fauvism but had only a short life.
Post Modern Movement
Although the nude continues to be a theme of post modern art, new technologies such s photography and lithography diversified the market and appeal for the nude. Since the Second World War major changes arose in the nude. The godless view of existential Europe torn by the Holocaust meant nudes became more fragmented where you were left as observer to complete the image. The male nude became more apparent and women painter depicted more female nude studies. In the 20s grotesque females, many prostitutes, featured prominently in nude art works (Bohm-Duchen, 1992). Whether this was a reaction to the aftermath of the Great War is not clear. Painters such as Otto Dix and George Grosz both depicted deformed bodies with a potent mix of relish and disgust. Evidently viewing them both as victims and symbols of the corruption of Weimar Germany (p.50).
Art movements post Second World War such as Pop Art, depicted nudes with stereo type of the women existing solely for the sexual gratification of the man. Tom Wesselman and Alan Jones both site the mass media culture as inspiration for their works.
The Nude The Renaissance 2000 Seventh Art Production (Channel 5)
The Nude 2000 The Enlightenment Seventh Art Production (Channel 5)
The Nude The Modern 2000 Seventh Art Production (Channel 5)
Robson D 1995 The art of the nude NY: Shooting Star Press
In the Hindu religion, sexual intercourse represents an understanding of the universe. The pleasure of lovemaking was the doorway to the spirit. The embrace between men and women represented the union of the soul and the Devine.