What Nudes Tell Us About Ourselves

What do artists' depictions of the nude reveal about our attitudes towards beauty


Henri Matisse Draped Nude 1936 oil paint on canvas Tate: Purchased 1959. Picture / © Tate, London 2017

We may think we’re living in liberal times but it was only six years ago that Facebook censored a post of a nude painting from 1866. Where some saw beauty, others saw smut. Granted, Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde depicts a close-up of a woman’s genitals, but it goes to show that the artist’s nude remains a touchy subject.

Now, the human form in all its glory is the focus of a new exhibition opening at the Auckland Art Gallery this weekend. The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from Tate makes its world debut in New Zealand before heading to The Art Gallery of NSW later this year.

The exhibition will bring visitors face to face with 100 works from some of the great figurative artists of the modern era: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Stanley Spencer, Francis Bacon, Lucian Feud and Louise Bourgeois, alongside leading contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman, John Coplans and Tracey Emin.

Many of the works have never been seen in New Zealand before, and Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss has never travelled outside Europe, until now.

It’s undeniably a history lesson celebrating the masters and the role of the nude, providing life drawing training from the 1790s through to its more recent means of expression for political activism. But the exhibition will also shine a light on beauty through the ages.

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Traditionally, it was the female nude that was regarded as a symbol of beauty, whereas male nudes more often emphasised athleticism, explains Tate London’s Emma Chambers, who, along with Art Gallery NSW’s Justin Paton, was charged with the enormous task of selecting which works to include in the exhibition.

They managed by breaking it into sections that highlight different approaches to the nude, from privacy, eroticism and vulnerability, to the tension with abstract art and the role of the nude in gender politics.

“We chose works that were both strong visually and would speak to some of these themes and shifts in the portrayal of the nude over time,” says Emma. “It was also important that the works covered a range of viewpoints from more traditional nudes, in which men look at women, to men portraying male bodies, women looking at women, and women looking at men.”

The exhibition covers 200 years, over which time perceptions of ideal body types have noticeably shifted. The early artists who chose to paint or sculpt the nude held the human body in high regard, often depicting the female form with a fleshy vulnerability. Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1508-10), for instance, was regarded as a “classic beauty”, smooth and pale-skinned with a demure reclining posture.

Max Ernst, Men Shall Know Nothing of This, 1923; Sir Matthew Smith, Nude, Fitzroy Street, No. 1, 1916. Pictures / ©Tate, London 2017

Later, beauty and sex became inextricably linked. William Etty, the most prominent British nude painter of the Victorian period, treated beauty as the object of lust and deception, his sensual female nudes often criticised for being “objectionable”. In the 1860s, Manet shocked the Parisian art world with Olympia, presenting a modern Parisienne reclining on a bed, insinuating prostitution.

The athletic male body, meanwhile, continued to be a focus for modern artists working in the cubist period. Boxers, wrestlers and bathers were frequently depicted as they “gave scope for a muscular and masculine version of modernism in which the male body in action signalled a dynamic modernity”, write the curators in the book, Nude: Art from the Tate Collection, suggesting it took many years before gender portrayals in art were challenged.

That said, Max Ernst’s Men Shall Know Nothing of This, from the surrealist period, write the curators, suggest hermaphroditic desires through the copulating lower body parts of a man and woman.

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Beauty in art wasn’t so black and white from the mid-20th century, when the range of bodies depicted broadened, Emma says. The 1970s and 80s saw one of the most dramatic shifts, when the nude moved from being merely an object of admiration to a political statement, reflecting the rise of feminism and the questioning of social and racial stereotypes.

Feminist artists, such as Hannah Wilke and Linder, drew attention to gendered power relationships by parodying the eroticised depiction of women’s bodies in advertising and pornography. (One of Linder’s works, which featured on a Buzzcocks record sleeve, showed a naked woman in a seductive pose with an image of an iron over her head and a smiling mouth over each nipple.)

Likewise, Jo Spence challenged the objectification of women as homemakers and objects of sexual pleasure. (One of her photographs shows a somewhat masculine-looking woman in a state of undress, holding a broom.) Meanwhile, a particularly salient Guerrilla Girls screenprint from 1985 asks, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.”

So how does The Body Laid Bare stack up? Emma says there are 67 female nudes, 32 male nudes and 22 works containing both male and female nudes or bodies that are indeterminate. Just over a quarter of the 70 artists in the exhibition are women.

Works by women artists are included in each of the thematic rooms in the show, but the smaller numbers of professional female artists and institutional collecting history mean that there are fewer of these works for the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“In many of the later rooms of the show women artists outnumber male artists, demonstrating the increasing visibility of women artists from the second half of the 20th century and the importance of the body as a subject for feminist artists,” she says.

Pierre Bonnard, Bathing Woman, Seen from the Back, c.1919; Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932. Pictures / ©Tate, London 2017

Encouragingly, it wasn’t just female artists beginning to question the idealised portrayal of the nude in contemporary art. John Coplans made rare depictions of the ageing male body. David Hockney sketched homosexual couples in intimate settings. And Barkley Hendricks addressed stereotypes of the black male body.

Coming full circle, John Currin, a New York artist best known for a series of deadpan female nudes painted in the late 80s and early 90s, turned to the mood and atmosphere of Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings to explore cultural cliches, combining art-historical references with the fantasies of advertising and pornography.

From the 1980s, large-format photography encouraged increasing portrayal of the nude as mortal. Some of these artists, such as Rineke Dijkstra, who photographed women a week after giving birth, challenged our notion of beauty by exposing the women’s vulnerabilities, and capturing them in a realistic, rather than idealised state.

One thing’s for certain — the nude has always been a provocative subject. Etty’s Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth ... was considered overtly sensual and its depiction of voyeurism was problematic, Emma explains.

Philip Wilson Steer’s Seated Nude: The Black Hat was never exhibited in the artist’s lifetime because his friends had told him that it was indecent for a nude to wear a hat. Rodin’s The Kiss was covered with a sheet soon after being exhibited as it was considered indecent.

It’s enough to wonder what impact the next generation of nudes will have on our ideas about beauty — and, for that matter, censorship. Maybe beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, after all. Says Emma, “The works demonstrate that beauty exists in many forms and depends on the perspective of both artist and viewer.”

The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from Tate opens at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki on Saturday. Tickets are $23. Aucklandartgallery.com

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