One of the most prominent subjects in art is the nude human body. For thousands of years, nudity has been depicted in every medium of art, including sculpture, painting, dance, and more recently in photography and film. Yet while there has been a constant presence of nudity in art, it must be noted that changes in the norms of society also affect the way by which nudity is depicted as well as accepted. To trace the history of nudity throughout art history is a monumental task, and thus, this paper limits itself to a brief discussion of how specific movements in history treated nudity in art.
To begin with, long before the Classical era, nudity was already accepted and considered as part of the culture. For instance, primordial sculptures found in archaeological sites show the nude female figure such as the Venus of Willendorf (24th to 22nd century B.C.) and similar figurines. These nude figures are believed to be associated with fertility as the ability of females to give birth was equivalent to the Earth’s role as the source of sustenance. In Ancient Egypt, nudity was part of certain rites. Depictions found in Egyptian frescoes show naked women dancing as part of celebrations. The fact that nudity was portrayed in these frescoes attests to the nudity’s acceptability in both the visual and the performing arts.
Nudity in art reached a new level of refinement and exaltation in the Classical Era, particularly in Ancient Greece. In Greece, the nude male form was considered as aesthetically pleasing as well as representative of masculine virility and strength. It is in sporting events that this high regard for the male form is most expressed—competing athletes took part almost always in the nude. Athletics and athletes were believed to give tribute to gods such as Heracles and Apollo. Given this reverence, the nude male form was often depicted in art. Artifacts from classical Greece include vases painted with male athletes while sculptures attempted to capture the beauty of the naked male visage. Women, however, were rarely depicted on the nude except when the subject was mythological such as the case with Aphrodite, who was the goddess of love and beauty.
While Greeks may have extolled the male form through art, the Romans, on the other hand, were not too eager to depict nudity. The practice of portraying men on the nude was substituted with the depiction of the muscle cuirass, a type of body armor that mimics the ideal muscular male body. This allowed the masculine visage to be depicted without actually revealing it. Mythological scenes, however, depicted male nudity more regularly while women are limited to the exposure of the breasts. But despite this moderate treatment in art, nudity was rampant in excavated towns such as Pompeii and Herculaneum yielded vast amounts of frescoes, sculptures, and household items depicting sexual themes and acts.
Nudity, however, became rare during the Middle Ages. Upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church grew and eventually came to dominate society. The Church became the primary commissioner of an authority on works of art. Because religious subjects have no need for nudity, depictions of the bare male and female bodies were mostly comprised of portrayals of Adam and Eve. Even then, nudity was rendered to appear as if sinful and immoral. Therefore, it can be said that during this era, the exaltation of the beautiful bare body was supplanted with a form of nudity in the art that was intended to install virtue.
After its long decline during the Middle Ages, nudity became prominent in the art once again upon the emergence of the Renaissance. The Renaissance, it must be understood, was a movement that had its roots on the rediscovery of classical culture. The influence of the Church waned while the arts and sciences flourished. Although religious themes were still prominent in the arts during this time, classical themes rose to a higher degree of popularity. Because the themes were derived from ancient mythology, the execution was also patterned after it thereby bringing nudity to importance once again. The trend continued towards the Baroque Era, with renowned masters such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Bernini producing works of nudity reminiscent of the classical times.
By the 19th century, society’s treatment of nudity once again shifted. 19th century Europe, with its strict codes of morality and chastity, was in many ways similar to preceding eras; nudity in art was deemed only permissible if the subject was of classical or orientalist in nature. However, this was audaciously challenged by many artists by contemporary subjects on the nude. Examples to this include Edouard Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass 1863 and Olympia 1865 and Gustave Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot 1866. The result was outrage as a 19th-century society thought it scandalous to portray contemporaries in a state of nudity. Yet the desired effect was achieved. Society came to understand that nudity as an art is not confined to classical themes but may also apply to contemporaries.
The shift in the treatment of nudity in the 19th century paved the way for the liberalization of the nude form in art. Paintings and sculptures easily integrated nudity as seen in Rodin’s The Thinker 1889, Matisse’s The Dance 1910, and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907. Film and photography, despite being fairly recent, were also not immune to nudity as both readily utilized the naked human body to capture a sense of aestheticism. Today, depicting nudity continues in my photographs of the female body that capture its multifaceted nature. My images can at once be innocent, sensual, elegant, and enticing.
Taking into account what has been discussed, it can be said that indeed, nudity has come a long way as a major theme in art. From its beginnings in the dawn of civilization, the portrayal of the human body has followed a path that includes both moments of prominence and decline. Extolled in Classical Era, nudity in art waned during the Middle Ages, only to rise once again in the Renaissance and the Baroque Periods, and finally liberalized in the Modern Era. Although fluctuating in the level of appreciation and permissibility on account of the changing norms of society, the constant presence of nudity in art reveals a single unifying truth: that the naked human body is delicate as it is beautiful.
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