Artistic pursuit of ‘perfect form’ is difficult path
Story by Jacqueline Hays
The world looks fondly at the sculpture of Michelangelo’s “David,” a symbol of perfection and strength. It is a life changing moment to get the opportunity to lay eyes upon the Sistine Chapel with its celestial ceilings portraying the unclothed Adam. The art community and the general public celebrate these great works depicting the naked human form, but at the same time, particularity in America, viewers do not give contemporary art the same respect, especially when viewing “new” media.
We blush at the sight of a bare buttock on our television screens, balk if there is any less than an NC-17 rating on a film that shows more than a few seconds of full frontal nudity, if any at all, and boycott department store chains if they pervert themselves by selling magazines that contain “adult material.”
We seem to have drawn an imaginary line between art and smut. Where this line is located, and where it came from, is not easy to decipher.
To find the line separating the perverse and the perfect, the obscene and the celebrated, one must indulge in a short art history lesson. When trying to understand where the sublime deteriorates into the slimy, one must keep in mind a few aspects when exploring the historical nude.
One must consider when the art was created. The first nudes appeared in sculpture form and were revered. They were mostly depictions of gods and athletes, all of whom were men. Most athletic competitions were held in the nude, so depicting these athletes in the same state of undress was appropriate.
According to Megan Young, director of the Dishman Art Museum at Lamar University, the tradition of the nude has been around for thousands of years.
“But historically speaking, at first, women were not the ones portrayed nude,” Young said. “It was only men, and in Greek art, you would typically see nude men.”
She said usually the only places nude women were depicted were on things like vases. “Usually a woman of a certain ‘job type,’” she said.
The sculptors were not merely crafting stone replicas of their gods and athletes; they were attempting to create the perfect nude, perfecting the human form. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are all artists from the Renaissance, the era that began in Italy in the 15th century.
Soon, painters wanted to challenge themselves just as sculptors did. Paintings began appearing for public consumption as the quest for the perfect human form was taken up by a different medium.
“It really wasn’t until the history of Western art that we started thinking about — with the advent of Christianity — that we start seeing images of the reclining female nude in painting, and a lot of it has to do, in that period, with who your audience is,” Young said.
The artists were striving for the “ideal form,” she said, especially throughout this time period. And at this point it is usually female, which plays on fantasy. When someone portrayed is real, then it is no longer fantasy because she can be recognized.
“Venus of Urbino,” painted by Titian in 1538, is an example of the “ideal nude.”
“For today’s standards, her body type is not perfect, but for the standards then, her body type is beautiful,” Young said.
There are no flaws on her skin, nor her face.
“If you look at her, she is not really looking at us,” she said. “She is never going to look at us because they are there to be looked at, not to look back. You also notice there are no pubic hairs.”
The period between 1600 to 1700 is known as the Baroque period. During this time, “You have a concerted effort of the Catholic church to bring people back to the church by any means necessary,” Young said.
One of the ways the church did this is through interesting, creative art.
“The art of the Baroque period is much more dramatic,” Young said. “It doesn’t matter if you are male or female — it is about drama and the movement and lighting.”
The primary audience for nude paintings of women was men. The paintings were to be “consumed” by a male.
William Hogarth’s breakfast scene for his series “Marriage a la mode,” which is credited between 1743-1745, illustrates the audience of female nudes. The series is about how marriage for love should trump marriage for money.
The scene is a parlor, and in the back room there are four portraits hanging on the wall. Three are of saints, but a curtain covers the third.
“And we know it is a painting of a nude female because you can see her ankle and there is a curtain over it,” Young said.
It was typical at this time for the female nudes to be covered because they were only supposed to be seen by men.
“Kind of like, ‘Here are my nudie pics,’” Young said.
Fast-forward to the late-19th century and early-20th century and the School of Paris produces artists like Modigliani, who did a number of reclining nudes which were labeled obscene, Young said. Viewers today might not find any differences in the Titian and Modigliani works, but they were glaring to the critics of the time.
Essentially, the woman depicted in Modigliani’s piece has hair between her legs and under her arms. She is also looking at the audience. This eliminated the fantasy and made her real.
Manet encountered the same problem in the mid-19th century with what is considered by Young, and most other art historians, one of the most important works in the history of art — “Olympia.”
“This piece was considered vulgar,” Young said. “Critics actually said she looked like a cadaver from the morgue.”
Critics cited dirty feet and a green tint to her skin.
“Critics just hated it and said it was obscene,” Young said.
The nude depicted is looking at the viewer, and as opposed to Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” even though there isn’t pubic hair present, there are flaws in her skin.
“Her skin is not perfect — she doesn’t have this perfect modeling,” Young said.
“Olympia” is also recognizable as a real person, an artist’s model, Victorine Meurent, which, once again, shattered the element of fantasy.
In the same time period, Manet used the same model and positioned her nude in a well-known Parisian park with two men, also recognizable as his brother and a sculptor, who were dressed in contemporary styles. The figures appear to be very flat, with harsh lighting.
“It places them in the here and now of 19th-century France,” Young said. “So you can’t imagine that it couldn’t exist in reality.
“It is very Real — Realistic with a capital R, not naturalistic.”
Critics dismissed the painting, saying Manet couldn’t paint and he didn’t know anything about art.
“But what is funny is he said that he had actually quoted this 15th-century print by (Marcantonio) Raimondi, which is a copy of a Raphael, with these three figures of the river gods,” Young said. “He has used the same pose — so he is making fun of art history.”
Young said perceptions of the nude began to change around 1863. She credits the industrial revolution. At this time, people began to cluster in urban areas, positioning bodies in proximity to one another, which made them more comfortable with the human form.
Now that there is an understanding of the relativeness of era or time, one must consider the medium that was used to capture the nude. At first we had the sculpture, then the painting, eventually photography was invented, and subsequently, video.
Young said that while these media have eventually been accepted as vehicles for art, they are still segregated and, in Western culture, especially American culture, there is more of a problem with the nude human form than other cultures.
Young cites the uproar that sounded in response to actor Jimmy Smits’ bare buttocks being shown on the 1993, ABC drama, “NYPD Blue” (although, David Caruso was the first to appear bottomless).
“But yet, if it is a National Geographic show and it’s an African woman completely bare from the waist up, nobody says a thing,” she said.
Basically, if it is educational, the nude is acceptable in mechanical media.
“Take Playboy, for instance,” Young said. “Playboy, I look at it, and to me, it is like the ‘Venus of Urbino’ because I know they are so heavily airbrushed. They are so perfected.”
From a technical standpoint, back when they used film cameras, the Playboy centerfold was shot on an 8×10 view camera.
“This is probably one of the hardest cameras to use, so there was a level of technical proficiency there to make it artistry,” she said. “For me, I kind of draw that line when whatever or whoever is being depicted is being subjugated against their will.”
Young said she draws that line, regardless if it is news media or art.
“ I would never hang images of Abu Ghraib (where prisoners were tortured and sexually abused) and say that is art,” she said. “I just wouldn’t do it because those people had no control over it.”
Young said she might hang an artist’s recreation, adding that there is usually a dialogue that goes along with contemporary art.
“Today, you can’t understand without knowing the back story,” she said. “That is one of the things that makes contemporary art a little bit different, is that you have to read about it as well as look at it. You can’t just enjoy it aesthetically.
“The way I tend to think about it, when I look at any image, it doesn’t matter if it is a nude or not. When I first confront it, I divorce my thinking from any social or cultural background I have.”
We all look at images carrying our personal baggage.
“Our upbringing, our belief systems, what we like, what we don’t like, and I think a lot of times we can miss some real beauty because we don’t try and distance ourselves from that, not completely,” she said.
Young said she finds it interesting that most people have a problem with 1960s and ’70s painter David Hockney’s work depicting a nude male bent away from the viewer. The problem arises because it is a man, which implies homosexuality.
For a proper analysis, she suggests divorcing this baggage at least for a moment.
“It is hard to explain the Virgin Madonna to somebody who is not Christian,” Young said. “But if you say it is mother and child, they are going to get that because it is universal.
“If I can look at (art) and think, ‘OK, look at the lines, look at the colors, look at the shapes. Does it stand up that way? Yes. OK, now bring all that other stuff back into it.”
She said it is difficult to say that something is not worthwhile when you have part of your brain saying yes it is from a formal aspect.
“That is what we do with formal elements of art. Color, line composition, light, texture, balance,” she said.
Photos of nudes are not accepted as much as the paintings. When photography hit the market in 1844, it immediately started the argument of whether or not photography was even art because photography is a mechanical media.
“The idea, historically, when someone paints the nude human figure, is not only are they painting the nude, but the perfect nude.”
The idea is that anyone can take a photo but only an artist can paint or sculpt. For the most part, it has been acceptable as an artistic medium, but it’s segregated from other forms of art.
With the ability to manipulate images through programs like Photoshop, the “perfect nude” may be attainable, but then there is a new argument of digital photography being “real photography” or art.
So even though there is a few seconds delay on live broadcasts, ratings on movies, cardboard covers on magazines at convenience store counters, and signs explaining nudes are depicted in an exhibit or a verbal warning before we enter a contemporary exhibition of nudes, the 20th century was not the dawn of censorship when it comes to the unclothed human form.
For thousands of years, censors have done everything from hanging curtains to cover nudes, to an entire movement by the Catholic Church in the 16th century to cover every set of genitals with fig leaves.
“That is why we see broken penises on statues,” Young said. “When the leaves were removed, the statues were damaged.”
What is acceptable by a culture changes with every new era and new medium. The purposes of the nude form in art, as well as the audience, and the medium and time period in which it was created, all weigh heavily on determining if a depiction of a nude is art or “ugh.”