Why Is Nudity Important in Art?

A few years ago I was visiting my mother, sister, and ten-year-old nephew in Seattle after spending several months in Paris. We were sitting around my laptop looking at pictures I’d taken throughout the city, I hoping to inspire my artistically inclined nephew in some way, they probably somewhat bored with what to them amounted to little more than vacation photos. And I would not begrudge this boredom—destination photos are usually only interesting to the person who took them.

Anyways, I was clicking us through the shots I’d taken at Musée d’Orsay when we came upon a photo that caused them all to sit up straight and break out of their torpor. It was L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) by Gustave Courbet—a big, tufted, photorealistic vagina.

The change in the room was noticeable. Both my mother and sister became visibly nervous, and one of them urged me to move on to the next photo. Meanwhile, my nephew was peering with interest.

'L’Origine du monde' by Gustave Courbet (1866)

“It’s a very important painting,” I said before clicking on to a less circumstantially-discomforting photo—another painting by Courbet in which a stag is being torn apart by hunting dogs.

This brief incident made me wonder, why did this sudden imposition of nudity—nudity beautifully captured in a renowned masterpiece, no less—have such a startling effect on its viewers? Was it because they were uptight Americans rather than salacious French? Was it because the painting is so lifelike? Or perhaps because the organ-in-question itself was depersonalized by a lack of head and limbs? Maybe the bigger question is—what role does nudity play in art?

The Changing Role of Nudity in Art

Nudity has been present in art for just about as long as humans have been creating it.

The earliest depictions of nudity were often homages to fertility, which eventually gave way to the ancient Greeks’ expression of appreciation for the human form—usually male depictions of nude gods, heroes, athletes, and warriors. The Greeks tended to clothe women in their art, a tradition that wasn’t broken until the fourth century BCE, when Praxiteles sculpted a nude Aphrodite. Around then, seduction began creeping into western art (though it is worth mentioning that the Hindus had worked sexuality into their art for some time).

Each of us has a body and every one of us was born naked, but for a range of complex social reasons, our relationship to our own bodies and the bodies of others have been distorted for centuries.

Nick Hilden

When the Christians came onto the scene, naked bodies were promptly withdrawn from art, with the exception of Jesus on the cross or the nursing Madonna. It wasn’t until the end of the medieval era that attractive female forms began reemerging, and Donatello’s Renaissance-era sculpture of David was the first freestanding nude since antiquity. Shortly after this, Michelangelo’s David was censored with a fig leaf, though his Sistine Chapel ceiling did bring male nudes back into the picture. Around this time Botticelli’s Birth of Venus gave the female form mainstream acceptance.

Nudity was fair game at that point, and over the next two-hundred years we saw nudity separate gradually from religious and mythological symbolism. Suddenly it was acceptable to enjoy nudity for the sake of nudity, and we were given revolutionary pieces from Goya (Nude Maja, which got him in trouble with the Inquisition), Rubens, Degas, Rodin, Renoir, Modigliani, and so on.

'Nude Descending a Staircase' by Marcel Duchamp (1912)

Then in 1912, the pesky Cubist/Dadaist Marcel Duchamp shook things up again with his Nude Descending a Staircase which was refused by the Paris Salon under the reasoning, “A nude never descends the stairs—it reclines.” Rejected by the Cubists in Europe then ridiculed in New York, Duchamp’s painting caused such an uproar largely because it broke with the generally established tradition that nudes—and especially female nudes—are supposed to portray object rather than agency; passivity rather than activity.

Spurned in its day, this painting went on to inspire generations of artists to come.

Nudity in Art Today

Thanks to rule-breakers like Duchamp, nude art in the 21st Century is open to new considerations.

During and after the sexual revolutions of the 1920s and 1960s-1980s, art that portrayed nudity in manners that were graphic and sometimes shocking pushed the boundaries of social acceptance. Women began asserting control over depictions of nudity, and female artists and models began implying questions about power relations between the artist, the subject, and the viewer.

The work of Cindy Sherman, for example, offered a voyeuristic portrayal spanning themes and questions pertaining to beauty, violence, lust, control, and agency. Her subjects (including herself) posed of their own free will, but they were often in controlled, frightening situations that nevertheless implied sensuality, leaving the viewer to question their own role in this confusing power dynamic.

'Untitled' by Cindy Sherman (1997)

Now in the era of #MeToo, all art featuring nudity has become political, eliciting more questions than ever. Who is doing the modeling—a stranger, friend, or lover—and what does that relation connote? What is the intention—to shock, to admire, to arouse? **Is nudity objectifying or empowering? **

Each of us has a body and every one of us was born naked, but for a range of complex social reasons, our relationship to our own bodies and the bodies of others have been distorted for centuries. Nudity in art serves as a sort of mirror forcing us to confront the way society has confounded our bodily relations. It reminds us that the human body can be both beautiful and grotesque, innocent and sexualized, free and controlled, and it forces us to consider where our own beliefs fall in these spectrums.

The Origin of the World was initially commissioned as an erotic work for the private collection owned by one of Courbet’s benefactors. Amidst the conservatism of France’s Second Empire, it was the painter’s intentional attempt to retrieve nudity from the religiosity to which it had been tied since the Middle Ages.

In this he was successful, for while nude art can certainly still be controversial, it delves into themes that go far beyond Eve in the garden or Venus’ clam.

Whatever the case, we live in a time when nudity can be beautiful, it can be agitating, and it can be revolutionary.


Article written by Nick Hilden

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