Thursday, 22 December 2011

Thoughts on the nude as art

Statutory warning: everything in this post is my own opinion and more likely than not hogwash.

I still remember the first nude art I ever saw.

I must have been about seven or eight years old. My youngest uncle, then about eighteen or nineteen, and a college student, had brought home a calendar, and showed it around at the dinner table.

It was a calendar of nude artwork (at this distance in time I can’t recall them too well but I’m pretty sure they were by European masters of the Renaissance era), and not the most common thing to be passed around over dinner – not back in the late seventies, when there was no TV hereabouts and a bikini in a magazine ad was about as much skin as one could ever see.

My grandmother, that gracious lady, didn’t turn a hair.  I still remember her looking at one of the paintings – depicting a man clasping a woman from behind and stabbing her between the breasts – and discussing how well the whole thing was painted, how the woman’s eyes were crinkled with agony, and so on. She didn’t even mention the fact that nobody had any clothes on.

This little episode was my first introduction to something that I’d never even thought about – nudity as art. Back then, nakedness had either been something to be ashamed of, or something one didn’t even think about. It wasn’t anything to do with sex, of course, because our parents and teachers back in those days pretended sex didn’t exist.

It was much later – long after I’d outgrown the teenage hormonal rush which made me look at every exposed nipple with a thrill going from my brain down to my genitals – that I began to re-examine the concept of nudity as art, and art pure and simple. You know, like the shift when one person’s dirty postcard became his own art masterpiece. Not, actually, that I needed all that much persuasion to start thinking of nudity as art. Most of it seemed too plastic to show real people anyway.

Is that silicone, or am I mistaken?

Now, of course, there are two distinct subdivisions of art – the naturalistic and the stylised. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’d assume the stylised would come first and give way to the naturalistic at a later date, when techniques and technology developed. By which you realise that I know nothing whatever about art.

The point that stuck in my mind though was this: why was nudity art? Specifically, in probably 80% of instances, why was the naked female form art? (Please understand that I’m not including pornographic or erotic art here.) Starting off with the Venus of Willendorf, a piece of Neolithic sculpture for which my own admiration has been utterly unfeigned since I first laid eyes on her. 

What is it about the unclothed form – and, if you set aside Michelangelo, just about always the unclothed female form – that draws out artists?

I don’t have a specific answer, but let me stick my neck out anyway – the nude as art exists because we are all drawn to the female sex as a nurturing and generative figure. Just like the Venus of Willendorf, which was most likely a fertility figure, ultimately the female nude is the equivalent of worship of the feminine in a form which isn’t readily recognisable as worship.

This can take the form of naked goddesses, like Diana:

Or Kali:

 And don't forget her, either:

Am I the only one wondering how the cloth stays on?

Or it can look like this, whatever the hell it is:

Pubic hair and all

I assume the artist had some kind of mammary fixation. Well, that pretty much proves it. 

I rest my case.

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