Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Nude in Western Art: Part One

During some gathering in the not so distant past Brian and I discussed the relationship between physical attraction and symmetry.  Brian seemed to adhere to some Platonic Idea that certain angles and shapes and forms are inherently more appealing than others.  He is an architect so he should know such things.  I can certainly relate.  I wrote about St. Augustine's view of Beauty awhile back.  Nevertheless Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Beauty is not absolute, but there is evidence that many appreciations of Beauty can be reduced to symmetry; it is just when you get down to the parts of things, there seems to be a wide variation in appreciated symmetry.

My interest in art is well-known on this blog.  Art is humankind's most inspired expression. Religion and science and technology are of greater karmic force perhaps but the expert manifestation of human creativity tops every human articulation, in my opinion.  Arthur Schopenhauer called "music, philosophy, painting, or poetry...the flower or net profit of existence." (II, page 388). Further: "Not merely philosophy but also the fine arts work at bottom towards the solution of the problem of existence....every artistic, apprehension of things is an expression more of the true nature of life and of existence, more an answer to the question, 'What is life?" (II, page 406)

The nude figure, its symmetry, is a central theme throughout the long history of Art.  Glorified and degraded, the human figure is a source of beauty and lust, of adoration and necessity.  The nude can be sensual and/or erotic depending upon the intent of the artist and the taste of the aficionado. As in most things, diversity is an advantage to survival, and what makes a given nude erotic ultimately and intimately lies within the preferences of the objectifying Lifeworld.  Whether or not a nude is erotic may or may not have anything to do with the artist's conception. Eros is not the tyrant of human nudity.  The naked body can be sexy flesh or simply honest flesh.  And certainly things can be erotic without nudity at all. My favorite painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, preferred more rotund nudes than I personally find erotic.  So, while I admire many of his nude paintings as sensual, I do not find them arousing.

But other artists do arouse me, again their intent might have nothing to do with such reactions. Nevertheless, I would submit that Eros is an underlying aspect of the Nude in Art; it is a perpetual (though not exclusive) subject of artistic inspiration.  From the ancient graphic depictions of the Kama Sutra to the honesty of Eve in the vast alter of a Medieval cathedral, the nude has been painted and sculpted for cause and effect.  I am devoting the next few posts to the Nude as a classic art form.  Some of what is offered here might be considered offensive or obscene by certain readers. Sorry, y'all best go read something else.  For true Adults only.  I think all of this is wonderful Art.

What follows is my chronology of Western Artistic Nudes beginning with the 15th century. This is simply my representative sampling and I do mot pretend that what follows is complete by any means.  The subject of the Nude in Art is vast. This post will very broadly cover the Nude as Art up to the time of Renoir.  A following post will deal with Renoir's nudes and we will see how things evolve after that. Most of this art in these next few posts is taken from my wonderful Art Authority App.  A few works were taken from other sources online.

We begin with Jan van Eyck.  This is Eve as represented in a part of The Ghent Altarpiece, a gigantic work of art painted between 1425-1429.  This is the nude as represented inside the Catholic Church.  It is a sacred piece and is based upon a rather typical nude female symmetry of that time, pear shaped with stomach larger than the hips.  The Church controlled most artistic expression at this time. 
Here we have a detail of The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. Painted in 1485. The only other "publicly" acceptable exploration of the nude at this time outside of a specific Biblical connection required a "classical" connection to the myths of Ancient Greece. 
David by Michelangelo Buonarroti.  1501-1504.  Featured here in a view we don't normally get to admire of this masterpiece of sculpted art.  This is truly one of the greatest works in Western Art and, obviously, a nude.
Provocative for its time, we have Loth (Lot) and His Daughters by Albrecht Altdorfer.  Again this was not considered obscene only because it depicted a Biblical story.  Nevertheless, we have a father lying down with one of his daughters with intent to have drunken sex with her.  The other daughter is waiting in the distance.  Beyond that we see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which makes the whole thing possible to display. Such sin is represented as resulting ultimate hellfire and damnation.  Still, rather racy stuff for 1537.
Francois Boucher as a great painter of the Rococo period.  His Girl Reclining from 1753 captures this artistic style.  This is an important painting because it represents a shift of the nude away from Biblical or Classical connotation toward presenting the nude in everyday private life.
Jacques-Louis David painted Patroclus in 1780.  I find this to be a wonderful work of art.  It is an interesting pose and possesses an energetic flow moving from left to right.  I would classify this work as semi-erotic.  This is a great example of the Neoclassical style.
This color-printed relief etching by William Blake features three nudes, one of which is a child, which is a rare thing for 1794. It has the rather extended title of Los at the forge with Enitharmon and Orc, showing Los' jealousy of Orc, his child, resulting in the tightening of the girdle around his neck.  It is an illustration by Blake from The Book of Urizen.  As such, this is contemporary (for that time) nudity in an original story, another stage of the evolution of the artistic nude.
In contrast to the previous work, this a delightful nude, drifting in water, by William Blake, also from The Book of Urizen.  1794. A naked man with a floating white beard.  This is another etching, touched up with watercolor. 
This magnificent nude is by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes from 1800.  The Nude Maja is one of the first great "secular" frontal female nudes and represents the further liberation that the Enlightenment gave to art from the confines the Church or classic mythology.
Here we have another very strangely titled work.  Female nude, Killed from Behind. 1827 by Eugene Delacroix.  This is pastel, red and white chalk on paper.  It resides in the Louvre in Paris. Now we are solidly in the Romantic period of art.
La Bacchante.  A dreamy, semi-erotic pose painted by Gustave Courbet, completed in 1847.  This soft, fleshy voluptuous figure is a potent precursor to bolder nudes in the future.   
When Edouard Manet painted Luncheon in the Grass in 1863 he caused quite an uproar.  Polite Parisian society did not know quite how to relate to this work featuring a nude woman picnicking completely out of context with two gentlemen.  The overturned basket with fruit and other delicacies suggests a decadent quality.  Another woman bathes in the background. It was considered scandalous but it only served to further Manet's brilliant and financially successful career. Today it is considered a masterpiece. 
Another Manet.  Another scandal.  Another masterpiece from 1863.  Olympia shocked Paris again with a rather straightforward presentation of a prostitute looking directly at You, the viewer.  You are forced to relate to her and you know what she has in mind.  A very erotic work for its time.
But even the scandalous Manet nudes were nothing compared with this.  The Origin of the World painted by Courbet in 1866. This could be a Penthouse Magazine photograph but it is a highly provocative oil painting roughly a century and half old. It still causes controversy today and is censored in some areas. This takes the Nude as an Art form to its extreme up to the time Renoir, who we shall examine next.

1 comment:


Art and enlightenment are kissing cousins.