I am an artist and art teacher. My paintings are mostly nudes and figurative work and portraiture. Working directly from the nude model has always fascinated me as it allows an artist so much interpretation. Nudes and nudity have a long tradition in art.
Manufactures use the seductive imagery of nudity to sell a variety of products, from cars, magazines, toothpaste, furniture – yes, you get the idea, probably everything. But curiously enough, nudity in this regard, linked to the notion that “….buy this product and it will enhance your sex life…” is in religion, at least in most Western religions, regarded as sinful! Therefore, the way we often view the nude figure is shaped by in large part to history and religion
It’s amazing how people associate sex with the nude figure, that it triggers feelings of lust, sex, eroticism etc. It can of course do these things because of “vested interests” (religious, commercial etc). Perhaps the following quote made by the late Kenneth Clark (art historian) in his book: The Nude, 1956, will clarify this further. "…All good nude painting and sculpture is sexually stimulating… No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even although it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so, it is bad art or false morals.” There, that sums it up quite nicely. I’ll only add that I want to explore it from the “artist’s perspective” because often the public make this false leap, that because an artist is working away in his studio, working from the nude – when it’s a female – that provokes sniggers, and other reactions. So let’s step back in history to a time when society began to depict the naked human form. A good place would be with the Greeks, about 440 years BC. The naked human form was created in statue form. Some of these have survived, found mostly in shipwrecks. A good find was made in 1972 in the Mediterranean between Italy and Sicily. These were a pair of bronze figures. (See above photo for an example) These bronzes were meant to express the ideal of Greek athleticism, and tells us that the Greek male was unconcerned about baring his body. What should be remembered about Greek nude sculpture is that it was functional. Often to thank a god, to instil into the piece magical powers, or to tell a story. Look at the example above and would you consider this bronze statue out of place in a modern museum, and could well represent 21st century man?
As with most things in life, art evolved – but not always in a seamless upward curve. Even today art evolves in a myriad of ways. It may be through film, writing, dance, painting, etc. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that one can see how these various elements have carried “art” forward by each new generation of practitioners. Drawing and painting in Greek art was a natural progression from sculpture, but with changes that would be taken up and carried forward into what we now call Western Art. Most of this early painting was carried out on walls of temples, wooden panels and vases. In the middle of the fifth century BC many of these paintings depicted mythological themes, such as the sacking of Troy. These paintings were much treasured by the Romans, who would later take over the Greek empire. The main purpose of these Greek paintings, found in temples, were a visual narrative, or a story, about Greek myth history and linking the present to their past, either through the family, place and, of course, religion. The idea behind these story paintings was to convey messages that were often centred around political and moral dramas. By the end of the fifth century Greek drawing had matured. The figures had become fuller, more realistic, trying to replicate sculptural effects. Also at this time saw the introduction of colour and shading to further the effect of realism. We even know who painted some of these paintings: artists such as Zeuxis around 400 BC and Apelles. Most scholars agree that it was from around this date that ‘Western Painting’ was born. We can also get an important insight as to what paintings were being produced by the Greeks, and even more importantly, the style and maturity of their art, by looking at the wall art from Roman villas. Mostly these wall paintings (see illustration) were copies of Greek paintings. Many of these copies can be seen in Pompeii. They offer further evidence of the high reputation of Greek painting. With the fall of the Greek empire, Greek artists switched their allegence to their new Roman masters, and so evolution of painting would again move forward.