The Nude, a Study in Ideal Form

This torso is a marble copy of a bronze sculpture, now lost, which represents the first know Female Nude in the classical style. Greek, c.5C BC.
This torso is a marble copy of a bronze sculpture, now lost, which represents the first known Female Nude in the classical style. Greek, c.5C BC. This is a sculpture that could be, and is, produced today and still feels relevant and pleasing.

I recently purchased a copy of “The Nude, a Study in Ideal Form” by Kenneth Clark. The book was published in 1956, based on lectures given in 1953. My copy is a reprint published in 1990 and which is still in print.

It is a deep, rich and fascinating history of The Nude as a subject in Western Art, from the Ancient Greeks to the early C20. There is a great deal to absorb in the book, more than can be drawn out from a single reading, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone with an interest in art history.

The book starts by asking the central question of “what is the nude?” in the context of art. Clark asserts that the nude is an art form originating, at least in the Western canon, with the Greeks in the 5th century BC and continuing to be relevant today. He emphasises that the nude is a form of art, not just the subject of art, and reminds us of the distinction between the naked and the nude. Being naked is generally recognised as being uncomfortable, defenceless and vulnerable. The nude on the other hand is predominantly assertive and confident, seeking to portray an ideal form, the best that a body can be. It is a central tenet of Clark’s narrative that the history of the nude is not a history of artists intent to record the human body with all the imperfections of individual bodies, but rather to perfect the human body as it is represented to us, usually at the expense of ‘reality’.

A male nude by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel. Note how in his search for perfection of the human form he has created something which works artistically but would be a gross distortion of the human form if it were to come to life.
A male nude by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel. Note how in his search for perfection of the human form he has created something which works artistically but would be a gross distortion of the human form if it were to come to life.

This, Clark points out is a particular challenge to the photographer. The challenge any photographer of the nude faces, he asserts, is that “in almost every detail the body is not the shape that art had led us to believe that it should be”. He goes on to say that “photographers have usually recognised that in a photograph of the nude their real object is not reproduce the naked body, but to imitate some artist’s view of what the naked body should be”.

Over the period since the ‘invention’ of the nude artists have developed a number of poses for representing the nude and for best portraying an ideal form. And the extraordinary thing is that the number of poses which succeed in that objective are actually very few, and these few have been copied and reworked constantly over the course of art history. In fact it is possible to identify a short list of key images which represent the starting point for the great majority of nude images, now and through history.

The female nude in art is now so pervasive that we might imagine that it has always been so. But in fact it was much later to develop and was relatively rare in the classical period. It required from the start an intellectual justification to prevent it from being voyeuristic or pornographic; this is not just a contemporary concern. The Greek philosopher Plato provided the context for that justification with his assertion that there were two Aphrodites (later Venuses), the Celestial and the Vulgar or what we might call the Spiritual and the Earthly. This view became an axiom of Renaissance philosophy and a core justification of the female nude. As Clark puts it “since the earliest times the obsessive, unreasonable nature of physical desire has sought relief in images, and to give those images a form by which Venus may cease to be vulgar and become celestial has been one of the recurring aims of European art”. The celestial form is the purified, ideal form and this is as true today as it was in the classical or Renaissance period.

La Danse (1) by Henri Matisse, 1909-10. The search for the ideal form in the female nude continues.
La Danse (1) by Henri Matisse, 1909-10. The search for the ideal form in the female nude continues.

The male nude, on the other hand, has almost died out as an art form though it was much the most pervasive in classical times as it was the dominant form in which the classical gods were represented. During the renaissance it continued as a very significant art form, both in Christian depictions of the crucifixion, lamentation etc., and in support of the renaissance return to the world of classical myths and stories. It was only in the C19 that the male nude started to die out as a significant art form.

Overall, The Nude is a rich and fascinating book and well worth a read by anyone interested in art and photography of the human form. I shall return to the book in some more posts in the days to come.