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The Nude

The Conundrum Of Non-western Culture And The Idea Of "the Nude"

Discussions and scholarship on "The Nude" are decidedly Western in form and focus. Ostensibly, this is not a result of Western imperialism but more likely than not the influence of the Western monotheistic traditions with their distinctive morality and defense of the integrity of the one God. For example, Islamic art is normatively interpreted as aniconic, or nonfigural, in its emphasis on geometric abstractions. Although there is no Koranic prohibition against figural art or art, there is clear prohibition of images of either of idols or of God. For some commentators, the absence of the figure, especially the nude figure, is interpreted as a visual sign distinguishing Islam and Islamic art from Christianity and Christian art, which is fundamentally obsessed with Eve's nakedness and her role in the Fall. By contrast, Eve when she is depicted in Islamic art is the joyous companion of Adam. Commensurately, when those exceptionally rare nude figures are painted, whether male or female, they appear only in commissioned works of what might be best termed "secular Islamic art."

And they were both naked: to wit, Adam and his wife: and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:25)

And the woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and fair to the eyes, and delightful to behold: and she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave it to her husband, who did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened: and when they perceived themselves to be naked, they sewed together fig leaves, and made themselves aprons.

And when they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in paradise at the afternoon air, Adam and his wife hid themselves from the face of the Lord God, amidst the trees of paradise.

And the Lord God called Adam, and said to him: Where art thou?

And he said: I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.

And he said to him: And who hath told thee that thou wast naked, but that thou hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat? (Genesis 3:6-11)

SOURCE: Douay-Rheims Bible.

However in the non-Western world, attitudes toward nudity and the nude figure are characterized by their naturalness and ease and not categorized as a special art category or motif, except when the arts of Africa, Oceania, or Meso-America are examined with Western criteria. The first reality of nudity as a state of undress, whether ritually required or common to daily life experience, is a universal condition. The second reality of nudity is that neither the art nor religion of these indigenous cultures is monolithic as Western art and monotheism is perceived to be. Rather, for example, African figural art is naturalistic among the Ife and Benin of Nigeria but other African peoples image themselves with simplified and/or exaggerated anatomical features. A third reality of nudity is that differing climates and their resident cultures require a variety of dress in both fabric and style to accommodate native meteorological conditions. So thinner materials and lighter colors are more appropriate to warmer climates while heavier fabrics and darker colors conform to the needs of cooler climates. From the Western perspective, especially that of the nineteenth-century missionaries, the exposed breasts and bare feet of Polynesian or African women were considered a social affront. Simultaneously for some nineteenth-century European colonialists, the shock of this tribal or societal nudity was the foundation for the myth of "The Noble Savage" as the concept of the le primitif was for their twentieth-century counterparts. This Western myth of idyllic innocence and primal energy coincided with a belief that primitive peoples were free of moral constraints and middle-class concerns. However defined, the arts of these varied primitive cultures were highly influential on twentieth-century art from Picasso and Henri Matisse (1869–1954) to the Abstract Expressionists.

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