by Roderick Conway Morris

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Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Woman with a Mirror by Giovanni Bellini, 1515

The Nude: from Ideal to Real

By Roderick Conway Morris
BOLOGNA, Italy 20 March 2004


The nude was one of the greatest of ancient Greece's inventions. Over a remarkably short period in the fifth-century B.C., Greek artists abandoned the representation of human beings in the stylized manner employed by many cultures before and since, and began to produce naturalistic representations of the male and female body.

This development permanently changed the course of Western art, indeed became a defining characteristic vis-à-vis the art of the rest of the world. Some cultures, notably those that adopted Islam, entirely rejected the nude as the most wicked form of figurative representation, which was in itself denounced as blasphemous. Others, such as those of the Far East, represented semi-clothed and unclothed figures, but never made them an absolutely central component in their artistic output.

Christianity, in its most zealous periods, managed only temporarily to suppress the nude. For, as the art historian Kenneth Clark observed in 'The Nude,' still fresh, still full of insights nearly half a century after it was originally written, 'the nude is not the subject of art, but a form of art.'

This was, moreover, the form of art that pushed Western sculptors and painters to the limits of their technical and artistic talents. Perhaps no other form in the visual arts requires such a balance between minute observation, an overall sense of design and human expressivity. Polyclitus, one of the most renowned of ancient Greek sculptors of the nude, said 'a well-made work is the result of numerous calculations carried out to within a hair's breadth.' Oscar Wilde echoed this in his definition of genius 'as the infinite taking of pains.' Bearing these dictums in mind, one might say that the peculiar genius of Western art lies in its depiction of the nude. And, to quote Clark again: 'In the greatest age of painting the nude inspired the greatest work.'

Following the dizzy heights reached by ancient Greek artists, the next great age of the nude, directly stimulated by the rediscovery of antiquity, began in the second half of the 15th century in Italy, the age of Bellini and Giorgione, and lasted until the 17th century, the era of Rubens and Rembrandt.

The mixed fortunes of the nude in more recent times is the theme of an exhibition of more than 400 paintings, graphic works, sculptures and photographs, 'The Nude: From Ideal to Reality,' at Bologna's Gallery of Modern Art until May 9.

During the period of Neoclassicism, in the late 18th and early 19th century, works from which open the show, the male nude enjoyed a brief moment of efflorescence. Of the major Renaissance artists, only Michelangelo positively preferred the male nude, which gave rise to some odd effects when he came to depict the naked female figure. However, while a number of neoclassical painters and sculptors, such as David and Canova, were prepared to try to give equal attention to the male and female form, the dominance of the female nude soon reasserted itself. The hugely influential Ingres played a key role in setting the seal on this return to the historical norm.

Despite the puritanism prevalent for much of the 19th century, a plethora of female nudes was produced, although many artists, with some striking exceptions, managed to find ways of rendering them acceptable to prevailing public tastes. Sculpture was especially useful for representing the entirely nude female form, since by convention body hair was given the sculptor's equivalent of the photographer's airbrush treatment. This could have unfortunate consequences, as when notoriously Ruskin was rendered impotent on his wedding night by the shock of discovering that his bride had pubic hair.

Curiously, it was some of the nudes with the most impeccable Renaissance antecedents that caused the most outrage. Outstanding among these were Manet's 'Olympia' and 'Déjeuner sur l'herbe,' inspired respectively by Giorgione's and Titian's reclining nudes and the latter's 'Concert Champêtre,' which combined clothed male and naked female figures.

Gustave Courbet, one of the century's most daring and successful painters of the nude, is rightly given prominence here. It is a pity that his 1868 'The Source' from the Musée d'Orsay, which is here, could not have appeared side by side with an 1862 version of the same subject, clearly more unashamedly erotic in intention, now at the Metropolitan in New York, illustrated in the catalogue, but absent in the flesh.

Otherwise, the imaginative selection of works, which include, for example, studies by Rodin and Klimt that were obviously never designed for public consumption, is laudable in its scope and variety, containing a good mixture on famous and lesser-known names.

The advent of photography certainly had an effect on the way the nude was seen by artists, but for a long time photographers looked to painting for canonically correct and acceptable poses. Baudelaire hailed the invention of photography as the means by which painters and sculptors could study captured images at their leisure, thus making it possible for them to move away from idealized renderings of the human body toward something more realistic. This occurred to some extent, but many painters and sculptors in the later 19th and 20th century increasingly distorted and stylized their nudes, implicitly asserting how their vision differed from that of photographers.

The extensive sections of photographs from the first days until the present demonstrate that while nude photography has become more explicit, it has not necessarily become more realistic. At the same time, by concentrating on certain parts of the anatomy, it has often become more blatantly fetishistic. Some of the material from the past decade or two is difficult to distinguish from pornography, while often being strangely unerotic - Robert Mapplethorpe's arctic images, utterly devoid of feeling, are a good example of this - an odd spin-off perhaps of the desire of modern photographers to prove their 'artistic' credentials.

While the 20th-century nude can hardly be said to have kept figurative art on the straight and narrow - which in any case would have been an undesirable role for this most subtle of arts to play - it has been instrumental in keeping alive figurative traditions. The nude has remained a challenge to which artists, however unconventional and experimental, have been continually drawn. To call a work that contains no recognizable human elements, however transmogrified and stylized 'a nude,' is to invite derision. For the nude remains a supreme test of whether an artist really does have anything new to add to two and a half thousand years of Western artistic endeavor.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023