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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Nude in Art

Venus of Willendorf,
21,000-22,000 BCE
Recently, in a discussion of food as a subject for art, I made note of the most persistent subjects in art, food being one of them, with religion and sex being the other two. And surprising, the last two are often intermingled. Probably the oldest piece of art work depicting the human figures is a small, carved, stone, fertility symbol depicting a grossly obese nude female figure called Venus of Willendorf. It is a mere 4 1/2 inches tall and estimated to be 23,000-24,000 years old. Though the nude figure is absent from Egyptian, Persian, and Etruscan art, the Greeks seem to have not only embraced it but raised it to such a high artistic plain that one might think the entire population went around naked and that (given the decorations on their ceramics) open sexual activity was the rule rather than the exception.

By contrast, the Romans would seem to be downright prudish. Though the semi-nude figure is often used in religious works, Roman gods and goddesses were seldom completely nude. In private art, however, the nude was much more prevalent with sexual overtones ranging from merely suggestive to total saturation. Then, like a swinging pendulum, the medieval Christian period found nude figures used solely in rare depictions of Adam, Eve, and (more commonly) the Christ-child. After that came the Renaissance, Donatello, and especially Michelangelo, when once more the nude figure was off and running in both religious and secular works, for the most part minus any overtly sexual overtones.

Olympia, 1863, Edouard Manet
With the Baroque era, the nude figure in art became much more predominantly female. With the decline of religious art patronage, there once more began to creep into the painting and sculpture of the period a sort of "sanitized" sexuality which lurked just beneath the surface, leaving, as they say, "something to the imagination." Gradually however, pretexts for the "artistic nude" changed from religious/mythological to bathing or athletic depictions. Edouard Manet's Olympia may well be the first modern-day artistic nude without such pretexts.
Venus of Urbino, 1538, Titian
His reclining female figure, Manet admittedly based upon Titian's Venus of Urbino of 1538 which, in turn, was based upon Giorgione's Sleeping Venus from 1510. Certainly Manet's, and likely the earlier two as well, depict a nude prostitute awaiting her client. Today, the nude figure in art has become largely academic, even passe'--just one more thing college art students must study before moving on to some other equally important subject matter. When a society becomes so saturated with sexual media images as ours has, the nude figure in the traditional arts loses both its shock value and its ability to titillate.
Sleeping Venus, 1510, Giorgione

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