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The Nude

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.

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