Reflect and analyse how the depiction of the male and female nude has changed over the centuries.
Across time there has been quite some back and forth as to what nudity signifies and what is deemed acceptable, but the overriding factor that strikes me most is the presentation of the female nude as passive and available. Not always, but often. And what I find really surprising is that this tendency continues today in my own weekly art class where our female models often assume a sexualised position while the male model will lounge about just as he might at home. And it feels like we don’t really stop to question these ‘norms’.
In Classical Greece, to depict a nude was to celebrate physical beauty, and most especially the heroic male ideal, though Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos introduced the idea of female beauty. Much influenced by the Greeks, the Romans continued this celebration, with a general mash-up of gender roles and sexuality. I still remember coming across Sleeping Hermaphrodite at the British Museum and wondering if anyone had spotted what I had? Turns out that this sculpture was a popular choice for the gardens of the wealthy – it was considered amusing – perhaps the ancient equivalent of a herd of giant topiary elephants. However the curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Met, Mr Picón, warns that “it would be a mistake to interpret the popularity of these works as a sign of ancient tolerance. The birth of intersex people was seen as a bad omen; those born with ambiguous genitals were usually killed.” (McDermon, 2017)
Medieval times were less playful however, and Christian art saw nakedness, and most specifically female nakedness, become a signifier of guilt, shame, vanity and sin. The Renaissance of course looked back to the classical ideal and we see the naked body once again representing the ideal concepts of truth and love while Leonardo da Vinci celebrated the perfect geometry of the male body. The female body was less celebrated and was often depicted as a deviation from the perfect male form – with comical add-on breasts and a strategic cloth or hand to cover the missing penis.
Museum walls seem laden with voluptuous naked women reclining on ornate sofas, admiring themselves in mirrors, or chained to rocks awaiting rescue by a hero – dressed, of course, in shining armour. They are all waiting to be looked at, just as the often-quoted John Berger, puts it: ‘…men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (Berger, 2008)
Meanwhile men are rarely depicted as passive, and if they are it’s usually because they have been made a victim, martyred or crucified.
Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe of 1862 and Olympia, 1863 seem to be the paintings most often credited with first challenging this perspective of an ideal fantasy woman, naked passive and waiting. Manet’s naked woman owns her sexuality, she is in control. But more than this, in each painting she has turned to look the viewer directly in the face – a direct confrontation.
Something I had never considered before reading Gill Saunders’ The Nude, A New Perspective (1989) is the frequent fragmentation of the female body in images, rendering it an anonymous ‘object’. Saunders makes much of this – especially those images without arms – describing them as ‘cropped and truncated’, ‘mutilated and thus literally powerless and passive’. (Saunders, 1989). It’s rare to see a male nude depicted this way. I’ve just done a very unscientific Google search of male nude/fine art and female nude/fine art. Of the first 22 images that appear, just one of the male nudes is ‘truncated’ while seven of the female nudes appear solely as torsos.
An artist who fragments the human body (often to abstraction) though does treat male and female bodies with equality is photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I will never forget stumbling upon an exhibition of his in Sydney. I had no idea who he was. My first reaction was to marvel at the beautiful forms he had created, my second was surprise…
The feminist art movement kicked off in the 1960s as an attempt to redress an art world that was seen as created by and for men. This was not just about the representation of women in art but the exposure of female artists.
McDermon, D. (2017). What the Sleeping Hermaphrodite Tells Us About Art, Sex and Good Taste. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/27/arts/design/statue-hermaphrodite.html [Accessed 29 Jun. 2017].
Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.
Saunders, G. (1989). The nude. Cambridge: Harper & Row.