I have written about the development of the female nude as an art form twice recently. Firstly, in commenting upon Kenneth Clark’s book The Nude, a Study in Ideal Form and, secondly, in tracing the development of the presentation of the female nude in Archetypes of the Female Nude in Art. In this second post I considered including the picture above by Francis Boucher (1703-70) but decided against it because it opened up a whole new line of discussion about art, erotica and pornography. I’m returning to the picture now to initiate that discussion; whether erotica and pornography are somehow distinct from and ‘beneath’ art, or whether they can be art.
I have written before about the Platonic philosophical distinction between the Celestial and Natural Venus, two aspects of the goddess of love. It was an important distinction seized on at the beginnings of the Renaissance in part as intellectual cover for painting the female nude without being accused of painting erotica. But by the time Titian had painted Venus of Urbino that intellectual fig leaf had been removed; it is clear that the subject is a knowing Venus, inviting our gaze.
Boucher’s picture was painted more than 200 years later and there can be no doubt about its’ erotic intentions. Louise O’Murphy lies on a crumpled bed, legs apart and seemingly revelling in her nakedness. This is a picture painted for the erotic enjoyment of its owner, perhaps the King whose mistress she was, or perhaps someone who hoped that she would some day be his. It was painted at a period in French history when the Ancien Regime was obsessed with the art of love, when being described a Libertine was perhaps a compliment, and when Watteau, Boucher and others were painting a series of pictures in the Rococo style which were exploring the art of love.
Despite the obvious erotic intentions of the picture, I think we have no difficulty in describing it as art. It is a very good painting. The subject looks alive and full of energy and enthusiasm. You feel it catches her character. The representation of the bed, the bed linen, cushions etc is also very effective. The composition and the choice of colours all work well. The picture also exudes a powerful, life-affirming energy. Whilst we might harbour doubts about what it meant to be kept as a teenage mistress in C18 France, the picture is undoubtedly a celebration of the subject; a celebration in which the subject appears to be an enthusiastic participant. All in all, it is a very pleasing image. It is undoubtedly erotic art, but it remains art.
A little over one hundred years later, Gustave Courbet went a great deal further with his picture L’Origine du Monde. (You can see the picture by clicking on the title but I will not include the image here. It is highly explicit and I have no desire to cause unintended offence). Courbet (1819-77) was a leader of the Realist school of French painting who rejected the notion that painting should idealise its subjects and believed that painting should depict reality. He applied the idea principally to social reality with pictures the life and work of the poor in France, but felt the same about nudes. The painting should capture what was there, not search for an ideal form. L’Origine du Monde is a graphically realistic close up of a woman lying on her back, legs apart and vagina exposed. There is no attempt to present an ideal form in either composition or execution. The picture is now in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris.
Ironically, there is though a challenge in accepting this painting as a challenging piece of social realism. It was commissioned by and painted for Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat in Paris, to add to his existing collecting of erotic paintings. So whilst Courbet was quite happy to position himself at the head of movement using art as mechanism for exposing the life of the poor and achieving social change, he seems to have been equally willing to paint images with no purpose other than the pornographic.
Is it art? In a world in which we have been taught that art is whatever we are told it is, that the context and message is as important as the content, this seems a foolish or backward-looking question. But I think it is worth asking and answering. It is a picture which is technically well-executed and Courbet certainly achieves his objective of an unflinching, realistic portrayal of the subject. But is also a painting which can generate only sadness in the mind of the viewer. It is not a picture which in any way elevates the human spirit; it is the body as meat. If Boucher’s picture of Louise O’Murphy is erotic art, then if Courbet’s L’Origine Du Monde has to be defined as art, then it is surely pornographic art. Boucher celebrates love, sex and the idealised beauty of the human form; Courbet reports on the sexual organs, as if from the mortuary table. I can be energised by one, but not by the other.
Of course, when we produce a painting or sculpture of a female nude, there is an assumption that because it is a painting or sculpture it is art. Or at least the judgement about whether it can be deemed art is a judgement about the craft, the quality of execution, not about the subject. But when we produce a photograph of the same subject, the assumption is reversed. A photograph is a female nude is likely to be presumed erotica or pornography, depending on the explicitness of its contents, unless proven otherwise. To put it another way, paintings and sculptures are ‘innocent until proven guilty’, photographs are ‘guilty until proven innocent’.
The traditional approach of art photographers to overcoming this prejudice has been to create images which focus entirely on the female nude as significant form with the minimum degree of sensuous or erotic content. A magnificent example is the Nude (Charis, Santa Monica by Edward Weston. The powerful almost abstracted form he has created and the extent to which he has isolated the form from an erotic interpretation makes it easy both to recognise this as a powerful image and as a work of art.
Horst’s picture of Lisa Fonssagrive is almost as discrete but with a much clearer sensuous component. This image too I think we can consider as art, though it has taken time to get there. Horst was of course primarily a social and fashion photographer working principally for Vogue. At the time the images were taken I would doubt they were thought of as ‘art’ either by the photographer or the viewer. It has taken time for the distinctive power of the images to become clear and for many of them to become established as art. And indeed time is a more critical component in the assessment of art than we are normally prepared to allow. And allowing for judgement is becoming more important every day. In a world which is awash with images competing for attention how can we tell which will stand the test of time and remain compelling artistic statements fifty or five hundred years from now. I think we struggle with this in every artistic discipline but perhaps most of all in photography.
An example of a body of photographs of the female nude which is gradually emerging from the crowd and might start to be identified as art is best the work of Tom Kelley. Tom Kelley had no pretensions to be artist. He was originally a news photographer who moved into the world of glamour photography on the west coast of the US in the late 1940s. essentially he was creating ‘pin-ups’; erotic photographs destined for the calendar and commercial market. Many of his photographs and even more of his subjects are forgotten. But amongst them he created a small number of images which I would suggest are created as carefully as anything which Francois Boucher produced, conform entirely to Kenneth Clark’s dictum that “the nude remains the most complete example of the transmutation of matter into form”, and bring joy to the viewer. If this is not art, what is?
Of course, to allow that a work by Tom Kelley might be art, does not imply that every work by Kelley deserves that description, or that every photograph of the female nude is art, simply because the photographer so asserts. So how might we judge? Well, every judge will have their own views and many, perhaps, would not agree with mine. I would propose the following as some core criteria in judging whether an image of the female nude might be deemed as art:
1. The image is exceptionally well-crafted. It is well-composed and technically proficient.
2. The female nude has been presented in a way which seeks to present an idealised form which reflects a desire not to imitate but to perfect the human form.
3. The end result moves the viewer emotionally as well as physically. I would asset that a key difference between art and pornography is that the latter is only interested in a physical reaction.