Transforming nakedness into nudity

Vineet Gill | Updated on January 20, 2018

Modern times: ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ by Marcel Duchamp, consideredto be a modernist masterpiece.   -  The Hindu Archives

The history of the nude in art is one of prudishness, submission and body appropriation

To what extent can the erotic be separated from the pornographic? This was one of the questions that preoccupied many artists and critics across Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries. And the debate played out at its explicit best in the arena of the visual arts, where the nude painting — championed as the preserve of the refined and the erotic — competed for eyeballs with contraband porno prints, depicting naked human figures, which were apparently quite the rage even in the pre-camera years.

The dualism between nudity and nakedness wouldn’t be obvious to us today, but the two words have entirely separate meanings, as the British art critic Kenneth Clark went to such great lengths to establish in his book The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. “To be naked,” he wrote, “is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude’, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.”

According to Clark’s theory, the artist’s job is to transform nakedness into nudity — to use the human body as subject matter and portray, not as it really is, warts and all, but as it really should be if it were to attain some kind of ‘ideal form’. If we look at some of the nudes painted by the Victorian artist William Etty, we get a rough understanding of what such an ideal was meant to convey: classical anatomies, yearning expressions and, most important of all, a conspicuous lack of genitalia.

Etty’s nudes were publicly denounced by his more esteemed contemporaries John Constable and JMW Turner, both of whom harboured a puritan’s distaste, perhaps hypocritical, for anything remotely categorised as smut. It could have been the fear of complete alienation that forced painters like Etty to self-censor their nudes, by using fig leaves or loincloths. But then, he was working within a tradition that went back centuries in Europe, at least to the time of classical antiquity — a tradition that had its own set of conventions and formulae in place, with the fig leaf being one of the lines that separated pornography from erotica.

It’s remarkable to witness the level of stylistic consistency that the European nude has maintained over the last few centuries. ‘Venus of Urbino’ by Titian and ‘La Grande Odalisque’ by Ingres are separated by almost 300 years; yet they are more similar, both in form and spirit, than two landscapes or even portraits held this far apart in time. It’s difficult to pinpoint the reasons for this. Still, the most convincing explanation comes from the critic John Berger, who, in his book Ways of Seeing, interprets the nude as a cultural manifestation of flagrant misogyny and, its corollary, male dominance.

The nude, Berger believes, involves the sort of depiction of human figures (female for the most part) that deprives them of their humanity. Brilliantly turning Clark’s theory of nudity and nakedness on its head, Berger writes: “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.”

Submissiveness — expressed through the reclining, supine posture of the model — is a recurring theme in these paintings. Indeed, the model’s nakedness itself, Berger says, “is a sign of submission to the owner’s feelings or demands. (The owner of both woman and painting.)”

So there we have it — the nude as the direct origin of the female-sex-object trope that drives, even today, the worlds of advertising and pornography. Pick up a fashion magazine (or a porn magazine) and place the photographs you find in it next to an image of the Titian nude mentioned above, or next to something by Modigliani. Compare the expressions and postures, and you’d be left astonished at how frequently the stylistic overlaps occur. Such has been the artistic impact of the nude.

This tradition held a sort of magnetic pull even over the most delinquent of geniuses. We often forget that the two seminal works in the history of modernism were nudes. Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, the point where cubism took root; and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2’, that shook the very foundations of academic art: both these works were informed by the conventions of the European nude, and both were attempts to tear down existing templates.

Another important contributor to this field was the star-crossed Austrian painter Egon Schiele, who died, at 28, in 1918. What Schiele’s many nude self-portraits and sketches did was to focus exactly on those elements that would have been considered off-limits by an artist like Etty. He radicalised the form more than any other modernist, by burning down every single fig leaf of modesty, and by fixing the artist’s (and consequently the viewer’s) gaze on that central problem of the European nude, namely the genitals.

In ancient Indian painting and sculpture, portrayals of nudity shared nothing of the squeamishness you find in Western art. Sex is offered as an almost hallucinatory theme in these, and the naked body is treated with an innocence that, say, a landscape painter reserves for nature.

But there are few examples of the conventional nude to be found in modern art in India. The exceptions — like the several nudes by FN Souza; or some of the paintings and drawings by Bhupen Khakhar — have much more in common with Schiele’s idiom than with anyone else’s. These works are evidence that categories like the pornographic can be truly transcended when an artist begins to treat the human form as human flesh.

Vineet Gill is a journalist with The Sunday Guardian

Published on June 24, 2016

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