Art Dictionary

Nudes in Art

Amedeo Modigliani, »Liegender Akt«

Amedeo Modigliani, »Liegender Akt«, um 1919, Detail
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1950

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The nude is one of the oldest, most fascinating motifs in art. After all, as a motif, the unclothed body presents an almost infinite number of opportunities to depict the way that people see themselves, their ideals, fears, and dreams.

»Art is never chaste.« (Pablo Picasso)

»Nothing but naked people! That´s not art, it´s sin!« At some point, Michelangelo got tired of hearing Pope Paul III´s master of ceremonies complain about the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Without further ado, Michelangelo gave the figure of a devil in the Last Judgment (1536–1541) the face of the critic, a pair of donkey ears—and depicted him nude, totally naked . . . with the pope´s approval! We can see: it has always been the eye of the beholder that determines if nudity is perceived as »aesthetic and sensual,« »erotic,« or »pornographic and vulgar«—whereby artists usually do not shrink from breaking taboos. The German word for nude, Akt, is derived from the Latin word agere, which means »to move.« Originally it referred to a study of the way a nude or partially clothed person moved. Nowadays, German uses the word Akt to describe every kind of visual depiction of an exposed body.

Stone Age statues of fertility goddesses were the first depictions of nudes. Muscular, athletic: that´s the way the ancient Greeks imagined the ideal male body. Nude sculptures were extraordinarily important to their art. During the Middle Ages, nudes were only tolerated when part of a religious theme. This changed at the start of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century. The world and the human being, including human physicality, became the focus of interest. Van Eyck´s Adam and Eve on the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) is considered one of the first modern nude portraits. The first free-standing nude figure, Donatello´s bronze David, was created around 1430. From then on, the study of the naked human body was systematized and became a key subject in academic education; Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Dürer (1471–1528) are two outstanding representatives of this tradition. Apollo, Diana, Venus—all of the ancient gods and goddesses proved a constant source of inspiration for nudes, but allegorical depictions of beauty or love, for instance, as represented by figures of unclothed women, were very popular. Giorgione´s Sleeping Venus (1508) is one of the pioneering works of western painting: it was the first to present a lone, practically life-size, nude woman lying in front of an Arcadian landscape; the image was meant to awaken associations with a Golden Age free of the constraints of civilization. Over the centuries, this subject was copied over and over: Titian´s Venus of Urbino (1538), for example, takes almost the same pose, although she is in a bourgeois interior—a motif that also became fashionable.

»Rubenesque«: of course, everybody knows what that means. Rubens´s voluptuous ladies—for instance, in his 1617 painting of the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus—are prime examples of this, as are Rembrandt´s Danae (circa 1636), or Velázquez´s Venus at her Mirror (1651). Emphasis was placed on monumentality and impressive, imposing characteristics; skinny bodies were more than inappropriate. Throughout this joyfully sensual era, the nude remained a central motif. During the Rococo Boucher achieved something startlingly new with his Girl Resting (1752): without any mythological or historical disguise, she lies there, Louise O´Murphy, the mistress of Louis XV. Goya, however, felt the power of the Inquisition due to his Nude Maja (circa 1797), for there was also no mythological or allegorical apology for her nudity, either. And unlike Boucher´s image of a girl, which can be viewed voyeuristically, since she does not return the »male gaze,« the viewer can, bluntly and with full knowledge, appraise this woman´s erotic aura. Scandalous! Similar reactions were evoked in 1863 by Manet´s Olympia (a prostitute!) and his Déjuner sur l´herbe (a self-confident, naked women among clothed men!). In the second half of the nineteenth century portraits of female nudes reached a zenith with paintings by impressionists Manet, Renoir, Degas, and Bonnard.

Rodin, the founder of modern sculpture, was also an impressionist. It was said that he was obsessed by women; he elevated the torso alone to a motif, for instance, in Iris, Messenger of the Gods (1890–91). His Kiss, dated 1886, is also famous. Modigliani has been accused of posing his beautiful, early twentieth century nudes as if they were Playboy centerfolds. »It´s the other way around!« his defenders reply: it was Modigliani who invented the »close-up.« Due to the lack of distance, there is no room for excessive allusions, also giving rise to the rectangular format in which he depicted his women in an exaggeratedly long style.

Cézanne, one of the »fathers« of the modern age, was yet another painter who took up the motif of the Golden Age in his Bathers (1900–05); Matisse´s Joy of Life (1905–06) did the same thing. Just like Cézanne, Matisse, who was a Fauve, wanted to reconcile the modern era with the timelessness and harmony of classicism. Nothing was further from Picasso´s mind at that time, though. Although in his Demoiselles d´Avignon (1907) he uses geometrical figures to portray five nude prostitutes, he also simultaneously depicts front and side views, thus ridding the image of central perspective and creating the most important work of cubism. Love and violence: in Picasso´s Surrealist phase between 1925 and 1940 female nudes and Minotaurs—a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull—appear again and again. Finally, in his later work, Picasso examined the works of his fellow artists: he made several variations of Manet´s Déjuner sur l´herbe during the nineteen-sixties. Eros is not only a theme that appears throughout all of Picasso´s creative phases—it exists throughout all phases of western art!

Although the loss of status of certain visual genres, such as painting, in the twentieth century may have led to the »classic nude« losing some of its significance, for art in general and its new forms, the naked human body still remains the essential source of inspiration.

13.09.2006 Carola Eißler

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