What is a nude?
In his book “The Nude: a study in ideal form” from 1956, Kenneth Clark writes “being naked is being without clothes. The nude is a form of art”
In episode 2 of his famous TV series ” Ways of Seeing ” from 1972, (available on You Tube) as well as in his book of the same name, John Berger says “to be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be SEEN naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself (p.54) “A naked body has to be seen as an object to become a nude”. (…)”Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one’s own body, turned into disguise which, in that situation , can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress”.
There is also a very big gap between the perception of men and women that John Berger talks about.
“Men dream of women, women dream of themselves as being dreamed of. Men look at women.Women watch themselves being looked at.” This is the opening phrase of the TV program . And further : ” a woman is always accompanied by her own image of herself”.
Seeing and reading John Berger’s explanations has altered my view of many paintings and on the nude in European oil painting especially. I think that although I am a woman, I have often admired a nude from the point of view of the (male) spectator, without becoming fully aware of the passivity, of the submission of the model, of the disappearance of the person. It is true, that in the tradition of European oil painting, the female nude is showed reclined, languid , passive and often in an awareness of being seen by the spectator outside of the painting. I am also reminded of how my own perception of beauty is formed by this long history of looking at the nude, mainly the female nude, with it’s changing beauty ideals from this point of the judging viewer.
In the European oil painting, there are a very few exceptions , as John Berger points out (p.57) where artists have painted the women they love, and then break the art form, the nude becoming a love poem to a specific person, where the woman is just more or less naked.
I will here take a look at some of the classical modern nude paintings and then explore some contemporary nudes and how valid this definition seems today.
(1956). The Nude: a study in ideal form. Garden City, NY : : Doubleday Anchor Books.
(1972). Ways of Seeing. England: BBC and Penguin books.
EDGAR DEGAS (1834-1917)
When thinking of Edgar Degas , his pastel drawings of ballet dancers come to my mind first, but I am also touched by some of his beautiful nudes, that contrary to the languid models exposing themselves to the viewer in the older European oil paintings, are busy and seem unaware of being observed in intimate moments.
Degas continued drawing nudes all through his life, so used all the different styles and techniques he explored in this genre too, going from complex historical paintings, to series of prostitutes in brothels. But these “naturalist nudes’, where he observes simple daily routines of bathing or combing the hair are the works that I like the most.
Gradually the works became less detailed and more bold in colour experimentation, with unusual angles and light.
2017. Musee-orsayfr. [Online]. [4 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/events/exhibitions/in-the-musee-dorsay/exhibitions-in-the-musee-dorsay-more/page/0/article/degas-and-the-nude-31063.html
HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954)
The innovations that Henri Matisse brought to modern art can be equaled to those of Picasso. He emerged as a post impressionist and then created the art movement Fauvism. He used some elements of Cubism, but it was always color that was the main element of his work.
I just love the vibrant colors and effortless form of Henri Matisses paintings. Instead of using shading or working on depth of form, he is using contrasting areas of color.
Although the reclining subjects of pink nude and blue nude follow the traditional submissive reclined female nude’s format- there is nothing submissive in these models.
The dance is a dance of joy and color
The sculptural and joyful approach to the human figure culminated in the cut outs that Matisse turned too at the end of his life. Here there is a definite move away from the idealized human figure, rather they become a symbol of the nude.
2017. Henrimatisseorg. [Online]. [4 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.henrimatisse.org/pink-nude.jsp
2017. The Art Story. [Online]. [16 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-matisse-henri.htm
EGON SCHIELE (1890 – 1918)
The twisted , gnarly, anguished, passionate drawings of Egon Schiele touch me deeply.
With sparse and at times chaotic marks and unproportionate big hands and heads Egon Schiele’s work has a very personal style. It is a very new and frank depiction of the human body, full of emotion, anxiety, anger, desire, passion. His nudes are raw and sexual, sometimes the models are masturbating.
It is not surprising that he was accused of pornography and arrested at his time. Egon Schiele lived in Vienna at the beginning of the 19 th Century- as Vienna was the capital of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, and it was a climate of contradictions between the luxury of high life, high society and the collapse facing World War 1. Gustav Klimt was the most famous painter in Vienna at the time and a mentor of Schiele’s, the expressionist Oscar Kokoshka another contemporary and Sigmund Freud leading the intellectual debate.
Egon Schiele was obsessed by himself- creating hundreds of self- portraits that I will look at again in the portrait section. He also drew himself nude , and masturbating- a stark frankness.
He was also obsessed by the body, by sex, by death. After a passionate love affair with his model Waly, that lasted for 4 years, he paints the masterpiece “Death and the Maiden” 1915- the death of a love affair as Egon Schiele moves on to marry another woman- and the death of Europe – World War 1. He is himself the model for Death , and Waly the Maiden.
Looking at the drawings again, I am drawn to the twisted, torn, tense and bony bodies. I admire the sparse marks and how many parts of the drawing are left unfinished. Often the face and hands are detailed and the rest of the figures are left unfinished, although often intricate eyecatching patterns are part of the drawings. Face-hands-patterns. There is often a combination of coloured parts and uncoloured as well, that I would like to explore.
PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
I took a closer look at Pablo Picasso’s portraits for the visit of his exhibition at the National Art Gallery in London in a separate post.
The nude was also a theme that recurred in every phase of Picasso’s artistic development.
I especially like this very well known “Blue Nude” from 1902, a very simple composition and pose, painted in only one colour and still expressing so much :
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” from 1907 is the most famous example of cubist painting:
The bodies are distorted and formed by unexpected geometric shapes, a new way of seeing! This is far from the traditional beauty ideals of the female body, but at the same time , thinking of John Berger’s ways of seeing, here is still the traditional exposure of the female body, the look to the viewer.
In “Woman in an arm chair” from 1929, the human figure has become even more surrealist, with organic, melting shapes. This may be another masterpiece, but I find it disturbing ugly.
2017. Pablopicassoorg. [Online]. [16 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.pablopicasso.org
AMEDEO MODIGLIANI (1884-1920)
The Italian artist Amedeo Modigliano painted faces and figures that are elongated and flat. He painted many reclining nudes, in a very classical pose, but with that modern flat take.
He modernized the view of many traditional classical paintings. This painting, “standing blonde nude with dropped chemise” from 1917 is referring to Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, but in a modern way, and instead of hiding the sex, the composition is drawing our attention to it in a rather provocative way.
2017. The Art Story. [Online]. [16 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-modigliani-amedeo-artworks.htm
EUAN UGLOW (1932-2000)
The British painter Euan Uglow painted nudes in sparse bare settings. They appear almost sculptural with patches of colour that make the flesh seem chiseled from stone.
I have read that Uglow painted very slowly and took very careful and slow measurements which are still visible on the canvas, but the final painting is not so detailed , it still has a roughness that appeals to me. I also like the simple interaction of the models with their environment.
2017. Tate. [Online]. [3 April 2017]. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/euan-uglow-2084
2017. Artukorg. [Online]. [3 April 2017]. Available from: https://artuk.org/discover/artists/uglow-euan-19322000
JENNY SAVILLE b 1970
I have written more about Jenny Saville’s approach to the nude as “a contemporary landscape of the body” in the section “Foreshortening”, but here I want to take another look at her work “the Mirror”.
This painting is the history of the reclining nude reflecting itself. In a conversation for the opening of her exhibition in 2012 at the TATE Modern (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMIICxZ669Q) Jenny says:
“The nude is a very difficult language to meet today, because you read every nude , with all the other nudes that you have seen, and all the ones that you have made and all the ones that exist in art history. So instead of trying to make a new one, I just brought them all in. It was working with Picasso, with Manet..”
“I don’t have a very scholarly view of art history- I am more a scavenger- I take bits here and there. You are constantly stealing anyway.”
Besides really liking Jenny Saville’s paintings and the many layers and simultaneous stories of her drawings, I admire this bold borrowing from the masters of Modern Art, and the ease with which Jenny places herself in their lineage.
I came across the beautiful book ” Exercisios de delicada Intimidade” (Exercises in delicate intimacy), with drawings and paintings from contemporary Portuguese artist Jose Rodrigues.
He treats a wide range of themes from mythology and religion through figure drawings, but also personal experiences, like studying the pubic hair of his lover. But although the themes vary greatly, his style of roughly drawn outlines and unfinished details , sometimes combined with an element of collage, is consistent.
I keep being drawn to works with this rougher or unfinished style and really want to learn how to stop polishing everything too much 🙂
(2012). Exercisios de delicada intimidade. Porto: Bial.
JOHN CURRIN b. 1962
The American artist John Currin is pushing the controversy or the dialogue around the female nude to a peak with his provocative art.
“Consistent throughout his oeuvre is his search for the point at which the beautiful and the grotesque are held in perfect balance.”
He is a master of classical technique, but then uses pin up pictures and expressively provocative sexual poses and symbols to chock.
I am not particulary attracted to John Currin’s paintings, but find it interesting to note that they are at a peak of popularity now, selling at enormous sums and appearing at exhibitions around the world.
I have written about Tracey Emin, Louise Bourgeois and Anthony Gormley‘s work in a separate post called “Emotions, memories , dreams” as they are all working mainly with their own bodies in different ways, but their approach is exploring being in the body as a personal experience and not exploring the nude in the sense of the artists I have written about here.