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The Nude in Art

 ( Part Four )
Madonna of the Feathers

Madonna of the Feathers

The perfect symmetry of the nude, the obsession of Ingres, has been felt and brilliantly expressed by sculptors from the Venus di Milo to Canova and even Rodin. The perfect balance of it has often been beautifully described in movement by some of the great dancers, from Maya Plisitskaya to Jean Butler. For me, when truly great, the choreographer can be likened to an artist, the difference being that instead of translating the body into another medium, he uses the body as a medium. No one makes this potential more clear - or breathtakingly beautiful - than Mats Eck, the Swedish choreographer. What a ballet he would create, were the dancers all nude.

And so with the Nude, an artist is faced with all these possibilities and challenges. The sexy nude, that makes you desire her, as most often does Boucher; the beautiful nude that causes you just to admire her, as does Ingres. Then there is the nude that makes you feel yes, Woman is indeed our best friend and best hope of warmth, succour and encouragement in life, as Rembrandt often makes us feel. And finally there are the nudes of Rubens, perhaps the closest to the Goddess in art, that makes us realize that it is from Woman that we all spring, she is the origin of our physical life force, and we love her on the most profound level, tinged with an awe that is akin to worship, but saved from that by our desire for her as sister and lover.

All this is the artist’s heritage when he approaches the subject of the nude, especially the female nude. And it seems to me, the female nude being my favourite chosen subject for my art, that as we try so hard and passionately to express her, she actually joins us and shares in the challenges, the anguish and the joys of being expressed in paint.




A loss of belief in the purity of the human body was encouraged - even caused - by Christian dogma and the introduction of original sin into the human psyche. Thus by the Middle Ages, the nude came to symbolize the very opposite of all it had stood for in ancient times, namely ideals of fineness and beauty, and expressions of appreciation and admiration of God’s creations, albeit it expressed through the male nude. Through religion, mostly enforced, the body came to represent nothing more than a potent reminder of temptations to sin and resulting eternal damnation, or to some, the troubling transience of human life.

While on the one hand the nude has inspired great enthusiasm, on the other it has caused at least as great controversy and scandal. Even in this day and age of so much relative freedom, the nude in art can attract anything from jeering titters to moralizing posture-masters. However, at least one does not expect actually to be tortured or executed for one’s efforts any more, and so progress is definitely being made.

Nothing in Art is so surrounded by hypocrisy as the Nude. Often the books that reproduce it even feel obliged to justify themselves by defining the difference between the naked and the nude, thus endowing the latter with an aura of sanctity. I must admit, I would take my hat off to anyone who could do that and still include a reproduction in their book of Boucher’s “Mademoiselle Murphy.” And yet trying to give a student an honest idea of the range of the greatest nudes that have been created over the last 500 years and not to include it would be, in my opinion, totally unacceptable.

The French term for a drawing or painting from life is “academie,” emphasizing what has in fact been the primary function of art academies since they were founded in the Florence of the Renaissance. By the seventeenth century, countless academies were set up in Italy and France simply as places where people could go and find a naked model to gaze upon, whilst ostensibly studying their artistic growth. The real purpose of studying the nude however, was primarily so that artists could achieve an understanding of human proportions, which was the basis of all classical art. The personal spark, or genius, that would cause an individual artist to become passionately engrossed in something as subtle as the rendering of light on flesh, or the very texture of that flesh, was in fact the very thing that, until the advent of so-called modern art, would eventually make genius recognizable and separate the greatest works from the adequate or even the mediocre.

Until perhaps about 1900, the time I consider the Intellect to have taken over the Spirit in Art, the nude was regarded not as a pictorial reality but as a subject transformed into a vehicle of expression. The nude female was used to represent Nature, deities in mythology or, especially in the Northern Renaissance which clung to medieval concepts for longer than their Southern brothers, Woman was used to symbolize temptation. In fact, so much did the Nude become the most central and popular subject of Art itself, it wasn’t long before the very image of the artist was automatically imagined as a rake wearing a beret and not much else whilst seducing the endless stream of nubile - naked - girls who streamed through his studio to “model.” Even though that image of the artist as a Pan chasing all his wood-nymphs merely to seduce and sample them is gone now, believe me that was most people’s idea of an artist until relatively recently. And it was an idea held often with a degree of envy, usually by the most vociferous amongst the critics of the “lewd” and “immoral” canvases that are universally considered today amongst our greatest cultural treasures.

The model in the artist’s studio has always provoked controversy. An anecdote that I have always enjoyed is the one in which a student of Rembrandt, once found by that Master cavorting with their model, insisted in his defense that he had only taken off his clothes to comfort the poor girl and make her feel his Adam against her Eve. Rembrandt reportedly kicked them both out of his studio, but if that is the indeed the case, one can imagine him doing so whilst covering up a grin all the same. That having been said, women were not “officially” allowed to model in public art schools until 1850. Before that, any woman posing for an artist was automatically considered little short of a prostitute, and often accused of such.



The human figure, especially unclothed, has fascinated artists since times of antiquity; from being unclothed, the body is naked and, entering Art at that stage it becomes the Nude. The Nude is something for us to gaze upon, either with admiration or repulsion, but whichever it is we probably look at the nude figure with more complex attitudes influencing our opinion of it than we might look at any other subject in Art. Influencing our response enormously will be our own gender, and then the gender of the subject of the painting we are looking at. Finally, there will also most likely be a layer of conditioning, as in most countries of the world people are brought up to believe there are very specific ways in which they must regard the naked human body, in life as well as in Art.

With all these factors to contend with, the artist has his work cut out to have even the slightest chance of his work being appreciated, let alone liked! Happily for us, many artists through time have managed to rise above these conditions and difficulties and remain true to the power of their own personal inspirations, so strong that they have managed to paint from that original unspoilt and pure point of view, to give us our masterpieces, our very culture. Over the centuries, we in the Western world at least, have arrived at a more open state of mind which finally allows us to appreciate openly many of the great works of art created by artists under the above described circumstances for an extremely inhibited - and inhibiting - audience.

Crucifixion of the Female Principle

Crucifixion of the Female Principle

After Christianity was established, so too original sin had to be established in people’s minds so that they would form complexes towards their bodies and the nude figure that would make it impossible to enjoy it. That conditioning took about 1,000 years and is known as the Dark Ages. During that time virtually no art was created to speak of, let alone any nudes. During this same period, in order to completely subjugate the Female to the will of the male, several million women and girls - it is estimated by historians to be about 5 million, but could not be less - were hideously put to death on the pretext of witchcraft if they had as much as an idea of their own, until her will was finally broken and she became completely subordinate to the male will, especially to the religious leader, from pope to village priest, who controlled her life from then on.

Kenneth Clark once pointed out that nakedness is you or me getting out of the bath; the Nude is a category that is created for us in Art, and made as appealing to us as possible. In this day and age of the magazine and film and a million images a day confronting us of women in every state of undress and uninhibited erotic posture, how could anyone still paint a nude that might appeal to anyone any more? A nude who is static, without movement or flashing lights, without implication of masturbation or penetration? Without hype? Who could paint a nude that might still please, fascinate, captivate and finally even satisfy the viewer? That has been my challenge and a voyage of discovery for nearly fifty years. And during that time, as I have painted, and more historians have theorized, and art has sunk to lower levels than anyone ever dreamed might be possible, the wonderful works I have mentioned in this article have remained quietly on the walls of the great museums in which they are housed, still beautiful, glorious and perfect in their way.

The Nude in Art, Part Five

Anthony Christian

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