Although the English word nude is derived from the Latin nudus meaning "naked," "bare," it connotes, especially in such phrases as "in the nude" or "The Nude," more than a state of undress; rather it indicates a work of art, a cultural convention, and a socioreligious attitude. The term The Nude signifies a Western cultural ideology while nudity is a universal human condition.
The British painter Walter Sickert (1860–1942) is credited with the first art critical discussion of "The Nude" as a formal convention of academic art (1910). Formal academic analyses were initiated with Kenneth Clark's 1953 Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts on the meaning and motif of "The Nude" in Western art that he subtitled "a study in ideal form." Clark described the distinction between "The Nude" and "the naked" as a cultural attitude predicated on political, religious, and societal perceptions of the body and human sexuality. The classical Greek was nude while the medieval Christian was naked. The former recognized the body as an embodiment of sacred energy and form interdependent with philosophic and cultural attitudes toward the individual person, human dignity, and creativity. The latter was premised upon the recognition of human finitude and the sinful state in which Christians lived, and thereby affected Christian perceptions of the individual person, human dignity, and creativity.
As a state of both physical nakedness and spiritual power, the nude figure is an elemental component of the cultural legacy of human civilization. The vast differences in the spirit and the reception of both the human body and the meaning of nudity from the prehistoric to modern, from East to West, deepens the layers of cultural accumulations. Nude figures are found in gendered formations of both male and female in the guises of divinities, heroes, warriors, or mythological beings. This iconology is bequeathed visually from Egyptian monuments, Khajuraho reliefs, Cypriote statues, Indian and Persian miniatures, and classical sculptures.
"The Nude" as defined by Clark is not a proper iconographic category, although it appears in Western art both in religious iconography and in a variety of artistic topoi ranging from historical, mythological, biblical, allegorical, narrative, and pornographic themes to genre scenes. "The Nude," however, is a Western type relating concepts of the body, philosophy, religions, and aesthetics that begin with the recognition of "The Nude" as an aesthetic object and as "high art" first in classical Greece and then in the Renaissance.
Portrayals of the human figure as incarnation or manifestation of the deity is a fundamental connector through the arts and religious values of East and West. The Western disposition is premised upon the classical Greek tenet that the idealized perfection of the physical denotes the model of divine beauty. The Eastern classification proceeds from the Indian principle that the creation of supernatural beauty is through abstractions of the physical body. Nonetheless, there are regional interpretations on the meaning of nudity throughout Eastern and Western cultures. In India, nudity suggests simultaneously the sensuality of fertility spirits (female nudity) and supreme yogic control (male nudity); whereas the human body is a didactic illustration of moral and ethical teachings in the Far East, especially with the advent of Confucian ethics.
The decision to depict nudity whether for a male or a female figure is as much a decision of aesthetic and artistic appropriateness as it is a moral issue. For example, many world religions identify those believers who celebrate religious rituals and ceremonies "sky clad," that is, naked. Among Tantrics, the state of being "sky clad" signifies the state of being without rank, caste, or socioeconomic class. For Jains, because the Jain path to enlightenment is through extreme asceticism, there was a conflict between nudity as a state of purity and the impurity of women. Nudity represented the highest ideal of nonattachment; however, the question was whether women could attain enlightenment and salvation. By 80 c.e., Jainism was divided into two factions over the relationship between nudity, salvation, and women. Digambara advocated the necessity of nudity and extreme asceticism as the path to salvation; and that, because female nudity was unacceptable, there was no salvation for women. Shvetambara recognized that ascetic nudity was not the only salvific path, thereby affirming the possibility of female enlightenment.
Other religious traditions, whether premised on mythology, revelation, or scriptures, identified female nudity as a positive value. For example, "the goddess" was identified as dwelling in her flesh, not in her garments. Her sacred power, as with that of mortal women, was released by a state of nudity, whereas the magic power of gods and men required the condition of being fully clothed as self-definition was concretized in uniforms, badges, and decorations of rank. Body types, attitudes toward the body, and the artistic renderings of the human form reflected religious and societal values as much as the decision to depict an individual as an identifiable person or as simply a male or female type.
There are four principal philosophic perspectives on "The Nude" in Western culture. The classical perspective is established from the Platonic mathematical foundation of all forms in combination with the Neoplatonic conviction that the human was a symbol of the harmonious arrangement of the universe as a reflection of God. Christianity reversed this view in response to the theological attitudes toward human fallibility, finitude, and original sin as pronounced by Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Jerome (c. 347–?420). Renaissance philosophers retrieved and reframed the classical definition as epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), who identified "Man as the measure of the Universe" and envisioned "The Nude" in his Vitruvian Man (1492; Gallerie dell' Accademia, Venice). The modern position is predicated on the liberation of "The Nude" from the boundaries of mythology and religion during the Enlightenment, and finds its fullest expression in Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World (1866; Musée D'Orsay, Paris).
Survey in Western Culture
Western art and culture have premised "The Nude" upon the classical Greek legacy and Christian transformations until the mid-nineteenth century when the philosophy and political revolution of the Enlightenment bore fruit in realism and the secularization of twentieth-century art movements. The Greek "cult of the nude" was imbued with cultural, philosophic, and religious meaning. Beyond the ideal of divine beauty was the Greek philosophy of freedom and dignity of the individual—nudity was synonymous with integrity. Legendary heroes, ideal figures, mythological personalities, and triumphant warriors were characterized as being "in the nude." As the first flowering of "The Nude," Greek art praised what it knew in daily life: the handsome beauty of the male form. Public nudity was a normative condition for men who participated in athletic competitions, exercised at the gymnasium, and partook of the public baths. The Greek ideal of a sound mind and a healthy body was attained in the gymnasium, which was simultaneously a center for education and athletics; all the academies of philosophy had their centers in a gymnasium. Clothes were removed in order to exercise and to be able to think without restraints. The Greek root of gymnasium is gumnos, "to be naked, nude, or bare." Nudity was a condition of physical and mental freedom.
With the advent of Christianity, "The Nude" and the idea of nudity were transformed into reminders of human finitude and guilt, and of the sinful state, especially for women. Augustine of Hippo and Jerome, among other early Church fathers, decried the classical glorification of the human body and denounced the connection between "The Nude" and human sexuality, thereby transmogrifying nudity from a condition of innocence, idealism, and integrity into one of guilt, materialism, and vice.
Descriptions and depictions of "The Nude" in Christian iconography were restricted to scriptural narratives. The biblical narratives recount varied episodes in which nudity is appropriate for the story, as in a bathing sequence, and for either men or women. For example, Adam, Eve, Susannah, David, Bathsheba, Salome, and Jesus of Nazareth are depicted in states of total or partial undress. However in Christian iconography nudity embodied more often than not the condition of shame, especially with regard to women as the "daughters of Eve." The artistic and literary tradition of Western culture, especially Christianity, may be characterized as influenced by the legacy of Eve, and in particular, established the motif of the femme fatale, or fatal woman, from the characterization of women as seducers of men as prefigured in the scriptural stories of Eve, Delilah, Bathsheba, Salome, and eventually, even, the Jewish heroine Judith.
The Renaissance recovery of classical philosophy, art, and literature promoted a revival of interest in "The Nude" beyond the confines of scriptural narratives and Christian morality lessons. However, the Renaissance was distanced by centuries of political, social, and economic meliorations from classical Greece and Rome, and even further distanced from the classical philosophy and culture that were the foundation for the classical nude. Although premised upon classical models, Renaissance nudes differed in constructions of musculature and gender. The female nude, with the familiar exception of the Venus pudica, was absent from the mainstream of the classical arts. She became a popular motif in the Renaissance arts even up to Giorgione's (1477–1510) creation of the reclining female nude found in his Sleeping Venus (1508–1510; Gemaldegalerie, Dresden). This Renaissance flowering of interest in "The Nude" extended into northern Europe where Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) fashioned his famous study of the principles of perspective and anatomy in Artist Drawing a Reclining Nude (c. 1527: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which affirmed the dichotomy of female passivity and male activity.
The popularity of "The Nude," whether male or female, among both Renaissance artists and their patrons garnered the attention of ecclesiastical leaders. This impropriety was dramatically decried by the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498), whose preaching influenced significant Renaissance artists including Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Botticelli (1445–1510), and ultimately led to the infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities" in the public square in Florence. However, official Church condemnation of "The Nude" was not pronounced until the Council of Trent (1545), and then, only tangentially. From the Tridentine decree forward, artworks intended for the Church were to be inspected and approved by the bishop of each diocese; appropriate local or regional decrees were promulgated clarifying or expanding upon the phrase "all lasciviousness avoided."
The modern conception of "The Nude" is premised upon the multiple political, social, and cultural revolutions of the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. It found expression in the arts of the realists, such as Gustave Courbet(1819–1877), and the Orientalists, beginning with Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) in Death of Sardanapalus (1827; Musée du Louvre, Paris), who present the plausibility and eroticism of "The Nude," especially of the female nude. Freed from confinement of mythology, history, or narrative, the female nude flowered in the arts of the Impressionists, who reinterpreted the classical motif of the bathing Venus into secularized female bathers and who were influenced by Japonisme. (For example, Torei Kayonaga's depictions of restrained geishas were translated into Édouard Manet's [1832–1883] defiant prostitutes.) Furthermore, in the nineteenth century, the introduction of female students into art academies and ultimately into life drawing classes began a transformation of the "male gaze" into the "female gaze" whether the subject was a female or male model. Commensurately, the central position of the male nude was diminished, so that from the perspective of late twentieth-century art criticism and feminism to speak of "The Nude" is to speak of the female nude.
The female nude extends beyond the boundaries of allegory and metaphor to become an expression of sexual provocativeness, eroticism, sexual appeal, and potentially, voyeurism throughout twentieth-century art beginning with Pablo Picasso's (1881–1973) famed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York). "The Nude," which had been a motif of spiritual and moral uplift for the classical world, was transformed not simply into an image of Christian shame and embarrassment but into a modern object of profane physicality.
The relationship of "The Nude" as both an object and a subject of high art to voyeurism and pornography has been raised since the mid-nineteenth century. As Clark so perceptively noted, there is no innocent depiction of a naked body. Each of us sees through a distinctive but personalized lens, so one person's aesthetic encounter with "The Nude" is another person's moment of voyeurism. Further, definitions of pornography shift with cultural attitudes as witnessed in the commentaries by the American writer Mark Twain or Supreme Court rulings.
Eastern and Western Attitudes toward "Nudity"
Eastern and Western attitudes toward nudity can best be compared through discussions of both the male and the female nude. The former signify the ideal of moral perfection and the latter the vitality of the life principle.
The Greek image of Apollo is that of a standing, aloof, proud, and nude male figure. He is the ultimate ideal athlete. He was anthropomorphized into the kouros who is distinguished by his rigid frontal pose accented by arms pressed closely down his sides. This stasis is relieved by the placement of one foot, thereby also the leg, forward from the other to signify human dynamism. The visual combination of ideal male beauty through an identifiable muscular structure and movement provides the viewer with the sensation of a vital man. The Greek ideal of the athlete is the conjunction of physicality and spirituality through the vehicle of "The Nude."
The Jain image of the ascetic, or tirthankara, is that of a superhuman and heroic figure whose broad shoulders and narrowed waist were similar to that of Apollo or the kouros. This figuration of a frontal pose with firmly indented arms is balanced by his straight legs. The portrayal of suspended animation fulfills the requirements of the spiritual tenet of kayotsarga, or the dismissal of the body, as this yogic trance permits complete withdrawal from all earthly distractions. The Jain image of nudity is a signifier of asceticism and of the spiritual ideal. The identifiable, and thereby natural, muscular structure and intimated movement of the kouros promoted divine-human association, while the suppression, thereby abstractions, of muscular structure and motion of the tirthankara emphasized his symbolic value.
In both East and West, the female nude is predicated on a cult image that is provocative and sensuous in appeal. The Greek goddess, Aphrodite, was simultaneously the personification of love and beauty and the achievement of the idealized female body. The captivating undulations of the feminine form combined with softness and delicacy of skin and muscle denoted the sensuality necessary for procreation. Greek representations of the topography of the female nude vacillated between depictions of innocence, as in the motif of The Birth of Aphrodite (470-460 b.c.e.; Museo Nazionale Romano delle Terme, Rome), and of flirtation, as in the topos of the Venus pudica found in the Medici Venus (first century b.c.e.; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The body proportions, like those of the Apollo and the kouros, were based upon mathematical formulations.
The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked 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. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.
source: Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (Mellon Lectures, 1953), p. 3.
The Indian yakshi, the oldest indigenous nature goddess or fertility spirit, signifies fecundity through the abstractions of her nude body. Her spherical breasts, like her ample hips and conspicuous pudenda, are enlarged in mathematical relation to the female frame and head to emphasize feminine sensuality and maternal potential. Yakshi are situated in exaggerated postures and positions to denote the erotic abstractions of the female body. The naturalistic harmony of the human standards of feminine beauty found in Aphrodite made both the divine and the human female approachable and tangible, whereas the symbolic abstractions of the nude yakshi tempered physicality with yogic restraint.
The Conundrum of Non-Western Culture and the Idea of "The Nude"
Discussions and scholarship on "The Nude" are decidedly Western in form and focus. Ostensibly, this is not a result of Western imperialism but more likely than not the influence of the Western monotheistic traditions with their distinctive morality and defense of the integrity of the one God. For example, Islamic art is normatively interpreted as aniconic, or nonfigural, in its emphasis on geometric abstractions. Although there is no Koranic prohibition against figural art or art, there is clear prohibition of images of either of idols or of God. For some commentators, the absence of the figure, especially the nude figure, is interpreted as a visual sign distinguishing Islam and Islamic art from Christianity and Christian art, which is fundamentally obsessed with Eve's nakedness and her role in the Fall. By contrast, Eve when she is depicted in Islamic art is the joyous companion of Adam. Commensurately, when those exceptionally rare nude figures are painted, whether male or female, they appear only in commissioned works of what might be best termed "secular Islamic art."
And they were both naked: to wit, Adam and his wife: and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:25)
And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave it to her husband, who did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened: and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons.
And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise at the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God, amidst the trees of paradise.
And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: Where art thou?
And he said: I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.
And he said to him: And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat? (Genesis 3:6-11)
source: Douay-Rheims Bible.
However in the non-Western world, attitudes toward nudity and the nude figure are characterized by their naturalness and ease and not categorized as a special art category or motif, except when the arts of Africa, Oceania, or Meso-America are examined with Western criteria. The first reality of nudity as a state of undress, whether ritually required or common to daily life experience, is a universal condition. The second reality of nudity is that neither the art nor religion of these indigenous cultures is monolithic as Western art and monotheism is perceived to be. Rather, for example, African figural art is naturalistic among the Ife and Benin of Nigeria but other African peoples image themselves with simplified and/or exaggerated anatomical features. A third reality of nudity is that differing climates and their resident cultures require a variety of dress in both fabric and style to accommodate native meteorological conditions. So thinner materials and lighter colors are more appropriate to warmer climates while heavier fabrics and darker colors conform to the needs of cooler climates. From the Western perspective, especially that of the nineteenth-century missionaries, the exposed breasts and bare feet of Polynesian or African women were considered a social affront. Simultaneously for some nineteenth-century European colonialists, the shock of this tribal or societal nudity was the foundation for the myth of "The Noble Savage" as the concept of the le primitif was for their twentieth-century counterparts. This Western myth of idyllic innocence and primal energy coincided with a belief that primitive peoples were free of moral constraints and middle-class concerns. However defined, the arts of these varied primitive cultures were highly influential on twentieth-century art from Picasso and Henri Matisse (1869–1954) to the Abstract Expressionists.
Scholarship of "The Nude"
Kenneth Clark, who distinguished between naked and nude with relation to cultural, philosophic, and religious attitudes in the classic and Western Christian worlds, initiated the formal study of "The Nude." His masterful analysis of the postures, gestures, poses, and body formations of the undressed human figure defined the parameters of analyses on this topic. Whether consciously or not, all following studies on "The Nude," whether differentiating between the male and the female nude, or looking at both gendered figurations, are dependent upon Clark's fundamental definition either as a point of departure or argument. John Berger's investigation of the relationship between the spectator and "The Nude," particularly the female nude, and that between fine art and modern advertising, was a significant development in the study of "The Nude."
Since the late 1960s, the establishment of the new scholarship of "the marginalized," with its origins in the questions of race, gender, class, or ethnicity (Melody Davis, Julia Kristeva, Edward Lucie-Smith, Lynda Nead) has expanded the boundaries of examination. Feminist scholarship, for example, disproved the cultural concept of a "hermeneutics of aesthetic innocence" and thereby of "The Nude" as neutral. Feminists then proceeded to examine the political and societal minefield of domination and submission when "The Nude" was created by a male artist for a male patron. Further, the critique of le regard as the (male) gaze was crucial for feminist and gender scholars who advocated the existence of a female gaze in which women artists painted either male or female nudes to be admired and to stimulate the female viewer. The presumption here is that men and women see, and experience art regardless of the subject matter, the same way; however, the primary question of whether seeing is engendered remains a lacuna. Early-twenty-first-century categories of scholarly conversation, including the issues of the body, the reclining (female) nude, body language, and gesture (Kristeva, Peter Brown, Camille Paglia, Marcia Pointon, Alison Smith), are reframing the central questions of "who is 'The Nude?'" and "what is the character of nudity?"
See also Body, The ; Gender in Art ; Humanity in the Arts .
The painting described is the motif of the reclining Venus:
You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world—the Tribune—and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses—Titian's Venus.… There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought—I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort. (Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad , 578.)
Beckwith, Sarah. Christ's Body: Identity, Culture and Society in Late Medieval Writings. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Berger, John, et al. Ways of Seeing. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1972.
Bowie, Theodore, and Cornelia V. Christenson, eds. Studies in Erotic Art. New York: Basic Books, 1970.
Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.
Clark, Kenneth. The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972. First published in 1956.
Cormack, Malcolm. The Nude in Western Art. Oxford: Phaidon, 1976.
Davis, Melody D. The Male Nude in Contemporary Photography. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. Race, Sex, and Gender in Contemporary Art. New York: Abrams, 1994.
——. Sexuality in Western Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Miles, Margaret R. Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
Mullins, Edwin. The Painted Witch: How Western Artists Have Viewed the Sexuality of Women. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1985.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Nead, Lynda. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.
Perchuk, Andrew and Helaine Posner, eds. The Masculine Masquerade: Masculinity and Representation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.
Pointon, Marcia R. Naked Authority: The Body in Western Painting, 1830–1908. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Pollock, Griselda and Roszika Parker. Old Mistresses: Women, Art, and Ideology. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.
Rudofsky, Bernard. The Unfashionable Human Body. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1971.
Saunders, Gill. The Nude: A New Perspective. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
Smith, Alison. The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality, and Art. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1997.
——, ed. Exposed: The Victorian Nude. London: Tate Publications, 2001. Exhibition catalogue.
Steinberg, Leo. The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. New York: Pantheon, 1983.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin, ed. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Üster, Celâl, ed. Nude in Art. Special issue of P Art and Culture Magazine 9 (spring 2003): 1–132.
Walters, Margaret. The Nude Male. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1979.
We can now begin to see the difference between nakedness and nudity in the European tradition. In his book on The Nude Kenneth Clark maintains that to be naked is simply to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art. According to him, a nude is not the starting point of a painting, but a way of seeing which the painting achieves.
To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.
To be naked is to be without disguise.
source: John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972), pp.53, 4.