Sunday, July 26, 2015

"We all end up in the clay." -James 'Son Ford' Thomas


Summertime is not always a hotbed of good art, but mostly just good and hot. If you can handle a humid train ride to Manhattan, or even if you can’t, get over to NYU’s 80WSE gallery, pronto.  James ‘Son Ford’ Thomas: The Devil and His Blues is a celebration of the Delta Blues and Black Folk Art. Upon entering, an old turntable plays his recordings and beside it rests Son Ford’s sculpted head in the artist’s chosen medium of unfired clay, painted black with marbles for eyes: soulful and down to earth.



The first magical spread of clay figures appears on a raised white platform, not quite eye level: common birds, fish, snakes and several characteristic skulls with tin foil lined eye sockets and real human teeth pressed into the mouth. It all seems to come from his immediate world where as a child he would hunt and fish in Leland, Mississippi. 


As an adult, he worked as a grave -digger for a little over ten years. Son Ford claimed that the first skull he made at age 10, was intended to scare his grandfather coming home late at night to a candle lit home.


My favorite part of the exhibit is a room filled with sculpted portraits. From his own account, they are all made up people with the exception of a few George Washington and Abe Lincolns, which Son Ford made because they sold. The George Washington’s, with their upholstery cotton hair and red painted faces, happen also to perfectly reference America’s history of slavery and the punishing cotton plantations.  As one walks around the room with these portraits almost looking at you, it’s hard not to smile. The hair both human and wig is stapled or pressed into the heads with deliberate style: heavy eyebrows, goatee jutting out around a big mouth of human teeth or dentures, wavy curls with oversized aviator glasses nested. The eyes are often marbles painted in different hues, with a depth that transcends its matte paint.  There are also a few little figurines of men in daily life and death, sitting on a log after chopping wood, playing music, or laying in open coffins.

The Devil and His Blues is a gem of an exhibit of whose shine lingers in one’s head like a great song. Let your spirits be lifted.


80WSE is located on 80 Washington Square East. The exhibit closes August 7.


























Saturday, May 9, 2015

Venus Stripped Bear: A History of the Female Nude

Female nudes count among the most celebrated images in the history of Western art.  Last week I was reviewing an article by the philosopher, Anne Eaton, with my aesthetics class.  Eaton develops a feminist critique of female nudes, describing various ways in which they can be said to objectify women and reinforce harmful stereotypes.  This got me thinking about where all these nudes came from. How did the female nude enter the Western canon? That's what I will meditate on here, though I will come back to questions about whether these images are problematic at the end.

The questions of origins arises as soon as one recalls that nudity is rare in the 3,000-year tradition that immdiately preceded Western art: the painting and sculpture of Ancient Egypt.  Ancient Egyptians tend to depict both men and women clothed.  Female attire is form-fitting but covers much of the body.  Male figures tend to have ample exposed flesh, but their loins are routinely covered.


I don't mean to imply that the Ancient Egyptians never depict nude bodies.  In some images, women wear tops that reveal their breasts, and the male fertility god, Min, is represented as having a giant phallus.  There is even a 12th century pornographic papyrus that explicitly presents multiple sexual positions.  In addition, the tomb of Nebamum includes a celebrated fresco of nude female dancers (below).  Still, in the overwhelming majority of cases, Egyptian figures are clothed.


Archaic Greek art was heavily influenced by the art of Ancient Egypt.  From about the 6th century BCE, the Greeks were making life-sized figure sculptures depicting idealized men and women.  These share much in common with their Egyptian prototypes anatomically but important changes were made in attire.  Male statues, called kouros or boy, are nude.  Female statues, or kore, however, remain clothed, and indeed their garments are somewhat less revealing than those worn by Egyptian statues.  For the Archaic Greeks, female nudity was taboo.  Male nudity was used to show off youthful athleticism and strength.  Here the asymmetry between male and female exposure is an indication of male dominance and male control of female bodies.  In contrast to later centuries, this is enacted through female concealment and desexualization, rather than the converse.


The same pattern in recapitulated in Greek Vase paintings, most of which date from the Archaic period.  Consider this example, a birth of Aphrodite, in which the goddess is flanked by male nudes, but fully clothed and covered by a large scallop shell:


Also consider this Judgment of Paris, in which Paris sits in the buff, gazing at three heavily robed female beauties.  Within Archaic art, the female body is hidden, even when presented as an object of desire.

All of that changed in the 4th century BCE when a sculptor named Praxiteles created what scholars describe as the first full-scale female nude.  The statue, which represents Aphrodite, has now been lost, but its appearance is famiar to us through the numerous copies that were made over the following centuries.  These are the many standing venus figures that populate Western museums.  The most famous include: the Medici Venus, the Capitoline Venus, the Aphrodite of Menophantos, the Colonna Venus, and the Venus de Milo (aka Melos Venus).  All of these are very similar in form, but there are some important differences.  The Medici, Capitoline, and Menophantos statues are shown concealing both chest and groin, one with each hand.  The is called a Venus Pudica, or modest Venus.  The Colonna statue is somewhat less modest, which chest exposed.  The Venus de Milo is famously missing her arms, but would have had exposed breasts as well; her lower body is draped by cloth.  Cloth appears in most of these, suggesting that they represent Aphrodite at a moment when she was caught bathing, and she uses cloth and hands to cover her nudity.  The Medici Venus differs in this respect, showing instead cherubs and a dolphin, alluding to Aphrodite's birth in the sea.


It is also important to note that these statues would have been garishly painted in ancient times, so their current look is somewhat misleading.  Chemical analyses have recently revealed, for example, that the Medici Venus, had gold leafed hair, red lipstick, and earings that hung from holes in her marble lobes.  I've tried to reconstruct what she might have looked like below.


All of the famous Venus statues antedate Praxiteles by centuries.  Medici, Menophantos, and Melos date from about 100 BCE.  The Capitone and Colonna are Roman copies.  All are thought to originate in the Venus by Praxiteles, though scholars disagree about which is most faithful.  Knowledge of that original derives from written sources, written long after Praxiteles lived, but they are involved by oral tradition and eye-witness accounts of the statue, which was housed in a Temple at Knidos (and it is therefore known as the Knidian Venus).  One account, from Plyny writing around 70 CE, explains that Praxiteles originally made two versions of the Venus, clothed and unclothed, and gave first choice to the city of Kos:
[S]uperior to all the statues, not only of Praxiteles, but of any other artist that ever existed, is his Knidian Venus... The artist made two statues of the goddess, and offered them both for sale: one of them was represented with drapery, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Kos, who had the choice; the second was offered them at the same price, but, on the grounds of propriety and modesty, they thought fit to choose the other. Upon this, the Knidians purchased the rejected statue... At a later period, King Nicomedes wished to purchase this statue of the Knidians, and made them an offer to pay off the whole of their public debt, which was very large. They preferred, however, to submit to any extremity rather than part with it; and with good reason, for by this statue Praxiteles has perpetuated the glory of Knidos. The little temple in which it, is placed is open on all sides, so that the beauties of the statue admit of being seen from every point of view; an arrangement which was favoured by the goddess herself, it is generally believed. Indeed, from whatever point it is viewed, its execution is equally worthy of admiration. 
Plyny here extols a virtue that marks the advance for Archaic sculpture to Classical Hellenistic sculpture: the creation of works that are beautiful from multiple viewing angles.  He also remarks on the impact of the sculptures main innovation: with nudity comes eroticism.  The fame of the statue issued in part from the sexual excitement it caused,  Plyny continues with an anecdote: 
A certain individual, it is said, became enamoured of this statue, and, concealing himself in the temple during the night, gratified his lustful passion upon it, traces of which are to be seen in a stain left upon the marble.
This story is also recounted in a 4th century CE dialogue called Erotos, falsely attributed to the 1st century author, Lucian.  The author of this dialogue (referred to as a Pseudo-Lucian), also reports that the Knidian Venus appealed to viewers with a sexual preference for male bodies.  Here is the reaction of Callicratídas, a gay man from Athens, upon seeing the statue's rear:
As soon as the Athenian, who had so far been indifferent, glimpsed this side of the goddess, which reminded him of boys, he exclaimed with even greater enthusiasm than that of Charícles, "By Hercules, what a harmonious back. What rounded thighs, begging to be caressed with both hands! How well the lines of her cheeks flow, neither too skinny, showing the bones, nor so voluminous as to droop! How inexpressible the tenderness of that smile pressed into her dimpled loins! How precise that line running from thigh, to leg, to foot! 
Such posterior analytics remind us that nudity in art does not always exclusively cater to the male heterosexual gaze.  In this context, I'm charmed by a 1772 painting called The Tribuna of the Uffizi, which shows a group of men staring in awe at the buttocks of the Medici Venus.    I doubt, however, that the artist, Johann Zoffany, was remarking on the sexual orientation of these museum goers.  Rather, he is calling attention to the fact that Western art affords ample attention for men to view nude female bodies.  The Knidian Venus sparked this transition in art, whereupon female nudes became a favorite, if not dominant form.


The Knidian Venus was frequently copied, as noted, and also adapted, as in the above 1st Century BCE example showing Aphrodite repelling Pan with her sandal.  This statue is a bridge between the modest, Pudica, form, and a more disturbing trope in Western art: imagery that eroticizes assaults on women.  The canonical Venus is a victim of voyeurism, but here we see something much worse.


Female nudes continued to be popular in Roman times, as witnessed by the Roman copies of the Knidian Venus.  They also populate Roman paintings, displacing the tradition of Greek vases.  Many examples can be found in the excellent preserved murals of Pompeii.  Among these, there is birth of Venus, which differs dramatically from the vase above.  Here, Venus lies on top of the grand scallop shell, revealing all.  Her cloth alludes to the bathing Venus statues and a dolphin mounted cherub recalls the Medici Venus.  But the Pomepii Venus shows no sign of modesty and her posture has changed: this is an early example of a reclining nude.  As Eaton points out in her essay, reclining nudes convey submissiveness, and contrast with male nudes, who are more often as active, erect, and aggressive.


The Pompeii murals, famous for their frank sexuality, were created around the time of the historical Jesus.  Within two centuries the tiny Jesus cult would grow exponentially and become the state religion.  With this, pagan imagery and pagan naturalism saw a precipitous decline, and pagan attitudes towards sexuality were held up for censure.  Female nudes did not disappear, however, in Christian art.  Medieval manuscripts depict naked bodies in various liturgical contexts.  These include Adam and Eve before the fall, the damned cast to hell, and the rising dead during the apocalypse.  There are also some images that are more continuous with classical iconography.


One theme popular among the Medievals shows Bathsheba bathing.  According to the story,  King David spied the naked beauty from his palace rooftop and then sent for her.  They became lovers, and then he sent her husband to the front lines of battle, ensuring his death.  A 9th century illumination from the Sacra Parallela (right) shows the nude Bathsheba testing the temperature of her bath; her handmaiden is also undressed.  The example above, from the Morgan Bible (ca. 1250), offers another interpretation, and below that we see a creative rendition from the Saint Louis Psalter (ca. 1260), which evokes the Venus Pudica, with arms that conceal anatomical parts.

Depictions of Bathsheba date back to antiquity.  A related theme begins to appear some centuries later in medieval art: Susanna and the Elders.  The story here is even uglier than the Bathsheba tale: two lecherous old men spot the nubile Susanna bathing, and they then try to coerce her into having sex with them by threatening to claim that they saw her with a lover.  She refuses and is condemned for promiscuity.  But the lecherous men can't get their story straight, so their lie is exposed, and they are executed instead of the innocent Susanna.  Medieval manuscript artists begin to depict this episode in a manner similar to Bathsheba: a female nude bathing which the leering gaze of clothed men.  The earliest example appears in the 9th century, also from the Sacra Parallela.


It is hard to imagine that these medieval images would have aroused their viewers, but the adjoining voyeuristic narrative shows that they were sexually charged, and echoic of the Greek Venus tradition.  That tradition would soon re-assert itself with the Renaissance -- a re-birth of antiquity.  This re-birth began in Italy, where classical sculpture was available to be seen.  All the aforementioned Venus statues seem to have been discovered after the Renaissance: the Medici Venus is first mentioned in the late 16th century, and the others were found even later.  But similar Venus depictions were evidently available, and pioneers of the Renaissance begin to copy them.


A remarkable early example is Giovanni Pisano's Prudence, which appears on pulpit in Pisa in 1302.  Pisano had clearly seen a Venus Pudica and copied it faithfully, long before other artists began drawing on classical sources.  Another Venus Pudica appears one century later in Masaccio's Expulsion (1422-7).  Venus looks like a Capitone-style modest Venus, with hunched shoulders, except her face is aggrieved, unlike the Greek originals.  The Capitone was not unearthed until the 17th century, but Masaccio presumably saw another in the style.


The most famous quotation comes from the Florentine master, Botticelli.  His Birth of Venus (1483-5) is a milestone in Western art: it is the the first full-scale painting based on a classical theme, and the first depicting a female nude as its principle subject.  The painting continues a tradition we have seen--a nude venus on top of a scallop shell--and the body dutifully copies the Venus Pudica.  The main difference is the head, which resembles other women in Botticelli's work and an arch-browed archetype developed by his teacher Filippo Lippi (based on Lucrezia Buti, a nun with whom he had an affair).  The Botticelli Venus has an awkwardly long neck, and that is presumably because he replaced the classical Greek head with a face in his preferred style.

Botticelli's Venus signaled the return of the female nude as a main theme in Western art.  Other Italians were soon to follow.  For example, a sculptor called Antico, so called for his use of classical sources, made small bronzes modeled on Venus statues (right).


Leonardo da Vinci also drew on the Venus posture in his classically themed Leda and the Swan (above).  That painting is lost, but we know it from a copy made by Leonardo's presumed lover, called "Il Sodoma."


Incidentally, Il Sodoma, was also involved with other Renaissance nudes: he painted a nude variant of the Mona Lisa (above), and he appears in a cartoon by Leonardo with an erect penis, in what looks like a study for Leonardo's famous portrait of St. John the baptism.  My topic here is female nudes, but I could resist including these images.  Il Sodoma's chest in somewhat gender ambiguous in the cartoon.


Female nudes moved in another direction (quite literally) in Venetian paining.  Around 1510, Giorgione's Sleeping Venus was completed, and it is regarded as the first reclining nude of the Renaissance (top).  The name implies classical sources, as does the posture, which recalls the reclining Venus of Pompeii--which was still unknown, but variants may have been available.  And notice the lower hand position: it resembles Venus statues of the semi-modest Colonna-type.  Despite these classical references, Giorgione's breaks from tradition by presenting a nude who neither a goddess nor a figure from a sacred text.  She is called a Venus by art historians, but there is no indication that Giorgione intended her as such.  The picture decontexualizes the nude.  It might be described as a nude for nudity's sake--or the sake of pleasing it's audience of heterosexual male viewers.



Giorgione's Sleeping Venus was completed by his student, Titian.  Titian then went on to make a version of his own, called the Venus of Urbino.  The Titian version copies the pose in the Giorgione, but adds some elements: a dog symbolizing loyalty, and two figures looking into a bridal chest in the background.  This indicates that the picture depicts a new bride, perhaps intended to entertain the groom.  An expensive precursor to sexting.



Titian went on to paint many other nudes.  Among the most famous is his Dianna and Actaeon (1556-9), which depicts the clothed Actaeon coming upon the goddess Diana, and a group of nude maidservants.  All try to cover themselves in a manner that evokes Venus statues of antiquity.  The picture exemplified another theme that became popular in the Renaissance: groups of nude female bathers.  The only clothed woman in the scene is a dark-skinned figure assisting Diana, who may be a slave.  Renaissance artists did not regularly sexualize black bodies.  In a companion painting, Actaeon in transformed into a stag for viewing the Goddess, and attacked by dogs.  In a rare example of female power in Renaissance art, Diana leaps with her bow firing a fatal arrow at the mortal.  Of course he remains clothed, and she has one breast gratuitously exposed.  We the viewers, who have also spied the nude goddess bathing, go unpunished.


Note must also be made about another permutation of the female nude that became popular  during the Renaissance: Madonna and Child paintings, where the Madonna has an exposed breast.  It is difficult to project back in time and ask whether viewers would have viewed the mother of the Church as a sexual object in these images, but they do often seem like a pretext for showing bits of female anatomy.  The first three examples are Italian: Leonardo, Raphael, and Giuliano Bugiardini.  The Raphael has no nudity, but the infant Jesus looks drunk with lust as he tugs on his mother's collar.  The next two are from the French painter, Jan Fouquet, and a Flemish painter, known as the Master of Magdalen Legend.  I choose these two because they make clear that, even with anatomical distortions, this genre can have a veiled (so to speak) eroticism.  Western art does not force force the proverbial choose between madonna and whore: rather artists tend to present female nudes as both sacred and sexual.



The foregoing Flemish example serves as a reminder that female nudes became popular in Northern Europe during the Renaissance, just as they were in Italy.  An early example in Van Eyck's depiction of Eve in the Ghent altarpiece (1432) (above left).  Her posture, with one leg forward and a hand over her pubis, suggests familiarity with classical Venus statues.  Another picture of a naked bather shows the same stance, though it is known to us only through poor quality copies (above right).


A very different treatment of the female nude can be found in Lucas Cranach's many versions of the judgment of Paris (three examples appear above).  These contrast with the aforementioned vase, because here the judge is clothed (indeed armored!), and the three woman are naked.  Cranach gives his woman serpentine bodies that depart from the naturalism of classical models, though he chooses a classical theme. It is evident from their multiplicity, that these pictures were best sellers for Cranach.  Despite differences from version to version, he did seem to arrive at a formula.  For example, he always makes sure to include a figure with her back turned, as if to offer something for the taste of every viewer.


The Judgment of Paris remained popular among Northern artists in the Baroque period.  Rubens's treatment of the topic shows a abandons than anatomical predilections of both Greek sculptors and Cranach. His women have full figures (they are Rubenesque).  Rubins retains Cranach rear view, and he also restores one crucial feature of classical nudes: Helen has adopted the posture of ancient Venus sculptures.


Another Baroque nude can be found in Artemisia Gentileschi's version of Susanna and the Elders.  As Eaton points, she departs from the male habit of making Susanna appear positively disposed towards her male aggressors.  Instead, she reels back in horror.  More striking still, an x-ray analysis reveals a screaming Susanna holding a knife poised to sever the lecherous men.  Artemisia is one of the only women artists in the Western cannon before the 18th century, when a slow trickle begins.  She was also a victim of sexual assault: as assistant to her father attacked her and then gained continued sexual access based on a false promise of marriage.  Artemisia takes revenge in her paintings, with, harrowing portraits of Judith and Jael violently killing bad men, as well as the revenge story hidden beneath layers of paint in her Susanna.


Susanna was also portrayed in painting by Rembrandt.  The version here shows some concern on Susanna's face, but it is a far cry from the horror given to us by Artemisia. Note, too, that her arms conform to the Pudica posture.



Next we see one of Rembrandt's depictions of the Bathsheba story.  It likely depicts Hendrickje Stoffels, with whom he had an affair and a child, leading to difficulty with the church.  The treatment may not look classical, but there may have been a classical source.  Bathsheba has a male messenger at her feet, evoking a Roman relief sculpture that was known to Rembrandt through a contemporary etching by Francois Perrier.


Perrrier brings us back to France, which would soon host a stylistic revolution that would break from the dark palette and heavy themes of the Baroque.  I have in mind the Rococo.  Two of the most famous paintings from the period involve female nudity.  One, only by allusion.  Fragonard's swing shows a man hidden behind a bush, staring up the skirt of his swinging lover.  Cupid statues reinforce the amorous nature of the scene, but the picture is otherwise quite non-classical.


Nudity is more than implied in a famous Rococo painter by Boucher.  Here a nude lies on her belly with her legs somewhat spread.  The lack of subtly here indicate a move towards more overt sexuality in Western art.


Classicism came back to France, with painters like Ingres.  He too produced famous nudes, including his Grande Odalisque.  Ingres' Turkish Bath (above), makes a move towards even greater orientalism, but also evokes Titian's Diana painting, with an assembly of white nude bodies and clothed women of color.


Romantics also payed tribute to the female nude.  Delecroix's most famous painting, Victory Leading the People, shows a gratuitously bare-chested personification of Liberty marching along with gun-toting revolutionaries.  She too carries a firearm and a flag.  The picture compares interestingly to Delecroix's less famous, Greece on the Ruins of the Missolonghi, which celebrates Greek liberation for the Turks.  Greece is personified as a young woman bearing her chest, and standing atop ruins and dead bodies, much of his depiction of Victory.  These are triumphal figures, unlike the nudes who recline passively, but Delecroix's use of sex to celebrate war is not uncomplicated.  Women were not the main beneficiaries of the victories he chose to commemorate.


The 19th century was period of rapid change in art, especially in France.  We have seen Neo-Classicism and Romanticism. By mid-century, the academy was dominated by a group of realists who drew heavily on ancient themes.  One example is the super-sexualized Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel, above, which is mentioned in Eaton's article.



Eaton also mentions a painting of Zeuxis choosing his models.  The subject refers to a Greek artist who was famous for creating idealized female forms by combing elements from different women.  The version by François-André Vincent's portrayal, above, features a traditional modest Venus figure at the the visual center of the canvas.



One of the most celebrated works of the time was Jean-Léon Gérôme's Phryne revealed before the Areopagus.  Phryne was a famous courtesan who was tried for ruining the lives of men.  According to one version of the story, she was defended by a famous attorney, who, fearing the case was lost, exposed her beautiful body to the tribunal of judges, where upon they chose to exonerate her.  This example is especially apt, because legend has it that Phyrne was the model for the Praxiteles Venus.  Thus, the mother of all nudes in Western art is exposed here once again, with the message: nudity will set you free.  In a fascinating twist, Gérôme has not followed convention in posing Phryne like a Praxiteles Venus.  Instead of covering her body--so important for the trial--she covers her face.  Shame has been relocated.  The effect is that Phyrne's individual identity is obscured, and her body becomes a stand in for the message that woman should expose themselves.  The painting instantiates the theme it represents: it is an apologia for the fully exposed nude in narrative and form.



The academy painters often used classical themes.  This tendency was rejected by the next major figure in French art: Courbet.  His most infamous depiction of female nudity, The Origin of the World, was the subject of an earlier post.  Here I want to mention his painting of the Painter's Studio, which abandons classical myths, and aims for greater verité (though he attempts to summarize seven years of his life here using opaque symbols as allegories).  For our purposes, the key thing to note is the central nude, standing among clothed others, in a pose that strongly recalls a classical Venus Pudica.


Courbet helped set the stage for impressionism.  These painters too, eschewed classical themes, but they too present female nudes in ways that are continuous with tradition.  Manet, for example, quotes Giorgione and Titian in his shocker, Olympia, and thereby also evokes more ancient depictions of reclining nudes.




Impressionists also show Titian's influence in their many paintings of nude female bathers.  Here are versions by Renoir, Degas, and the Cezanne.  The Degas, which shows a solitary nude bather, can also be placed in a tradition that includes paintings of Susanna and Bathesheba, as well as their analogues from antiquity.   The Cezanne shows a transition to abstraction, indicating that the female nude will not disappear with the rise of modernism.



This prediction is confirmed by the fact that the most famous works by Matisse and Picasso are female nudes.  Matisse's dancer belongs to a tradition of interlocked standing nudes, like Judgment of Paris pictures or pictures of Graces.  The Picasso can also be characterized in this way.  Its subject matter--prostitutes in brothel--makes the viewer play the role of Paris in sizing up female beauties.  I suggested in an earlier blog that Picasso's painting may also be related to some pictures of dead saints raised before the apocalypse.  If so, we can see him turning prostitutes into saints, a transfiguration presaged by the Praxiteles Venus.


Meanwhile, among modernists in Northern Europe, female nudes remained popular as well.  Above are two examples by expressionists from Die Brücke group is Dresden: Kirchner painted his own take on bathing nudes, and Nolde depicted naked dancers that reflect the rising interest in what Europeans called "primitive" societies.


Around the same time, the Vienese expressionists, Klimt and Schiele, were gaining notoriety for their sexually charged female nudes.  Schiele was briefly imprisoned on a pornography change.  In Klimt example (above left), we see the Vienese predilection for slender young bodies; an older nude functions as a demon overhead.  In the Schiele (above right), we see a reclining nude atop another figure with a doll-like face.  The underarm hair growth is all that confirms that she is supposed to be a real person.

As we move from modern to post-modern, female nudes continue to have a central place in Western art.  Three of Marcel Duchamp's most famous works are nudes: His Nude Descending a Stairway, his Bride Stripped Bear by Her Bachelors, and the Given.  The former two abstract the female body beyond recognition, and the later presents a lifelike nude--or rather nude who appears to be lying dead in the woods, with spread legs.  Her hand is holding a torch giving us hope that she is still alive, and we, like voyeurs, watch the scene through a small crack in a door.  The meaning (and politics!) of these images cannot be taken up here.  The present point is that despite Duchamp's many battles against prior forms of art, his preoccupation with exposed female bodies is quite traditional.  The Given is a modern day Giorgione, and the Bride Stripped Bear evokes the Goddess worship of ancient Venus statues, replete with seminal fluids.


The mid-20th century saw the rise of abstract expressionism, and, with that, figure painting takes a hiatus.  The main exception is De Kooning, whose female figures can be seen as an existential (and sometimes misogynistic) meditation of the history of female nudes. Henry Moore's sculptures can be described similarly, though his nudes are usually reclining.


Abstract expressionism is followed by Pop Art.  Nudes are less frequent in pop art than is some previous movements, but non non-existent.  Indeed, the picture regarded as the first work of Pop Art, a 1956 collage by Richard Hamilton, includes a topless dancer with pasties on her nipples.  There is also a clothed woman ascending a stairway with a vacuum cleaner.  A topless male bodybuilder in the same composition personifies strength.  Here we see the classical distinction between female sex objects and male warriors.




After pop art came conceptualism, which is not associated with with figuration or nudes.  There are exceptions, however.  Consider the Anthropometry series by Yves Klein, the proto-conceptualist.  Klein had nude models cover their bodies with paint and then press themselves against canvases.  The model were largely uncredited, and were called "living brushes" (see this interview with model, Elena Bolumbo-Mosca, who speaks favorable about the experience). The process was documented on film, and one can see elements of traditional themes: a group of nudes bathing (as the models begin to paint themselves), reclining nudes (as they immerse themselves in the paint), and Knidian Venus postures (as they leave impressions on the canvas).


In contemporary art, female nudes continue to make frequent appearances.  One phenomenon of note, I've elsewhere called the pornification of art.  In the 1990's artists such as Jeff Koons, John Currin, Ghada Amer, and Marlene Dumas created works incorporate imagery from pornography--usually women.  I choose three tame exampled to illustrate: a Koons (above) that updates the bathing nude genre, an Amer detail that revisits the reclining nude (below), and a Dumas (right) that shows a female torso with arms in the Venus Pudica position, except that here modesty shades into masturbation.


These are not the first A-List artists to all on commercial pornography in their work (recall that Schiele was a pornographer).  But they certainly suggest a rising trend, so to speak.  They can be interpreted as commentaries on the ubiquity of porn in contemporary visual culture, though the messages they convey are not always clear.  In particular, it's not always clear which, if any, of these artists are criticizing the sexual objectification of female bodies.  Also, as with artist models, when pornographic material is quoted in art, the sex workers who posed for the source images are rarely identified.


Less ambiguous is the work of feminist artists from the 1960s and 1970s.  For example, Yoko Ono's Cut Piece, a performance in which viewers cut off her clothing, is clearly comment on the desire for female nudes in art.  Also unambiguous is a film by Hannah Wilke, in which she does a striptease behind Duchamp's Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors.  Or consider, Valie Export's Genital Anxiety, a photographical self-portrait of the artist holding a machine gun while donning crotchless pants.  Linda Benglis went even father, posing nude with a double-sided dildo in a paid advertisement in Artforum.  These artists call attention to the sexualized depiction of women in Western art.  Rather than using uncredited sex workers, they use their own bodies to protest the traditional role of women in art.


Some critics reply that these works continue to use the female body sexually.  The noted critic, Rosalind Krauss, was an editor art Artforum when Benglis published her sexualized self portrait, and she was incensed; the ensuing schism led to Krauss's departure from the magazine and founding of a new art journal, October.  Commenting on the lack of female artists in major museums and the ubiquity of female nudes, the Guerrilla Girls pointedly asked, Do women have to get naked to get into a museum?

The 1970s feminist responses to the female nude have also been criticized for another reason: they conform to prevailing conceptions of female beauty: white skin, young, slim, aesthetically heteronormative, and able-bodied.  There are several things that might be said--or done!--in response.

First, it might be pointed out that, when feminist artists use female nudity, they are taking control over this imagery and using it for political ends.  Appropriating images that have been used to reinforce power asymmetries can be an effective tactic in gaining power.  It makes a difference who creates an objectifying image, and to what end.  By taking control, women artists are effectively saying, "we own our bodies" and, in that sense, any choice about how those bodies are used or portrayed may be an expression of agency rather than oppression.  Consider a series by Lutz Bacher called Playboys (right), which recreates images in the style of Antonio Vargas pin-ups; one of them, on view at the inaugural exhibition at the Whitney, as text that reads "Sure I’m for the feminist movement. In fact, I’m pretty good at it.”  A male NY Times critic derided these images as sexist in a review from the early 1990s, but one wants to ask whether this reviewer, in his position of power, has the right to blithely question the judgment of an artist who has spent decades fighting in the trenches to increase female representation in the artworld.  Likewise, when we sneer a tactics used by long-time feminist artists, we much bear in mind that their interventions paved the way for a dramatic--though by no means adequate--increase in the visibility, prevalence, and impact of woman artist.


A second strategy is to directly address issues of sexual exploitation through art.  Artemisia Gentilieschi was doing this in 17th century, and the theme has been taken up in contemporary art as well.  Ana Menieta deals with the exploited female body in her film Blood and Feathers (see there stills above), and Kara Walker takes on the themes of slavery and rape in her work.


A third strategy for addressing the female nude in art is to change the range of bodies that are put on display.  This can involve showing heavier bodies (Niki de Saint Phalle, Lucian Freud, Jenny Saville), LGTB bodies (Claude Cahun, Robert Mapplethorpe, Gilbert and George, Nan Goldin, Wu Tsang), non-white bodies (Adrian Piper, Chris Offili, Zanele Muholi), older bodies (Joan Semmel, Aleah Chapin), disabled bodies (Frida Khalo, Mary Duffy, Marc Quinn with Alison Lapper -- thanks to Chloé Cooper Jones for reminding me of this collaboration).   A work Jenny Saville (assisted by Glen Ruchford) appears above, and a gender-ambiguous Cahun appears below.


These strategies reflect just a few of the options available for those who see the female nude as a problem in Western art.  From the perspective of this historical survey, the strategies can be more neutrally described as episodes in recent historical chapters, in which growing diversity in the Western artworld  has opened up new forms of representation.  This history has also also focused on continuity, and one can see that too in recent nudes that otherwise break from tradition.


Consider this take on the Daphne and Apollo myth, by Joel-Peter Witkin (thanks to Chloé Cooper-Jones again, for the example).  The image can be compared to a thousand images of assaults on women in Western art, such as the Greek statue of Venus and Pan, above.  But, as Chloé points out, Witkin is working to change norms about the eroticized body.


Or consider the work Mickalene Thomas, subject of an earlier blog.  She has created a series of reclining nudes that conform to classical composition, while diverging from traditional constraints on ethnicity -- compare Manet's Olympia, where the dark-skinnened woman remains clothed and servile.



The mother of all nudes, the standing Venus figure, has also remained a mainstay up through the present.   I will end with an image by Louise Bourgeois (right), from a series calles Obese Bulimic Anorexic.  As the title suggests, this work comments on negative self-image about the body, which has surely been exacerbated by the female nude in art.  Bourgeois' nude is missing arms and standing with one foot ever so slightly forward, an allusion to the Venus de Milo.  When one surveys the history of Western art, the only thing more striking than the frequency of female nudes is their formal similarity.  We have inherited a handful of archetypes for depicting naked bodies: bathing, deflecting assault, reclining, and, most notably, standing erect like a Knidian Venus.  The female nude has a history and that history asserts itself again and again when the body is revealed.



In writing this entry, thanks are due to Anne Eaton for the inspiration and all the insightful graduate students in my aesthetics seminar.