A brief history of the nude in Western art
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
Sculpture has embraced the nude since antiquity. In fact, it all began with the Ancient Greek goddess of beauty, love, passion, pleasure and procreation, Aphrodite. The first recorded life-size representation of the female nude was the 4th century B.C. Aphrodite of Knidos by the sculptor Praxiteles -- or, more prosaically, Aphrodite Euiploia ('Aphrodite greeting the sailors'). The statue was erected on a prominent hilltop in Knidos, located on the Southwestern tip of modern-day Turkey, and then an important trade and tourism centre. Today, Knidos lies in ruins (photo by Mr.Muliebris):
Praxiteles sculpted two versions of the statue, one clothed, one naked. The City of Kos, believing the nude to be indecent, bought the clothed version. Knidos, a port city, purchased the nude. Pliny the Elder reported that Praxiteles’ naked Aphrodite (also called the Cnidian Venus) was considered a scandalous innovation by the local populace, but the nude Aphrodite was popular. Copies of the sculpture soon popped up throughout Classical Greece. The Romans appropriated the nude Aphrodite and renamed her Venus. She appeared in temples, sanctuaries, baths, houses and tombs throughout the Roman Empire, which sprawled across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, imbuing Western culture with a long-lasting philosophical and artistic imprint. The Romans, who appropriated other people's good ideas (and countries) wholesale, made what it is believed to be a faithful copy, known as the Colonna Venus, which has survived and is on display in the Vatican's Museo Pio-Clementino. The original Aphrodite of Knidos (or Cnidus) is lost.
Praxiteles sculpted Aphrodite concealing a breast with her left hand and her pudenda with her right, standing contrapposto, an Italian term that means 'counterpoise.' In the pose the subject rests his or her weight on their back leg with the front leg slightly bent. It is a pose that flatters the female form and remains enduringly popular. The demure pose is also known as the Venus Pudica ('modest Venus') in art.
MEDIAEVAL ART - THE POWER AND THE GLORY
After the Roman Empire fell in the early part of the First Millennium, A.D. 476, the West descended into chaos. War and plague wreaked havoc. Populations collapsed. During the thousand years of Western history known as the Dark Ages (A.D. 476 – 1450), the Church became the sole repository of knowledge and art, controlling both in the interests of the faithful. The art nude almost disappeared. For centuries the nude was almost exclusively limited to religious art in painted and sculpted depictions of Adam and Eve’s shame, often draped, and in some Last Judgment scenes. Broadly speaking, Western mediaeval artists employed nudity to represent inferior principles, often shown in contrasting “debating-pictures.” The loftier principle of reason or grace, for example, would be clothed, while the lesser, such as one’s animal nature, which was a bad thing, would be nude. In the second half of the Second Millennium, art began to explore the human form in its own right. My 'To want and not to have' collection explores mediaeval symbolism.
THE BAROQUE - SUSANNA AND THE ELDERS
This collaboration was inspired by 'Susanna and the Elders' (1610), by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – 1653), an Italian Baroque painter. It was Gentileschi's first major work. She was 17 when she completed it. A Biblical story (Daniel, Chapter 13), married Susanna is at her bath when two Elders accost her, threatening her with false accusations of adultery if she doesn’t agree to their sexual advances. Feminist art historian Mary Garrard argues that "Artemisia's Susanna presents us with an image rare in art, of a three-dimensional female character who is heroic." Gentileschi was no stranger to the suffering of women. Her mother died when she was 12. She was raped by painter Agostino Tassi in 1611 and tortured with thumbscrews at the trial her father brought. Gentileschi painted Susanna and the Elders two years after the rape. She became one of the most accomplished painters of her period.
VANITAS - MEMENTO MORI
Vanitas is a category of symbolic works of art, especially those associated with the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries in Flanders and the Netherlands. As in much moralistic genre painting, the enjoyment evoked by the sensuous depiction of the subject is in a certain conflict with the moralistic message: 'memento mori' which means 'remember you must die' in Latin. The nude did not typically feature in vanitas works.
INVENTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY - I INTERFERED VERY LITTLE
"When I began to photograph nudes, I let myself be guided by this camera, and instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed." -- Bill Brandt (1904 - 1983), photographer
The invention of photography in 1839 had a profound effect on painting, due to its unprecedented realism. Landscape and portrait paintings were made redundant, not to mention democratised as cameras became ubiquitous. As Brandt notes, you don't need to work very hard to produce an anatomically correct image using a camera. Painters explored, and continue to experiment with, alternative avenues for their art in movements such as Impressionism (originating in France in the 1860s), Expressionism (c. 1900s), Surrealism (after the First World War), Abstract Expressionism (mid-20th century), Pop Art (the 1950s), Conceptual Art (1960s onward) and Post-Modernism (the 1980s on).
IMPRESSIONISM - APRÈS LE BAIN (FEMME S'ESSUYANT)
Edgar Degas is regarded today as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he preferred to be called a realist. He was noted for his draftsmanship and psychological complexity.
VENUS AND PYSCHE
The tale of the beautiful princess Psyche first appeared in The Golden Ass, by Lucius Apuleius in the 2nd century AD. Psyche was a princess whose incomparable beauty enraged the goddess Venus. It's a tale that has fascinated artists ever since. It even leaves an echo in Snow White. Our version of Venus and Pysche references painter Gustave Courbet’s 1864 work, Venus and Psyche, rejected outright as indecent by the French Academy. Courbet's Venus and Psyche depicted two nude, beautiful women in bed together. One, perhaps Pysche, is prone and languorously asleep. Her companion, who is likely to be the jealous Venus (if the second century AD legend is any guide) is crouched over her with her arm raised. Courbet slyly added a cockatoo, which one can read in all sorts of ways. Venus and Psyche was lost in an air raid in Berlin in 1945. Courbet is also famous (or is that infamous?) for The Origin of the World (1866), but that's another story.
SCULPTURE - SLEEPING WIDOW
This image was inspired by two sculptures: the grave of Laurence Matheson, titled Sleeping Widow by Peter Schipperheyn (the original is in Mount Macedon Cemetery, Victoria, Australia), and the more famous Danaïd (on display in the Musée Rodin, France) by Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917. The poses in each work are similar. The meanings are very different.
PROCESS ART - TO-DO LIST
Process Art [arguably, a form of Conceptual Art]: Digital scan of a to-do list, editing notes and partial grocery list scribbled on a colour laser print (in toner save mode) of an electronically rendered collodion wet plate process applied to a classical nude figure study. It was also used as a coffee mat in a thoroughly ironic and post-modernist manner.
CONCEPTUAL ART - CONIUM MACULATUM
Conceptual Art. Damien Hirst gives his famous (and prolific: at last count there were almost 1,500) spot paintings macabre names. [https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/jan/12/damien-hirst-spot-paintings-review] Conium maculatum is the Latin name for poison hemlock. Plato writes that the Greek philosopher Socrates (d. 399 BC) was sentenced to kill himself by drinking poison hemlock.