Art Term Tuesday: Nude

Jack Cantey

Well, this should be a short post. A nude is a work of art that portrays a naked human subject. All right, my work here is done.

Or is it? Is there more to nudity in art beyond sheer nakedness?

About 20 years ago in a cramped Chicago bookstore I came across a dog-eared copy of Ways of Seeing by John Berger, a book based on his BBC television series from 1972. In the years since discovering this slim Penguin paperback, Berger has become one of my favorite writers and thinkers of art; his critical voice strikes a balance between erudition and accessibility, between humility and iconoclasm. (Please go to the library or your neighborhood cramped bookstore immediately and snag one of his many books. I can wait here for you to get back.) His essays have consistently made me think differently and more deeply about matters of art, including how and why the naked human body—particularly the female form—has been represented in art.

Getting back to Ways of Seeing, the book’s third chapter uses the genre of the nude in European oil paintings from the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries as a lens through which to focus on historical and contemporary issues of gender, particularly the ways in which women “have been seen and judged as sights” by men. Discussing paintings of Adam and Eve, Berger draws a distinction between the pre-fall naturalness of Adam and Eve’s nakedness—of which they were unconscious—and the post-fall shame of their conscious nudity. (In his book, The Nude, art historian Kenneth Clark famously distinguishes between these two terms by arguing that nakedness is just to be unclothed and vulnerable, while nudity is what is seen in art.)

According to Berger, though, once “the tradition of painting became more secular, other themes offered the opportunity of painting nudes. But in them all there remains the implication that the subject (a woman) is aware of being seen by a spectator. She is not naked as she is. She is naked as the spectator sees her.” This unseen spectator, or “principle protagonist” as Berger later calls him, is the reason for the painting to exist: “Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of him being there. It is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity. But he, by definition, is a stranger—with his clothes still on.”

This passage encapsulates the concept of what critic Laura Mulvey would, in 1975, term the “male gaze”:

the representation of women (by men) that assumes that female bodies—whether seen in fine art or popular media—are merely sexual objects designed for the viewing pleasure of men. This manipulation of the female body by male artists for male spectators has, Berger proposes, resulted in women being historically portrayed as artistic subject matter in a very different fashion from men.

In recent decades the traditional nude has fallen out of fashion in the art world, but the human body persists as a powerful subject matter for artists of all genres. Take, for example, the nude paintings of Lucien Freud: his subjects—both male and female—are usually shown in unflattering poses, and the artist does not shy away from their physical imperfections. The multiple waves of feminism in the last 50 years have also informed—and been influenced by—art that challenges the male gaze and subverts the idealized female form found in both fine art of the past and contemporary pop culture.

Performance and body artists, in particular, have produced groundbreaking works that center on the nude—or partially nude—female body. In 1968, for a performance piece called Action Pants: Genital Panic, Austrian artist VALIE EXPORT wore crotchless pants into a movie theater in Munich; she wandered through the rows, confronting the seated movie-goers with what a “real woman” looks like, as opposed to the women portrayed in films. Hannah Wilke, an American artist, was known for her body art from the 1970s that combined performance and photography. In the early 1990s, while being treated for lymphoma (she would die in 1993), Wilke created Intra-Venus, a series of photos that unflinchingly document the changes to her body as she underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. EXPORT and Wilke are just two examples of contemporary women artists who have taken control over the artistic portrayal of their bodies and sexuality, defying and subverting the historical convention of the submissive female nude created primarily for the gratification of male viewers.

While the term nude seems simple to define on the surface, there’s so much more going on once you consider it more deeply. The next time you come across a nude in a work of art, whether here at FWMoA or at another museum or gallery, take a moment or two to ask yourself a few questions. What if the gender of the nude subject were different? How would that change your response to the work? How would your response differ if the nude were represented more realistically or more idealistically? What does the subject’s pose and facial expression tell you? Does the figure appear to have independence over their action and gestures, or do they seem to be present mainly for the voyeuristic satisfaction of another?

For example, out of these three works currently on display at FWMoA in All Access: Exploring Humanism in the Art of Chuck Sperry, would you consider any of them to be nude? Why or why not? What distinguishes them from other works you would consider to be nude? Does the fact that a man created the artwork inform your decision?

This post focuses (albeit very briefly) on how gender can play into the artistic portrayal of nude bodies, but there are many more ways to think about and discuss nudes in historical and contemporary art. If you’re interested, though, in digging further into gender and the representation of nudes, here are links to two sources I consulted:

Click here to watch the episode of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing referenced above, which includes a roundtable discussion with five women regarding the nude paintings featured in the episode.

Click here to watch Nicola Price’s video essay on contemporary artists’ treatment of nudity and the body.

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