The Naked and the Nude

Today I want to go into a more difficult subject and talk about the phenomenon of nudity in Western art, particularly the female nude. Looking around at advertisements, music videos, television, magazines, and other popular visual “art,” I feel that feminine sexuality is a constant presence that is sometimes taken for granted, even though there are profound psychological implications on how women are viewed by society and by men and how women view themselves. I know this is a very broad topic, so I want to focus on a very interesting quote taken from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (featured in The feminism and visual culture reader, 2003):

“To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself… Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.”

The subtle difference proposed by Berger between nakedness and nudity is centered on the relationship between the naked/nude person and the person who sees them (referred to as the viewer). To me, nudity is public, while nakedness is private, intimate. As such, it is interesting to analyze our psychological response to works of art that represent men and women “in the nude,” especially when these works are meant to challenge our perceptions and make us think twice about what we see. Let’s take a look a couple of works so that I can show you what I mean in terms of art from previous centuries, since we can apply these same concepts later to look at more modern examples.

  • Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

The Venus of Urbino was commissioned by the powerful Duke Guidobaldo II della Rovere of Urbino in celebration of his recent marriage. Set in a typical Italian interior with servants in the background, a female nude reclines enticingly on her bed, accompanied by a sleeping lap dog. The erotic placement of her left hand, the rose petals she holds, and her demure gaze are meant to be enticing, and also suggest the promise of fertility. The dog serves as a symbol of fidelity, while the two large trunks in the background, or cassoni, were a traditional wedding commission designed to hold the wife’s trousseau. Titian’s “Venus” seems to represent the “ideal wife” of her time, a beautiful woman dedicated to pleasing her husband and creating a fruitful marriage. “Venus” is also a generic, nameless woman, a nude who can be seen as a symbol rather than a real person.

  • Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Manet, Olympia, 1863

At first glance, Manet’s Olympia retains many similarities to Titian’s Venus. The female nude again lies on her bed in the forefront of the composition, looking out at the viewer with her hands placed in similar positions as the Venus. However, the firm, closed grip of her hand over her thighs and her defiant, self-conscious gaze directly confront the viewer, breaking the spell of mutual attraction that disguised the dutiful wife. The loyal dog has been replaced by an angry black cat, and the rich palatial interior has become a dark, drab room which highlights the pallor of the woman’s skin. The female nude as a wealthy, submissive, and fertile wife is transformed into an assertive, pragmatic, and ordinary woman, who in reality was painted as a prostitute. [It is interesting to note that this challenge to the viewer’s intrusive gaze had to be presented as the opposite extreme, from submissive wife to untamed prostitute…, as if the viewer should expect passive submission from the nudes encountered in art?].

Olympia’s upright, assertive posture exerts control over her own body and challenges the viewer, who can no longer enjoy her body in the guise of a deserving husband but is forced to adopt the position of a client. She becomes a real individual, a naked woman who subverts the expectation of visual pleasure that a viewer expected from a nude Venus. The uncomfortable twist in the viewer’s experience caused an outburst of controversy when this painting was first exhibited in the Salon of 1856 in Paris, but over time this painting has become a cornerstone of modern art that opened a whole new world of artistic possibilities for the depiction of the female nude. So next time you see a painting featuring a nude female (or male), think twice about your relationship to them and what they represent…

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2 thoughts on “The Naked and the Nude

  1. I find it interesting that in Greek and Roman art the male and female nude forms are both commonly depicted, but the female figure has dominated in Western art for centuries. I think that has permeated in other media besides art. We are much more likely to see and appreciate the female body today than the male in TV, movies, and ads.

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    • Exactly, I definitely agree, the female figure has become a staple of visual imagery for centuries. The male body has always had its place, for example in the works of Michelangelo, David, etc., but men usually are given an identity, while women are more often depicted generically. Lots of interesting phenomena to think about…

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