The Nude subject has been around since the origins of art, seen in the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. When discussing the term ‘nude’ it is commonly referred to as a naked male or female body that has been depicted through a specific gaze.…
The subject of the nude originated in ancient Greece from over 2000 years ago. In these times nudes focused on the depiction of idealised naked bodies, usually of muscular male heroes and voluptuous female goddesses. The double standards created between men and women were established in these times, as the nude male subject represented the values of strength, youthfulness and bravery, whilst women represented ideas of fertility, erotica and their bodies were objectified for the male gaze.
During the 15th and 16th century artists were influenced by the classicism of Greek mythology and religion which transformed nudes into symbols of eternal youth, beauty and antiquity. Inspired by classical sculptures of ancient Greece, renaissance artists such as Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) placed the nude subject at the centre of their paintings. Venus, the Roman goddess of love was adorned by renaissance artists and nearly every major European artist in the early 16th century represented her in oil paintings, drawings or sculptures. For example, Titian’s painting Venus of Urbino (1538), depicts a young woman in the nude identified as the goddess Venus reclining on a bed/couch. Yet, unlike previous representations of the goddess which are embedded with classical and allegorical symbols, this painting symbology was stripped back for the viewer to engage with the sensuality and sexuality of the goddess.
Michelangelo’s David (1501-1504) is considered one of the finest and most influential sculptures in the world. At 5.1ft tall sculptured out of marble, Michelangelo depicts the biblical hero of David whom is seen as a figure that embodies the values of male strength and beauty. For over 400 years the sculpture tradition pioneered by masters such as Titian and Michelangelo remained relatively unchallenged in the Western Art Canon. This radically changed during the turn of the 20th century when groups of modern European artists such as the cubists decided to experiment and ultimately rebel against the traditional representation of the nude.
French artist Jean Metzinger’s Deux Nus (Tu Nudes, Two women) 1911 presents two naked female subject within the forestry background. By breaking the traditional pictorial composition of the female bodies, their figures are cut into small fragment creating multiple perceptive of the subject matter. This artistic technique transformed the depiction of the nude away from classical idealised values of the female body and identity into a subject exploring primitive sexuality and expression.
Throughout the 20th century, the subject of the nude decreased as modern artists moved toward contemporary art forms such as abstraction and minimalism. Consequently, by the 1990s, figurative work including the subject of the nude was deemed unpopular and uncommon. Yet artists such as Lucian Freud experimented with creating realist depictions of the human body. Freud’s oil painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) illustrates a nude obese model sleeping naturally on a sofa. Freud specifically referred to the painting as ‘Naked portraiture’ to remove the artwork from conventional ideas of a romanticised and idealised naked female body associated with the nude subject.
The female nude has historically been objectified and depicted through the male gaze. Since the 1960s, female artists have started to use their feminist interpretations of the female nude to regain control of the subject’s depiction in culture and society.
In 1972, American artists Eleanor Antin’s series CARVING: A traditional sculpture transformed how the nude can be viewed as a living sculpture. The series consists of 145 black and white photographs showing Antin’s transition during her process of losing 10 pounds over 37 days. This artwork combines performance and conceptual sculpture and photography to explore how real body flesh can be sculpted through manipulation and self-discipline to present itself as nude portraiture to the camera. This was interpreted by many as a message of women regaining control over their bodies in defiance of the beauty ideals imposed on them by society’s impossible standards for women.
Contemporary artist Romily Alice has created a series Always Turned On (2016) portrayed singular figurative female subjective created by neon lights. The sources of the women’s bodies have been drawn from ambiguous internet sources, highlighting the connection of objectifying the female body with denying a woman her individual identity. Alice has declared her work’s intention is to encourage the discussion of how cultural depictions and ideas around female appearance and sexuality have been created from a heavy male gaze.
Teresa Wells Desire and Denial (2017) is a figurative sculpture of a singular male torso. The classical influence on the sculpture is present with her extraordinary ability to create realistic details of the female body. The title of the piece removes the classical association of male nude with strength and heroism. Instead, the title invites the viewer to question the relationship of the male body in his environment and how he physically uses his body to express himself in society.
Paris Ackrill photographic print Immersion (2015) pushes the conversation of what place does the female nude have in modern art and society. The photographs illustrate a young woman lying in the forest with her head cropped out of the image. This photograph beautifully explores the relationship between female sexuality and nakedness with the sensuality and spirituality of the natural world. By conjuring up these ideas into one photo, the titled immersion equally celebrates the organic beauty of women and nature as one entity.