Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nudity in Art, Part II

As I mentioned in my last post, nudity in classical art was meant to personify an idea or to reveal certain qualities of the human condition. During the Renaissance, the Catholic Church was still one of the biggest patrons of the arts, and as a result we have such priceless treasures as Giotto's The Life of Christ frescoes in Scrovegni Chapel and Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel. Both painters demonstrated new-found understanding of anatomy, foreshortening, lighting, form and drapery. Images of Christ being taken down from the cross, or being carried to his tomb, depicted Him nude or semi-nude. I find it refreshing to see the physicality of Jesus in Renaissance and Post-Renaissance painting, because the Bible tells us that He was both fully God and fully Man.

Giotto di Bondone, Lamentation, in the Scrovegni Chapel (1305) 

Of course, Michelangelo, who was greatly influenced by Humanism, took this physicality a step further in his commission for the Pope Julius II, painting the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes tell us the story of God's creation, man's fall, and humanity's utter need for salvation as offered by God through Jesus. With over three hundred figures, mixing both characters from biblical stories and figures from ancient mythology, Michelangelo successfully combined Christian theology with the Humanism of the Renaissance. While the amount of nudity met with some criticism, I am inclined to agree with Pope John Paul II when he said, "It seems that Michelangelo, in his own way, allowed himself to be guided by the evocative words of the Book of Genesis which, as regards the creation of the human being, male and female, reveals: 'The man and his wife were both naked, yet they felt no shame'. The Sistine Chapel is precisely – if one may say so – the sanctuary of the theology of the human body. In witnessing to the beauty of man created by God as male and female, it also expresses in a certain way, the hope of a world transfigured, the world inaugurated by the Risen Christ."

Michelangelo, detail of Adam and Eve from the Sistine Chapel (1508-1512), Rome 

The symbolism of the nude would carry on through the 18th century; we can see an excellent example of this in one of my favorite paintings from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, "Peace and War," by the Italian artist Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (whose work - on a side note - would later greatly influence American artists Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West). Perhaps ahead of his time, the phrase "Make love, not war," comes to mind when looking at this painting. War is represented by the Roman god Mars, who appears fierce and unstoppable in his armor. Pax, the goddess of peace, pleads with him with her gaze and gently pushes aside his sword. Her tender breasts are exposed to symbolize both strength and vulnerability. The two simultaneously come together, and push away. It is a work of art riddled with meaning, particularly as we look at the date it was created and remember the historical events taking place at the time.

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, Peace and War (1776), oil on canvas

However, the above painting is perhaps an exception to the trends that were already taking place by the 18th and 19th century. Art was changing considerably. Not only did God disappear from art, but so did man. Obviously enough, art is a man-made thing. It is what separates man from the animals, for we do not find animals creating works of art, erecting buildings, or composing symphonies. However, the Enlightenment stripped from man even his humanity, by turning man "natural". The consequences were severe: if man is just another animal, then the great ideas believed for centuries to be principles of truth no longer have their meaning. Can there even be such a thing as "love?" Science's answer was that love is nothing more than libido, a carnal and animalistic instinct. Love is sex. The great art critic and historian, H.R. Rookmaaker, has summed it up this way: "Life itself, instead of the varied and deep meaning it had in biblical language - man's full being, his true humanity, his work, dreams and aims, so that Christ Himself was able to say that He is the Life -- life became nothing more than biological life, the beating heart and sexual urges and quest for food and drink. We can understand the man who, standing at the end of this development, asked recently in one of the underground papers, 'Is there a life before death?'" (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, p. 47).

That being said, nudity in art changed along with the attitudes and beliefs of the times. Around 1800, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya painted his mistress in two versions, naked and clothed. In both paintings she is laying on a couch, evocative of the goddesses from the 16th century, which would have been familiar subject matter to anyone living at the time. However, this woman is not a goddess - she is simply herself, clothed and unclothed. It is possible that Goya created these two pictures to show that Venus was dead, and all that was left was a man and his mistress.

Goya, The Clothed Maya, and the Nude Maya (c. 1800-1803), Museo del Prado, Madrid

Gustave Courbet dealt perhaps the biggest blow to traditional themes. These themes included great facts of history, biblical stories, and mythology (such as our reclining Venus), and were used to illustrate both human and Christian truths. Courbet rejected any old ideas for choice of subject matter and began to paint exclusively what he saw in the world around him. He is famous for saying, "I have never seen an angel, so I shall not paint one." Instead he painted peasants and workers, shocking the public by making these paintings as large and important-looking as any of the portraits commissioned by kings and nobles. His paintings tell us that truth lies only in what we can see and feel.  

Eduard Manet took Courbet's ideas even further, and is particularly famous for his "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia." While "Luncheon on the Grass" still looks ridiculous to us, 150 years later, we can only imagine the shock with which it was received in 1863. It depicts two fully-dressed men, picnicking casually with two women who are as naked as can be. Manet painted them on a huge canvas, which would normally be reserved for grander subjects. I would love to elaborate on the history of this painting (a great source for further study is Ross King's The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism) ... but for our purposes here, the painting simply represents a rejection of the old, and an embrace of a new "reality:" that the only place we might see such a scene is in a brothel or among people of questionable propriety. Gone is the reclining Venus, or the fearless Lucricia demanding justice for the crime commited against her (another popular theme in classical art).

Eduard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass (1862-63), oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Manet's "Olympia" also translated the old theme to a contemporary one, by depicting a prostitute reclining on a couch, much like a traditional Titian or Giorgione, would have shown Venus. Instead she is a high-class prostitute, waiting for a client. She gazes out at us, unabashedly and without modesty. Manet included many little details in the painting to make it clear what this woman represented; for example, the black cat symbolizes prostitution, and the orchid in her hair, cast off slipper, and pearl earrings are symbols of wealth and sensuality.

Eduard Manet, Olympia (1862-63), oil on canvas, Musée d'Orsay, Paris


In my next blog post, I will finish my brief discussion of nudity in art history, and talk about where Christianity ties in to all of this. My goal is help us become more comfortable walking into art museums, educating our children about art, and embracing art as a vocation, by understanding what we are looking at.

More to come. :-)

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