Over the centuries, nudity has been an important theme running through art. However, it has not always had the same degrees of importance, and indeed accepted as a feature of art during the last 2000 years or so. Sometimes and in some places, nudity has not only been accepted as a valid part of art, but it was also encouraged almost to the point of being revered. Yet nude art has been found in the Khajuraho temples, the other extreme is of religions taking a dislike to nudity can be cited as an obvious reason for it being less prominent in other parts of the world. Indeed in times and places when or where Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have had a dominant position, it was much harder for artists to get glimpses of nudity into their art at all. Conversely, other religions have had no problems with scenes of nudity in art, they were not concerned about covering up the human body at all.
Sometimes though artists were able to get around taboos in depicting nudity in their pieces of art that existed during their lifetimes. The apparent easing of restrictions about displaying nude art arguably demonstrates that cultural ideas about morality have changed over the centuries, well in some countries more than others at least. Some of the pieces of art evaluated here, and the artists that produced those works of art arguably played a part in altering culture and morality, whether or not they intended to do so. In the majority of cases, the artists were more concerned about being able to draw, paint, or sculpt whatever they wanted to do instead of changing their respective societies. This evaluates some of the artists that were involved in using nudity in some or even all of their works of art.
Antikythera Ephebe is a bronze statue of a naked young man, the first parts of which were discovered in an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera during the year 1900. It is not known who made this sculpture, who wanted it made, and where it was originally displayed. Divers kept finding extra pieces of this statue over the years. The true greatness of this statue was not apparent until it was restored for the second time in the 1950s. Before the restoration of the Antikythera Ephebe, art history had considered Ancient Greek sculptures of naked people to be adequate in terms of standards, yet this statue showed that whoever cast it in bronze was a very talented sculptor. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, Europeans would not produce statues of such high quality until the Renaissance beginning in the 15th century.
The best estimates would place this piece of nude art back to 340 BC. There is no proof of who the statue is supposed to be. Perhaps the best guesses are of Paris, Hercules, or of Perseus. If it is of Paris, then it would be the only one of him in the nude, Greek sculptures tended to have him wearing a cloak and a distinctive cap so that viewers would know it was him, the anti-hero of Troy. The Ancient Greeks were completely at ease with nudity so at ease with seeing it in their works of art. The Greeks would have had similar statues in their temples and other public buildings and would have admired the quality of the sculpting.
The Khajuraho Temples built by the Rajput Kingdoms in India are dedicated to Hindu and Jain deities. There are twenty temples in the area, and the oldest ones are at least 1200 years old. The Khajuraho Temples are full of art pieces, carvings, and sculptures. Around ten percent of all the carvings as well as the sculptures show erotic and nude scenes. The Hindus, though we're not attempting to turn their temples into places decorated with adult themes, after all, children would come to worship with their families. Instead, they were solely interested in depicting aspects of peoples' everyday lives, so the priests that oversaw the construction of the temples had no qualms in having carpenters and stonemasons make the nude artifacts that were placed in the temples. The artifacts were meant to be of ordinary people doing things rather than the gods in nudity and sex. There was no intention to cause offense with the things depicted in the temples, and none would have been taken, certainly not when the temples were newly built.
The inclusion of these artifacts in the temples demonstrates that Hindus did not have any problems with looking at depictions of nudity and sex in any of their temples. From their perspective, there was, and remains nothing to be ashamed of in looking at images of naked people (even those showing sex scenes). Hinduism is thus a religion that has considerably fewer hang-ups concerning nudity than other faiths do. In that respect, Hinduism had a similarly relaxed view of nudity to the Ancient pagan religions that prevailed over much of Europe, the Middle East, and parts of North Africa before the spread of Christianity and Islam.
The exclusion of nudity from the art of most Christian countries would eventually be challenged due to the rediscovery of the classical world linked to the Renaissance based in Italy. Before that, rediscovery of Christian themes dominated the art of the Middle Ages, unless the artist was painting or sculpting a secular ruler or a rich patron. Even then, the paintings of people, whether they were real, or based on Biblical characters, did not achieve any kind of realism. Christians could and do have different opinions of nudity in art, Muslims are against it, for copying the image of any person was and remains against the fundamental beliefs of their faith.
Lucas Cranach the Elder was an artist that produced works of art that made people appear more realistic, and if that meant he had to depict them nude to do so, then he did. He gained a reputation for his realistic portraits of people linked to the court of the Elector Frederick of Wittenberg including the reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. He was therefore closely linked to the Protestant Reformation. Generally, he preferred to paint portraits of the wealthy, it paid well and kept him out of trouble.
The reason his merits are mentioned about nude art was for his art depicting the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Showing Jesus almost completely naked during his death throes is definitely not the same as erotic statues. Instead Cranach the Elder used the nudity of Jesus to depict his humanity and suffering. Cranach's depictions of the crucifixion were among the most realistic produced. This was particularly the case with the one he made for the Stadtkirche in Weimar. It was ironic that they were placed in Lutheran churches because whenever more radical versions of Protestantism held sway all crucifixions, paintings and statues were removed. The most radical Protestant churches even removed stained glass windows and had whitewashed walls. They find any kind of art distasteful, especially in churches.
Michelangelo as a young man was an artist that regularly chose to do nude art, and in fact developed techniques for painting and especially sculpting the naked human form, which was widely copied for centuries after his death. At the time he was without a doubt the best sculptor Europe had witnessed at work since the Romans. Although nominally a Christian in his youth, Michelangelo greatly admired the art of the Greeks and Romans. His early attempts at art history were rediscovering.
Primarily Michelangelo regarded himself as a sculptor instead of being a painter, yet he made his name doing both. In his youth, there was room for the best Italian artists around to get lucrative commissions from patrons in Italy who were a bit more relaxed about what could or could not be depicted in art. However, a series of invasions and counter-invasions by the French and the Spanish forces would alter Italy drastically after 1520. From the sack of Rome in 1527, the Spanish forces effectively controlled most parts of Italy, and they were not keen about Renaissance art unless it could be used in the Counter-Reformation.
Undoubtedly, Michelangelo did his most meaningful work when he was younger and based in Florence. It was there where he did his most famous sculptures. These were completed when he was working for Lorenzo De Medici, then the Duke of Florence. These statues were all of the naked people sculpted along very similar lines to the sculptures of Ancient Greece and Rome. Michelangelo's technique was so good that he was actually able to sculpt naked people intertwining with each other. These were depicted best in the Battle of the Centaurs and the Pieta. At this stage of his very long career, Michelangelo believed that the only way to portray people artistically was to show them in the nude. The highlight of his early days was, without a doubt, the statue of David, a perfectly proportioned naked person if ever there was one.
Michelangelo's work in Florence gained him an unexpected admirer, Pope Julius II, who was embarking on rebuilding the Vatican. Julius was so desperate to have Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that he was prepared to allow the artist free license to paint whatever he wanted. So desperate in fact that Michelangelo was allowed to paint nude people from the first book of the Bible, Genesis. The scenes painted by him are all breathtaking. Later he returned to paint The Last Judgement, which is notably different in style as he was far less comfortable with nudity after becoming a devout Christian. So his most influential works were those from his youth, though he personally had grown to despise them in his old age.
Over a century after the death of Michelangelo, Francois Boucher was an artist that painted portraits of those linked to the court of Louis XV. That court had a freer atmosphere for painters than that of Louis XIV, and Boucher might have found it harder to receive patronage if he had gone to court twenty years earlier. At court, his main patron was Louis' favorite mistress, Madame Du Pompadour. She was an admirer of the way that Boucher painted people, he would paint a variety of paid-for portraits, and paintings based on a theme. Generally, it was the paintings based on a theme or inspired by a story, which inspired him to use nudity in his art. These pictures included The Toilet Of Venus, and Diana Leaving The Bath. The technique to paint them was really accomplished, and then the details were really lifelike.
Jean-Antoine Watteau was a Frenchman born in Valenciennes during 1684, his style was to influence his younger compatriot Francois Boucher. He went on to become a fairly fashionable painter who was linked to the Rococo school. Watteau moved to Paris to pursue his career as an artist after finishing his university studies. At first, he made a modest living as a scene painter before people started to take notice of his paintings. The time spent as a scene painter allowed him to develop his own style, and the way he painted lights and shading was a revelation to other artists and potential buyers alike.
The majority of his works were based on military events. He was content to put bits of nudity in his paintings, but only if it helped him to portray the image, he wanted to present on the canvas. The main picture that gave him the most publicity did not feature nudity at all, The Embarkation For Cythera, which he finished in 1717. This piece of art actually earned him a place at The Academy, and with the special status, it gave him a fair number of new commissions.
The main work he did that purposely showed nude art was Quellnymphe, and Reclining Nude but all his works were renowned for how he made the backgrounds more notable and contrasted between dark and light to give his paintings more of an emotional feel to them. For Jean-Antoine Watteau, including nudity in his art was incidental. Basically, he just wanted his pictures to tell a story, and he was content to include anything that would improve the impact of each piece of work. Watteau aimed to make everything included in his art look as realistic as possible, which is why he paid so much attention to detail, contrast, colors, light and dark, and shadows. His work was tinged with a hint of sadness as well as unfulfilled romance. Watteau only had a relatively short career, ended by his death in 1721.
Go forward more than a century, and the way some art was produced was changing in Britain. Walter Crane was an English painter from Liverpool born in 1845. Crane was a skilled painter and also a renowned illustrator of books. Because he mainly plied his trade by being an illustrator of children's books, he was not generally regarded as somebody that people would have thought would have used nudity in any of his art. In terms of style, he was influenced by John Ruskin and more importantly, his socialist views.
There were modest examples of nudity in some of his illustrations. For instance, Diana and Endymion and The Swan Maidens. The Renaissance Of Venus is the best known of his works to feature nudity. In terms of style, it shows that Crane admired the works of the Italian masters. However, due to the way the illustrations were printed, they look exactly what they are, late Victorian pieces of art and book illustrations. In terms of finish, it is more akin to a mural than an oil painting. It is a style imitated by the artists that drew adult themed postcards that could be brought at British seaside resorts in the early years of the 20th century.
Alfred Cheney Johnston used photography instead of canvas or stone to put nudity into his art. Johnston did actually train to be a portrait painter yet discovered that photographs of actors and actresses made him far more money. Originally he used his camera to take pictures to paint portraits after people had left his studio. Had he stuck to portrait painting, nobody would probably have heard of him, and the genre of erotic photography might have taken longer to have emerged.
The majority of the photographs he took were taken in and around New York. Johnston did most of his work for the theater owner Florenz Ziegfeld. In the publicity shots the showgirls, the Ziegfeld Follies were covered up, yet nude pictures were frequently taken. It is not clear whether these nude pictures were taken for his benefit or that of Ziegfeld. At the time the photographs of nude women were not published, or if they were parts of the women were covered up.
In 1937 Johnston published his only printed book, Enchanting Beauty, but this was edited to meet the American censorship laws of that period. He also took publicity shots for people who wanted to make it in Hollywood. The list of people he photographed that made it in Hollywood demonstrates that his publicity shots did allow people to get noticed by the major film studios. The list features the likes of Mary Pickford, Barbara LaMarr, Marie Prevost, and John Barrymore. More became known of his work after he donated 245 prints to the Library of Congress in 1960.
Johnston, in lots of ways, paved the way for the development of erotic photography, although that was probably an unintended side effect of a talented photographer simply trying to make the best living that he could. Photographers that followed him into this genre of art carried on using black and white prints to make it look better, when he started, it was virtually impossible to obtain the color film. He had a way of taking pictures of people in the nude that looked sophisticated, and erotic, but not tacky.
Photography, as a new form of art, was quicker to produce than earlier types of art. This means that photographic art forms and pictures featuring nudity can be produced in a matter of minutes instead of days, months, and even years. Setting up as an art photographer was, and is relatively cheaper than becoming a professional painter or sculptor. At the time when Johnston was working and producing his pictures a good eye for details and the patience to get everything positioned precisely where it had to go was required. These days pictures can be taken in an instant via a digital camera or smartphone and posted on social media worldwide within seconds. Perhaps the great artists of the past would have loved such technology, or maybe they would have hated it as it would not allow creativity flow for more than a few minutes.
Over the centuries in some parts of the world it has become easier to depict nudity in various forms of art, while in other places, it is something that is still frowned upon. Nudity was not always something that was hidden away, or that people felt ashamed of. That is why Hindus were relaxed enough about it to have nude artifacts in their temples, and the Greeks were content to have nude statues of bronze or marble displayed in public places. Hinduism and the ancient pagan religions regarded nudity as natural, and even what as far as teaching that the human body was beautiful.
The spread of Christianity and Islam altered attitudes towards nudity, and certainly made it much harder for artists to include it any pieces of art, which they produced. The Renaissance relaxed attitudes in some places, especially in Italy before the Spanish gained control. Michelangelo without a doubt produced some of the finest art that Europeans had seen in over 1000 years. Artists that followed have been able to gradually include more nudity in their works, while photography gave them a whole new medium to work with.
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