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The Nude

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 Giorgione's The Sleeping Venus (c. 1510). Oil on canvas. During the Renaissance, artistic works featuring the nude female figure became popular, although Church authorities disapproved of such frank and revealing treatment of the human body. © ERICH LESSING/ART RESOURCE, NY 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.

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