The Naked Nude

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995, Lucien Freud. Freud’s nudes are perhaps the archetype of the naked nude. As he said himself, he was ‘really interested in people as animals’.

Last year, I published here some comments on Kenneth Clark’s book, The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form. The book was published in 1956 and tells the story of the nude in Western art from the ancient Greeks to the early C20. The final chapters deal with Matisse and Picasso.

There are two core premises underlying Clark’s narrative. The first is that there is a distinction between the naked and the nude: “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes … The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone”. The second and related premise is that depicting the nude in art is not about accurately depicting what is seen, but is about creating an idealised nude form which represents ‘beauty’. Indeed Clark asserts that this is a particular challenge to the photographer of the nude; “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”.

In her fascinating book, The Naked Nude, Frances Borzello takes up where Clark left off and traces the development of the Nude in the C20 and C21 century. Her core assertion is that the birth of modernism heralded the death of the ideal nude and that “Clark’s book occupies a pivotal position between the death of the ideal nude and the birth of the naked nude”. Borzello asserts that the nudes “made by today’s fine artists reveal an awareness of  … issues and incongruities. They have turned their backs on perfection in order to face up to the concerns and contradictions that surround the C21 body. The very things that made the nudes of the past palatable for general consumption – their timelessness, their ideal quality, their pleasure in being part pf the great tradition through their link to the chain of nudes preceding them – are precisely the things that do not interest contemporary artists who work with the nude. … It is a very naked nude, created to confront today’s attitudes and anxieties”.

So what drove this fundamental transition in the C20. Borzello identifies a number of causes including the development of photography, the long overdue emergence of a significant body of female artists and the increasing artistic focus on the politics of gender, sexuality and identity.

The Tub, 1886, Edgar Degas. Degas was heavily interested by the new angles and compositions of photography.

The invention of the camera had a profound effect on the development of art. When an accurate representation of a scene or person can be produced through photography, painting and sculpture must obviously do something different to remain distinctive and relevant. And of course photographers were quick to seize on the nude as a subject, and indeed, despite Clark’s comments quoted above, have largely taken over the depiction of the nude as an ideal form. As Borzello says “As the traditional nude emigrated to the photographic studios or to amateurs, it left avant-garde artists free to experiment”. In a put-down which perhaps says more than necessary about her own prejudices, she comments that “There are luscious bodies aplenty of course, but they tend to be the work of artists who cater to fringe desires and the rarified work of fine art refuses to pay them serious attention … (they may) have a sizeable specialist audience but are viewed with glazed eyes by taste makers”.

Nude Girl, 1909, Gwen John. Whilst traditional in approach, this portrait’s realism in presenting its subject makes it fundamentally different from a study in ideal form.

Over the same period the emergence of female artists as a significant presence in the art world, following the long overdue opening of art education to women, inevitably brought different perspectives. Whilst some female artists took the opportunity to reverse roles and present male subjects in the idealised way that female subjects had long been presented, a more stronger drive was to present female subjects with an honest realism that male artists had perhaps shied away from.

The emergence of feminism from the 1960s onwards accelerated this process and has subsequently developed into a much greater focus in asset on the politics of gender, sexuality and identity. As Borzello says “gender confusions, imperfections, emotions, sexuality, all the things which were excised from the record under the rule of the ideal nude, are dealt with in their art, thereby creating a nude for our times – a naked nude”.

Philip Golub Reclining, 1971, Sylvia Sleigh. Sleigh focused her work on role reversal, inverting traditional artistic models with works such as this play on the Rokesby Venus.

And given the ‘political’ nature of some of these images, it is no surprise that artists have continued to push on and test the boundaries of our ability to accept and appreciate what might be referred to as the extreme nude. Artists such as Gilbert & George, Jeff Koons and Marlene Dumas have produced work which it is increasingly uncomfortable to view. And leaves the viewer – this viewer anyway – very confused as to how they are intended to respond.

Ilona on Top, 1990, Jeff Koons. While there are plenty of examples of extreme nudity, many of them would get this website closed down. This image from a series Made in Heaven which was formed around Koons’ relationship with his Italian porn-star and politician wife.

The story Borzello tells is well told, and well illustrated, and she undoubtedly reflects the prevailing orthodoxy of the modern art establishment, artists, curators and taste-makers. She is too dismissive though of art which falls outside the taste-makers’ (her phrase, not mine) perception of what is interesting and worthwhile. And she does not concern herself with the question of where we go from here. While it is clear that there will always be artists who wish to test the boundaries of convention, or acceptability,  it is by no means clear to me that the future is necessarily an extension of the past. The future has a disconcerting habit of being very different from our expectations and it seems just as possible that the study of the nude as an ideal form will re-emerge in some different way as that it will be lost to history. Or perhaps most likely the avant-garde and the ‘traditional’ will co-exist into the future with fashion swinging from time to time between one and the other and the best artists finding ways to combine the best of both to create new movements rooted in old traditions. Lucien Freud, I would argue, is one artist who managed to do that exactly that.