The nude figure has featured as a major and very important theme in art for centuries. This is what i discovered when researching and analysing the depiction of the male and female nude and how it has changed over the centuries:
Kenneth Clark in his classical study ‘the nude , a study in ideal form’ states that in the greatest age of painting, the nude inspired the greatest works.’
During the period of antiquity ( 900BC – 300 AD) in Greece and Rome the nude figure is celebrated in many art fields particularly in sculpture . The naked male form seems to be used primarily to represent human male beauty and to hi light physical strength , and virility the male nude is athletic and very idolised . The gods were shown in all their glory and their beauty and were worshipped and revered as perfection , Greek athletics celebrated mascular strength and beauty . The male Gods were almost always depicted naked.The Greeks did not celebrate female beauty they were not interested in the female form and regarded the male form as the ideal notion of beauty .
There then followed a period in art history when the nude all but disappeared mainly suppressed by the church. But the advent of the renaissance art movement that emerged in Italty produced a revival celebrating the nude form, particularly from the years 1400-1600. Botticelli ( c.1445-1510) produced the celebrated painting ‘the birth of Venus’ . The figure of Venus stands naked in a large clam like shell. Botticelli’s Venus is pale with slight shoulders and seemingly impossibly long limbs and an enlonglated neck. Her breasts seem too high and long flowing hair covers her genitals. The expression on her face is haughty and indifferent. But I somehow feel that despite Venus being the inbediment of female beauty her face seems to be very masculine including the shape and set of her jaw? Does Botticelli’s Venus represent the ideal female beauty? So I was not surprised to learn that artists of the Renaissance period did not draw from the female nude but that they used boys as their models. Titian (c.1488-1576) during the late Renaissance period painted ‘The Venus of Urbino’ . Titan’s Venus is depicted naked and reclining like Botticelli’s Venus her hand is covering her genitals. But unlike Botticelli’s Venus the Titian Venus seems to have a more feminine appearance and body type. Raphael ( 1483-1520) is usually credited as being the first artist to use a nude female model.The male nude was also celebrated in sculpture such as Michelangelo’s ( 1475-1564) famous David. In his Sistine chapel frescoes there are several male nudes. Bosch ( 1450-1515) produced almost grotesque naked figures in his nightmarish fantasy pictures.
In the baroque artistic movement classical antiquity was still the major influence when working from the nude figure. The profilic Flemish painter Rubens ( 1577-1640) used the naked human form in many of his works. Rubens women seem to be a complete departure from the usual nude figure they are pale, fleshly , curvy and voluptuous. They are depicted as sensual , sexual , fecund and fertile completely different from the androgynous nudes seen in Renaissance art. I recently visited the Dulwich picture gallery in London and looked at some of Rubens work including a small monochrome study of “the three Graces” however Rubens male nudes are closer in style to classical ideals of masculinity – with an athlete physique and perfect looks and sometimes demonstrating power and strength by being depicted with weapons such as swords.
Later baroque art leading to the rococo period had a more decorative approach to depicting the female nude. The female nude is placed in elaborate and picturesque settings reclining on rich bright fabrics. these nudes seem very sensual and alluring. Spanish artist Goya ( b. 1746-1828) Painted ‘ The Maja’ around 1797-1800 the model grazes out of the painting in a completely unashamed manner. Velazquez ( c.1599-1660) painted c. 1647-1651 the ‘Rokeby Venus’ ( his only surviving female nude). The Venus figure is reclining looking away from the viewer her son Cupid is holding a mirror up and her face is glimpsed in the mirror. I really like the curves and shape of her back. Interestingly nudes were very rare in seventeenth century Spain due to the activities of the Spanish Inquisition however the Royal court had a private collection of nudes by foreign artists. While researching nudes in art I found out very little about the male nude during the baroque period, it seems as though the genre had moved away from the classical notion of celebrating the male form and physique.
During the nineteenth century the female naked form was depicted in a more suggestive and sexual way often celebrating the sensuality of the female form. Manet ( 1832-1883 ) painted his celebrated work ‘le dejeuner sur l’herbe in 1862-1863. Manet was a painter of modern life so in the painting his nude is placed in a 1860s setting. The naked woman is seen picnicking with two very formally dressed young men. The young men seem to be engaged in a lively discussion oblivious to the woman. The woman is painted looked directly out of the canvas in a knowing manner – she almost seems to invite the viewer to look at her nakedness in an completely unabashed way daring the viewer to be shocked . She seems comfortable in her body. Nineteenth century artist were often commissioned to produce pictures of the female nude for wealthy collectors. The French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877 ) painted ‘la origin du mont( the origin of the world) ‘ in 1866 for a Turkish Egyptian diplomat. The painting was seen as daring to the Victorians as Courbet’s painting is of a close -up of a naked woman ( her head and face is not in the picture). The woman is lying in a natural position with her legs spread exposing her stomach , her genitals and her dark pubic hair. The picture does to me seen daring and what struck me in particular was that the model has visible pubic hair as most art of this time does not include visible pubic hair and often the genitals are partly covered over.
The impressionists produced a wealth of celebrated works depicting the naked female form. Renoir ( 1841-1919 produced several works of a naked woman. Renoir used impressionist brush strokes in a dappled manner with colour -, the effect seems to give a sense of light and texture to the female form. His models have a roundness and softness , however the figures seemed to have a youthful innocence than is sensual rather than overtly sexual. Degas ( 1834-1917) was concerned with placing his models into intimate setting such as bathing, dressing and drying their hair. Clearly influenced by early photography Degas’s models are glimpsed from behind so we the viewer are almost peering in on an private scene in an almost voyeuristic manner. Many of these works drawings are in colourful pastels – Degas skilfully uses the medium to build up the soft shapes and structure of the form with superb mark making. Again I was struck by how little male nudes were produced in the nineteenth century it seems as though the Greek and classical ideals of masculine beauty has finally been eclipsed by feminine beauty.
Many late nineteenth century and early twentieth artistic movement studied and explored the naked form but to me the movement that seems to stand out is the expressionism who used their art to convey emotions.They were very much concerned with themes of life, sex and death.The expressionists also seemed to be one of the first group of artists to include both male and female nude figures. Austrian Egon Schiele ( 1890-1918) who died aged just 28 produced a prolific body of work on paper using mainly water based medium of nudes. Schiele’s nudes are highly charged with a raw visceral sexuality. His male and female figures have twisted almost contorted limbs and their facial features seem almost to imply that they are are caught in an orgasmic state. The models are thin and emaciated with the awkwardness of an adolescence. Schiele also produced haunting nude self portraits . In his self portraits we see painfully thin sinewy limbs but what I find most interesting is the way he drew his face with an expression that is hard to discern – his eyes seem large and shrunken in his almost Skeletal and wasted face – these drawings are both powerful and moving. During his life time Schiele was accused of producing pornography. The Norwegian artist and printmaker Edvard Munch ( 1863-1944) produced many female and male nude figures heavy with symbolism. Like Schiele there also appears to be evident sexual undertones in his work. In ‘puberty ‘ Munch depicted a young girl naked sitting stiffly on the edge of a bed. She is staring straight ahead with wide eyes. Her posture seems tense. Art critics have often seen the painting as a symbol of sexual awakening or even having a more sinister meaning as there is a dark and very omnious shadow glimpsed to the left of the girl. Munch also painted some lively and energetic works of groups of naked men seen at leisure and also groups of bathing men. Many of these works depict very mascular and virile young men – almost reminiscent of Greek ideology of the perfect male form. Later in life Munch produced a naked self portrait in typical Bright expressionist colours but this time he paints a elderly imperfect body a real move from his idealistic bathing men. In many ways I believe that the expressionists opened up the way for the modern artist – now artists could produce nude works depicting male and female models. Artists in the twentieth century were able to explore the human form in many more new and experimental ways. The study of the naked form became an essential dispcline for art students. Instead of drawing from castes artists were able to draw from life models.
Contemporary artists continue to explore the human body – as there is a wide range to look at I have decided to focus on two artists:
Jenny Saville ( born 1970) is concerned with modern bodies. In 1994 Saville did a series of work in response to plastic surgery. Some of this work depicts women with the surgeons black pen markings on their bodies – almost like a strange form of body art or tattoo. Saville also produced work depicting transsexuals and Hermaphrodites as she is fascinated in the way that many people hold fast to a notion that their natural self isn’t the real them – and that her work continues to be preoccupied by what she terms a sense of ‘in- betweenness ‘ ( source the Guardian newspaper http://www.guardian.com – 9th June 2012) . I found Saville’s ideas very interesting as in a sense she appears to be concerned not only the physical form of the body but with her model’s innermost psyche and how body image has became very much a 21st century issue. Saville is inspired with exploring different body types and has explored obesity.
George Shaw ( b.1966) a Turner prize nominee usually produces figurative landscapes of modern urban Life . For the past two years Shaw has been the artist in residence at the National gallery. His latest show ‘my back to nature’ has just opened at the National gallery ( showing until 30 October 2016) the exhibition is Shaw’s response to the old master collection. The exhibition starts with a series of large charcoal drawings of the artist naked. ‘In the sadness of the middle-aged model (12) 2015’ Shaw has drawn himself with his feet together and both arms out stretched , his head falls to one side as though he is Christ on the cross ( source review in the Observer newspaper Sunday 15th May) – I intent to go along and see the exhibition.
To conclude when researching and analysing the depiction of the male and female nude in art. I found out a wide range of interesting facts. Including the way historically Ideals of the nude form was sometimes dictated on by ideology. In early art the male form was celebrated and almost revered. I found out that artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period used male models to depict the female nude. I discovered information about working processes that artists learnt to draw from caste models rather than live models. I learn how the church decided what was acceptable to paint. I found out How artists were expected to modestly cover up female genitals and that both nude men and woman did not have their pubic hair depicted.. I learnt that work seen to be of a sexual nature was deemed to be indecent or pornographic. It was interesting to discover that during the nineteenth century the majority of nude art was of woman.
But mostly I discovered that despite the major development and changes in art today with advances in technology and artist mediums – drawing from life is still important for artists and that basic working practices have not changed much during the last century.
‘the nude’ a study of ideal art by Kenneth Clark penguin books 0-14-017336-6