The sight of a naked body is no longer scandalizing. But does it still inspire awe? We present art history’s most famous nudes.
In the nearest future, we should most likely not expect a serious scandal in the art world. We live in a somewhat blasé era: everything can be shown, and we have already seen it all. We can hardly expect artistic excitements related to the human body. The more carefully it is covered, inaccessible, religiously or socially restricted, the more desirable, but also ambiguous and suspicious, it becomes. Pornography – professional and amateur, in hundreds of varieties and categories – is instantly available. In the blue light of our screens we satisfy ourselves with naked bodies in all configurations. And yet, such intimate contemplation cannot compare with the experiences of the Ottoman diplomat Khalil Bey, who kept L’Origine du monde, in his bedroom, behind a green curtain.
Gustave Courbet’s famous 1866 painting depicts the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman. The artist, following the entire realistic tradition, rendered anatomical detail with fleshy strokes and, simultaneously, with cool precision. French researchers recently discovered that Khalil Bey’s mistress, the dancer Constance Queniaux, sat for the painting. The model is unrecognizable. Her face is not visible, but her vulva is exposed, including pubic hair, which has always been taboo in painting. The framing and attention to detail are the most obscene elements of the painting: Courbet depicted what, until then, painters had covered with a loincloth, or justified by mythological or historical context. It is not so much a faceless woman, but her objectified body. We are looking at an image based on desire that could be displayed in our mind’s eye. Until 1995, L’Origine du monde wasn’t publicly exhibited. Perhaps in the 21st century, the sight of a naked body is no longer scandalizing. But does it still inspire awe?
Colonnades as girls
The history of nude painting is in a sense the history of aesthetic notions; the changing imaginings of beauty. Not without reason did the renowned art historian Sir Kenneth Clark write his two-volume work The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. He preceded his study with a motto from Nicolas Poussin’s letter to his patron and friend, Paul Fréart de Chantelou: “I am sure that the beautiful girls you saw in Nimes would have delighted your mind’s eye no less than the sight of the beautiful colonnades of the Maison Carreé since the latter are nothing else than old copies of the former.” Since antiquity, art theorists have been seeking the ideal proportions of the human body. The canon of Polykleitos consisted of eight modules, the unit of which was the head; in the canon of Lysippos there were nine such units, while for Vitruvius there were 10. As Clark wrote: “[...] the ideal of beauty is in fact an uncertain memory of that particular physical type which was developed in Greece between 480 and 440 BC and which existed with varying degrees of intensity in the minds of Western man as a model of perfection from the Renaissance to this century.”
In their attempts to develop models of bodily perfection, Renaissance artists and theorists were inspired by the Vitruvian canon. Leonardo da Vinci decided that one should look at the bodies in motion, which disturbs symmetry and alters proportions. In his search for an ideal silhouette, he superimposed two antique patterns: the body inscribed within a circle, and the body ‘on the plan’ of a square. His Vitruvian Man is indeed flawlessly structured, and his bellybutton marks the middle of the composition. But the man drawn by Leonardo is acrobatically stretched out, and the drawing itself, although masterful, seems rigid and devoid of any charm. It turns out that a contradiction between geometric ideas and a sense of beauty does exist.
Meanwhile, in the north of Europe, Albrecht Dürer understood that instead of starting with mathematics, it was necessary to study various human figures from nature. Because of this, he included women in his Four Books on Human Proportion. The physical ‘types’ he distinguished (fat, thin, but also ‘soft’ and ‘hard’) are described in quite an authoritarian manner. It is also hard to agree with his opinion that “the faces of Negroes are rarely beautiful because of their very flat noses and thick lips; and their thighs, knees and feet are too bony, not as pleasant as those of the white man, as are their hands.” But this is just theory. Dürer was an outstanding observer and confessed that he had met several Negroes “so perfect and handsome in the entire body that [he] could not see, nor imagine anything better shaped.”
Renaissance theorists believed that one should sketch body parts first and then combine them into a coherent whole. As Dürer instructs: “[…] each section, considered individually, must be executed properly, both in the smallest and the greatest detail, in order to bring out the beauty that is given to us, and thus to get closer to the true goal.” The Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti, on the other hand, specified that bodily parts are harmonious when “they meet the requirements of beauty and charm in terms of size, purpose, appearance, colour and in every other way. If in some portrait the head is enormous, the breast is slim, the hand is huge, the foot is swollen, the body is spilling out – then such composition is undoubtedly ugly.” Similar views prevailed in academies for the following four centuries: students had to ‘pass’ the feet and hands, torsos and shoulders, as well as ears, lips and noses separately, in order to be allowed to sketch faces and, finally, entire bodies. In fact, one of the meanings of the word ‘academia’ is the sketch of a male nude. Thus, the highest expression of academic education in the field of fine arts was fluency in presenting the naked male silhouette. This – in order to protect women from scandal – was also the reason why women were not allowed to study.
Orgy on the dome
In the history of the nude, entire chapters can be devoted to the depiction of Venus. The ideals of the male silhouette deserve separate dissertations: their prototypes are, on the one hand, the slender Apollo, and on the other, the muscular Hercules emanating strength and anger.
In the Renaissance, naked bodies became ubiquitous in both secular and religious art. Mythological scenes, full of naked deities, nymphs and satyrs, as well as allegories of power or mercy, were pretexts for depicting nudity. In religious art, Adam and Eve (bar the fig leaf) and crucified Christ covered with a loincloth are not the only naked figures – since the Middle Ages, the condemned depicted in the visions of final judgment have also been nude. While the saved ascend to heaven wearing light-coloured robes, the naked sinners are depicted in all their ‘ignominy’, while malicious demons torture their genitals. But Correggio’s fresco decorating the dome of the Cathedral of Parma is simply an orgy of naked bodied lacking a narrative excuse (The Assumption of the Virgin). In the Baroque era, angels and putti entered the palaces and churches in large numbers.
Artists also found pretexts for exposing nudity in the Old Testament. Susanna and the Elder, Bathsheba bathing, and David and Goliath were the perfect subjects for this, as were the embarrassing, controversial episodes: Lot and his daughters, or the Drunkenness of Noah. Tintoretto’s Susanna in front of the mirror is one of the most sensual paintings in the history of art – a young, married woman, her body opalescent just like the necklace and bracelet that she is about to wear. We, the viewers, are peeping Toms just as the elders lurking in the garden to enjoy the view; one of them leans over to look straight between her legs.
Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, is also depicted during ablutions (and that is how King David spotted her). In the most poignant illustration of this biblical tale by Rembrandt, a shapely young woman bathes unawares, accompanied by an older servant. Bathsheba is lost in thought, perhaps conflicted between duty to her husband and the law, and the call of desire. For the 16th or 17th century masters, the biblical tale was merely an opportunity to show an emotionally complex, intensely sensual scene. These paintings were never meant to arouse pious moods or be displayed inside a church.
Perhaps the most interesting are instances when paintings intended as religious art caused reactions other than officially foreseen. The best example is Mary Magdalene. In the tradition of the Church, the rehabilitated prostitute merged with one of the three women that met Jesus after the resurrection (her second name comes from the village of Magdala by the Sea of Galilee, where she came from), and with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. As Daniel Arasse, the unruly art historian, explained, Mary Magdalene was created as a special, composite saint, the saint ‘just for women’, next to the first mother, the mother of all women Eve, and the Virgin Mary. One was too sinful, and the other was too perfect. The repenting, former prostitute Mary Magdalene, in various states of undress in some and stark naked in other portrayals, is only covered by her thick, long hair. As Arasse points out: “[...] her hair down, abundant and flowing, reminds us that Magdalene unbraided it to dry Jesus’s feet, and then she stopped brushing it.” One can only guess what the ‘saint with a past’ hides under the mantle of hair that “reminds us both of her past sins and of their dismissal; it is a sign of both present atonement and past shamelessness.”
Mary Magdalene's hair conceals her nudity, revealing only tempting fragments of her body, letting one imagine what cannot be glimpsed. “One would have to write a history of pubic hair in painting,” demands Arasse. “How it is shown, how it is hidden from us, whose pubic hair is shown and whose isn’t.” In fact, the first ‘serious’ depiction of pubic hair is by Courbet – the protagonist of his The Woman in the Waves not only raises her hands revealing hairy armpits, but is also sprayed with sea foam.
Another saint, regularly depicted naked, is the Roman martyr Sebastian. Slender, beautifully built, he is shown as tied to a pole or a tree, and pierced with arrows. As reported by the 16th-century historian Giorgio Vasari, one of the images of this saint had to be removed from the church where it was placed because women confessed that they “sinned because of the depiction, arousing the senses, acquired thanks to the talent of Friar Bartolomeo.”
Much later, St. Sebastian became a gay icon. And even Our Lady herself has been the cause of indecent thoughts. Vasari retells the story of a man who asked the painter Toto del Nunziata to create a ‘modest’ Madonna so that the painting would not arouse desire. The artist painted the Virgin Mary with a beard.
Where do babies come from?
In all these images, the nude appears under the pretext of a religious theme. Its provocative or even perverse form remains justified by this context. But after the early Renaissance, sensual nudes also became a permanent feature of the bedchamber. Sandro Botticelli painted a semi-reclining Venus wearing a white dress (Venus and Mars). Opposite her, Mars, who has fallen asleep following their lovemaking, is naked. Similar scenes were painted under the lids of dowry chests. Strangely enough, it even happened that well-known adulterers – Helen and Paris – were depicted in this way. The paintings supposed purpose was to arouse the bride’s desire.
Likewise, as Ernst Gombrich suggested, it was believed that the contemplation of handsome physiques would influence the beauty of the offspring. The tradition of depicting naked figures lying on their side dates back to antiquity – from figures on Etruscan graves, through Roman water deities, to Manet’s Olympia.
Art historians are putting forward new interpretations of one of the most-celebrated depictions in this vein – Titian’s Venus of Urbino. A tempting young woman in the foreground; in the background, a maid rummages through a chest, most likely a dowry chest. In a way, Venus herself ‘jumped out’ of such a bridal chest. As a matter of fact, the original title of the painting was simply Female Nude, suggesting a lack of mythological context, with the association with the goddess appearing later. Perhaps, as art historian Rona Goffen speculated, this painting was supposed to help 10-year-old Giulia Varano understand what marriage is all about? The provocative Arasse once again dared to say out loud what everyone else saw: despite the similarity of their poses, Titian’s coquettish nude is very different from her predecessor, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus from the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. While the latter modestly covers her vulva, the former “masturbates so that the sexual act she is preparing for has a better chance of ending in an orgasm.”
More than 300 years later, Rodin’s erotic watercolours caused a scandal in Germany; women with their legs spread out and open, their genitals on display, even pleasuring themselves. Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele often portrayed auto-erotic nudes. Until recently, such literal terms were avoided at exhibitions – drawings were instead described as a ‘crouching nude’ or a ‘reclining nude’.
Titian’s Venus of Urbino is a peculiar template of the female erotic nude. No wonder Manet references it in Olympia – his Venus is a courtesan. She is not touching herself, she is not aroused. Instead, she confidently puts a hand on her thigh. Available and audacious, she does not hide anything; she bares it all. Unsurprisingly, in 1996, Katarzyna Kozyra chose to pose as Olympia – a black ribbon tied around the cancer-stricken artists’ neck identifies the archetype. Bald, at a hospital, Kozyra is accompanied by a nurse who is attempting to administer an IV: “I let myself be photographed naked, on a drip, to prove that a sick body is as dignified and normal as a healthy body,” explained Kozyra. “When you are looking well, you don’t think about how you are functioning. When you look at a sick body, you feel its mortality.”
In The Rite of Spring, Kozyra portrayed imperfect, worn out, old bodies. Perhaps this aspect of carnality still remains shocking. More and more often, older models appear in advertising campaigns of large fashion houses, and women’s magazines show mature beauty, explaining that it is possible to be beautiful and look your age. But even now, the photograph of a couple of retired nudists, taken by Diane Arbus in 1963, is still impressive (Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N. J.) They are overweight; their bodies are saggy and somehow absurd, out of place in a bourgeois interior. A reproduction on the wall – a conventional nude of a young, flirtatiously-posed woman – injects an ironic contrast into the scene.
A recent appeal addressed to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex in The New York Times is quite telling in this context. Chelsea Rosen Hirschhorn – mother of three and the owner of a company producing goods for children – asked the Duchess to forego the photo shoot immediately after giving birth, and thus avoid promoting a false body image of women right after childbirth. Perhaps one day, a celebrity will pose for an artist sans make-up, maternity briefs or designer gown. Such nudes would be similar to those shot in 1994 by the Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra: naked women right after childbirth, with protruding bellies and newborns in their arms. One of the mothers is not entirely naked, but wearing disposable maternity briefs. It is hard to fight the impression that this is what contemporary Venus might look like.
Translated by Joanna Figiel