Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nudity in Art: Final Chapter

Well, after coming down with a cold this week, I'm trying to muster enough energy to finish this blog series! So here we go...

We at last move to some of the modern painters and their approaches to the human form. Pablo Picasso was creative and ingenius in ways that conservatives are often resistent in giving him credit for. He was also very talented; if you look at his earlier work (before 1906), you can see that he knew classical technique and anatomy. This nude, for example, "Blue Nude", from 1902, is quite beautiful and well-rendered.

Picasso - "Blue Nude" - 1902 - private collection

However, Picasso soon went in a different direction. While Gauguin's work had remained essentially representational, his figures were somewhat androgynous. Picasso took this much further, to a point where one could no longer distinguish between men and women, or even between a person and his surroundings. Picasso sought a solution to the universal question --"What is real?" -- in abstraction, the breaking down of forms to their most basic, simplest shapes. Cezanne had already paved the way; now Picasso made his canvas his universe, and made himself the god of it. The results are frightening. Here we see his defining Cubist work, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." It shows five prostitutes from a brothel in Barcelona, all painted somewhat differently. Their faces look more like demons or African masks than human. Surely this is not a depiction of the human figure as God intended it, either in form or content...

Picasso - "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" - Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" - 1907 - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) broke down form even further, until nothing was recognizable and art became simply absurd. His objective was not to create art but to destroy it. Often he would give pieces a title that had nothing to do with the work, but would be suggestive in nature (for example,"The Passage of the Virgin to the Married State"), causing the viewer to look for something in it that resembled its title. One of Duchamp's most famous and controversial pieces is "Nude Descending a Staircase," an enormous abstract work consisting of cylindrical and conical elements that appear to move in space, but give us no clue as to the subject's sex, age, individuality or character.

Marcel Duchamp - "Nude Descending a Staircase" - oil on canvas - 1912 - Philadelphia Museum of Art

There is much I could say about Duchamp and his destruction of conventional art, but I must save that for another blog post. For our purposes here, it's safe to say that as Modernism progressed, the old traditions were done away with, and the beautiful nudes of classicism seemed to be gone forever.

On the bright side, there were (and are) still several outstanding artists practicing traditional techniques during the Modern era, and for their contributions, we are most grateful.  These artists - Eakins, Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla, Homer, Repin and Wyath, just to name a few - kept the old aesthetic alive.

Thomas Eakins - detail from "The Swimming Hole" - 1884-45 - Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth 

I am not saying that only realistic nudes are acceptable, and that abstract art is bad! That is definitely not the point I'm trying to make. Instead, I believe that the nude is such a sensitive subject that it must be viewed from more than one angle, with questions such as, "What was the artist's intent?" "What is the historical and intellectual context?" "Was it painted to be beautiful and uplifting in some way, or to tear down and destroy?" The bigger question at hand is: how can we as Christians accept and embrace nudity as a crucial aspect to our artistic heritage? Purpose, content, form (or execution), and context, are all crucial when observing a work of art. I agree wholeheartedly with Matt Clark, an art teacher at Veritas Academy in Lancaster, PA, who says in his article, "A Christian Perspective on Nudity in Art", "We do a disservice to our students (and ourselves) when we teach them to be reactionary instead of thoughtful and discerning." The whole article is definitely worth reading (he includes some great Scriptural examples), especially for those of you who are teachers and are perhaps still unsure about where you stand on the issue.

In the past few blog posts, I've mentioned at least a few of the reasons for the use of nudity in art, but let me sum them up, and add a few more. Nudity can:
  • Symbolize great ideas or truths
  • Represent our humanity and help us see our need for a Savior
  • Depict reality, not only in secular subject matter, but in biblical subject matter as well
  • Help artists develop their skills in anatomy, gesture, and expression
  • Help us appreciate, from an aesthetic viewpoint, the beauty of the human form
This is all under a huge assumption that the nude has been depicted in the proper context and rendered with the deepest of respect. The artistic nude has been greatly abused over the past few centuries, and as a result, Christians have shied away completely. But it is time that we drop our prudishness and reclaim the nude in our art for noble purposes, like those mentioned above.

I've already discussed the first couple of points and given examples of these from art history. The third point, about art depicting reality, can be seen countless times in art history in many different forms, from the nude  Christ child of Renaissance paintings to the beach scenes of Sorolla (public nude bathing was very common in 19th-century Spain), to the intimate bath scenes of women and children by Mary Cassatt. I haven't even touched on the subject of nudity in scenes depicting mothers and their children, but you probably already know my view on this - that those done by Cassatt and others (particularly women artists) are excellent works of art because they beautifully relate a level of tenderness and maternal love that is unparallelled.

Joaquin Sorolla - "Female Nude" - oil on canvas - 1902 - private collection

So let's discuss the last two points, artistic skill and aesthetics, which often go hand in hand. I’m immediately reminded of my first time drawing and painting from a nude model. I was taking a summer figure painting class at the Florence Academy of Art. There were ground rules about working with the model (i.e. no photography, absolutely no touching the model, asking the teacher to speak to the model rather than speaking to her directly, etc.). These rules seemed like common sense but only solidified the sense of awe and respect I already felt upon viewing firsthand this beautiful woman before us.  To speak in Platonic terms, I was moved by the tangible presence of the model’s true “essence”. She was so... real... and as I placed her contours and shapes on my canvas, I began to comprehend that reality in my work. But with such reality came great responsibility, not just in showing respect for the model, but in how I would convey the model’s “form” to the painting's viewers. I realized it wasn't at all about me, but about a sensitivity to the subject and how that would translate to other artists and non-artists alike.
When working from the nude (at least in my own experience), there is a kind of progression that happens in the artist's mind. First, there is that awe, and an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. There is a strange reality about the naked form that compells us to look away, and yet we can't stop looking. But once the artist begins working and observing the model, there is a breaking down of the complex for the sake of beginning - a simplification of shapes and lines and negative space. Suddenly the model is less intimidating, as I begin to see her in circles, ovals, cylinders, etc. As the drawing develops, so does my understanding of the model. Subtleties and nuances of shape and color temperature are not lost on me - those visual treasures are what I find most fascinating and fun about working from the nude. The model shifts in her pose; there are thoughts and musings going on in her head that I will never know, but perhaps I can catch a glimpse of it in my painting. It is a journey of discovery, one which, for the traditional artist, has nothing to do with sex or arousal -- only beauty. My point is, artists have studied the nude for centuries because there is no greater challenge.

Anna Rose Bain - "Florence" - Figure painting from my studies at the Florence Academy of Art, oil on linen, 2006

I like what Gordon College (a Christian school in Massechussetts) says in their policy statement on the use of nude models in art classes: "We have chosen in the Art Department... to work respectfully with the human figure attempting to bring honor and glory to God in the process. We base this, in a Christian context, on a time-honored professional practice, holding the belief that the human form is the crowning acheivement of God in Creation - worthy of our expert knowledge, and analogous to the scientific knowledge of the human body in medicine and biology. In our tradition as artists, it is seen as the linchpin of our practice of visual knowledge. If you can accurately and expressively draw, paint or sculpt the human form, you can draw anything." 

A gorgeous example of an "academic" nude, by contemporary figurative artist Robert Liberace: "Maenid" - oil on board

In addition to developing strong technical skills by working from the nude, the artist has the wonderful opportunity to simply create a beautiful picture. This sounds a little silly, but aesthetics are no less important than any of the other points I've brought up. The visual impact of a strong composition, color harmony, and gesture can make for a great painting, without needing any kind of underlying message or narrative. One artist whose work does just that - depict beauty for beauty's sake - is California artist Jeremy Lipking. He is one of many amazing artists who are currently helping to revive realism, and I absolutely adore his work. Here is one of my favorites, "French Beauty." This painting is not even about the porcelain nude on the couch - it is more about the stunning combination of colors and shapes, and the pleasing direction these visual elements take the eye around the painting. That red makes me exclaim, "Wow!" every time I look at it!

Jeremy Lipking - "French Beauty" - oil on linen

Here is another example by North Carolina artist Scott Burdick -- a piece he created simply for the sake of beauty.

Scott Burdick - "Forest Beauty" - oil - 40" x 30"

As I said before, there is a huge responsibility on the part of the artist as we walk a fine line by using nudity in our art. What is our purpose in painting the nude? Is it to show beauty, or incite arousal? With pornography so prevelant in our culture, and a heightened sense of eroticism in Modern art especially, it's no wonder that parents are hesitant to take their kids to art museums. I hate to subjectify the matter too much, but it really comes down to the individual. One person's art might be another's pornography. The artist may have pure motives in creating a fine art nude, simply with the intent of making a beautiful work of art and celebrating the human form... but the viewer might take it differently. Like so many other things in this world, art can start out as something good and then be perverted into something that is not. It is the artist's responsibility to keep his or her work within the proper context and to know know their own heart. The artist should also be sensitive to the viewer; if, by painting nudes, we are leading someone else astray and causing them to stumble, then to us it is sin. From a Scriptural standpoint, we can refer to Paul's epistle to the Romans: "So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:12-17)." The artist is obviously not the only one who must be responsible in this matter. If you know your own weakness, then learn to discern what to look at and what to avoid. But don't judge others for their artistic sensibilities.

Finally, the concerned parent asks, “Why subject my child’s innocence to nudity for the sake of beauty?” The answer is: sensitivity, education, and timing. These will be different for everyone because children mature at different rates. If nudity will cause the artist or viewer to stumble, then it should best be avoided. But I firmly believe that children should be educated about art history, so they can understand why fine art nudes are more than something to giggle at in museums! We should explain to our children that God made man and woman naked in the beginning, and that He pronounced His creation "good." But when sin entered the world and the man and woman disobeyed, they were ashamed, not of their bodies (for their bodies were God's creation), but of their sin and the realization that they were naked. Naked does not equal "bad" - instead, there is a proper time and place for it.

I thought I would close with one more example from a contemporary painter (forgive the lack of sculptural examples - I am somewhat biased, being a painter myself...). Below is a painting by Ohio artist Carl Samson, entitled, "Triumph of Truth". It is the perfect allegory of traditional art taking back its ownership from Modernism, by depicting an athletic, spritely young woman standing defiantly atop a dead Minotaur, a subject often painted by Picasso, but in Samson's painting, rendered realistically. This painting sums up beautifully everything I have discussed from art history and in my points about the purpose of nudity in art. I would like to quote Carl Samson himself here as he explains his painting further: "In 1907, Picasso painted 'Les Demoiselles D'Avignon' - a full frontal assault on all that was held dear by the great painters... The Demoiselles, incidentally, are featured behind this model in my painting. She's strong, confident and intent on exacting some revenge for all the injustices perpetrated on the fairer sex by Monsieur Picasso." Samson has created a masterpiece, which perhaps makes a prophetic statement about the direction of fine art. Beauty is making a comeback, with works like "Triumph of Truth" proudly paving the way.

Carl Samson - "Triumph of Truth" - 96" x 62" - oil on canvas

This concludes my discussion on nudity in art from a Christian perspective. Of course, I am happy to answer any questions you have - and if you disagree with me, by all means, leave a comment! I love controversial discussions, especially over things I'm passionate about. Thanks for reading. :-)
For Further Reading and Review, here are some of my recommendations:


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Nudity in Art: Gauguin Continued

I had just a bit more to say about Gauguin before I continue on. I mentioned that Gauguin frequently used Eve as a theme in his works of Tahitian female nudes. I would like to clarify that while this may seem a pure attempt to revive beauty as of old (and the paintings are quite beautiful!), Gauguin's "Eve" played a much different role. As we have seen with Manet's "Olympia," the problems with nudity in 19th-century art had to do with finding an appropriate setting for it. After all, nudity in Salon art (see works by Ingres and Jerome, for example) had become decadent and eroticized under the guise of classical themes. Gauguin wasn't merely attemping to revive the old themes - if so, he might have chosen Venus, rather that Eve. However, Eve's nudity was depicted throughout art history as representational of sin and shame, along with the knowledge of good and evil. Gauguin's desire was to reconceive the idea of the nude into one that was erotic but without any connotations of shame or scandal. Thus he rejected the concept of the biblical "Fall," and the idea that nakedness should in any way be connected with sin. In order to accomplish the paradoxical combination of sensuality and chastity, Gauguin had to both remove his Eve from society and depersonalize her in such a way that we look at her as we would an animal in the wild.

Gauguin was interested in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the "noble savage." In works such as "The Noble Woman" (shown below) and "Two Tahitian Women" (shown in last post), it seemed as though he had been successful in finding the ideal and separating himself from the loss of innocence in Western society. His Tahitian Eves live at peace and harmony with nature, effortlessly and innocently fulfilling their natural instincts, while the male viewer is given full liberty to view and partake. But there was a cost to this radical  reworking of biblical themes, this challenge against nudity in traditional art. First, by taking to the opposite extreme of the sexual repression in Western culture, Gauguin set the stage for the sexual "freedom" that would characterize the 20th century. Second, his depersonalization of the female nude may have done more harm than good for Western sensibilities towards women, as it objectified the figure by allowing the viewer to look on, free of emotional connection or guilt.

Paul Gauguin - "The Noble Woman" (1896)

Pablo Picasso took Gauguin's depictions of women to the next step. His work was remarkably inventive; no artist has since been able to revolutionize painting the way he did... but sadly, I'll have to save my discussion of Picasso, and more, for my next post. Sorry to drag this out, guys! But I hope you are enjoying this little tour of art history as much as I am... and yes, I promise to get to the point! :-)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Continued - Nudity in Art from a Christian Perspective

Sorry for the wait - I wanted to have this finished two weeks ago! But when you're an artist it's a blessing to be busy, and for the past two weeks I've have been exactly that. I also hope that I'm not boring you too much with all this art history. I really believe that in viewing a work of art, it is crucial for us to understand its historical context.

So, moving on, I should at least mention briefly some of the movements that were being questioned by the 19th-century Realists and Impressionists. Up until the mid-1860s, the Paris Salon had been the main authority in art. The Salon accepted traditional work in its exhibitions, but by this time, there were already many signs that the old values were dead. Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and the work of the PreRaphaelites (please look them up - no time to expound here!) - which were characterized by a tightly academic style - tried to revive the old themes but came across as little more than pieces of sentiment and idealized genre pieces. Though much of the work from this time is breathtakingly beautiful and masterfully painted, it lacks a true connection with contemporary viewers.

Example of Academic painting that would be acceptable to the Paris Salon: Alexandre Cabanel 
"Phèdre" (1880), Musée Fabre, Montpellier

We wonder where "Christian art" was during all of this, but the spirit of the age was still very much entrenched in the ideas of the Enlightenment, and God continued to be pushed out of the picture, even in biblically themed narrative paintings. H.R. Rookmaaker describes the spirit of this age as that of the bourgeois, often characterized by the middle class. He writes (forgive the long quote, but he describes it far better than I can!):

The bourgeois were people who looked for certainty and security. With their lips they might have honoured God, but in their hearts they looked for a more 'tangible' kind of foundation. They found it in money, in a career, in status, in their moral uprightness (sound familiar??). And so morality became moralism and insurance often took the place of the assurance that God does not forsake man... These very nice people lived in the Age of Reason. And of course, they looked with dismay on the new generation who were taking to the principles of the Enlightenment. Morals were going downhill, and the old-established rules were being challenged. This was bad enough. And when the new thinkers were preaching that man was basically an animal, that his love was really only sex, then they were shocked...Yet, what could they do?  Had they not got desires themselves? Oh no, we haven't got them, they told themselves. And so they began to push the fact that man has a body, and especially his sexuality, into the dark, hidden corners of life... So towards the end of the eighteenth century the bourgeois world... began to build up the defensive attitude towards sex that later became known as Victorian. We, living so much later, and following this period, can no longer really understand what it was like in pre-Victorian times - how people knew that the fact that they had bodies and sexual urges was because they were human. We can only understand the loss of it. (Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, pp. 76-77)

Moving on to more of the secular artists leading up to Modernism... I've aleady mentioned Gustav Courbet, the leader in Realist art which bridged the gap between the traditional and the "modern" (Impressionism), and Eduard Manet, who took Courbet's ideas even further. Meanwhile, Monet, Renoir, and the other French Impressionists took their ideas about reality in a different direction - one which became gradually more accepted by the public than the work of Courbet or Manet, and is still very popular today. The general concept with Impressionism is that these artists painted what they saw, based on their visual perception of the scenes before them and how light and color could be translated to a two-dimensional image. Again, because we are so famliar with Realism and Impressionism today, it's hard for us to imagine that these art movements could be "shocking". But this kind of straight-forward reality was something the public had never seen before.

Not only was painting style and technique changing considerably, but so was subject matter. Epic historical scenes, biblical characters, gods and goddesses, and even portraits of the upper class were being replaced by matter-of-fact pictures of real people and places. There was an emptiness to it that left some artists, such as Paul Gauguin, searching for something deeper (albiet a noble cause, Christians can't accept his solution to the problem as biblical...). He wanted to depict more than the eye could see, and to avoid slavishly copying nature. His new style took on a very human approach to reality by expressing his understanding of the human situation through unique handling of paint, contour, and composition. This quest for the genuine and the real through personal expression gave the artist great freedom to use colors and design in ways that had never been tried before, and it would carry on all the way to our present day as a key characteristic of Modern art.
Guaguin was disenchanted by the lack of authenticity in urban life, and so he sought to discover a simpler, more natural lifestyle by living in the midst of a more primitive culture. His escape from civilization led him to Tahiti, where he did a series of nudes that would define his career and also make a new statement about Western attitudes towards female sexuality. Gauguin frequently used Eve, from the book of Genesis, as the object of his studies of women. He practically worshipped Manet's painting of Olympia, but according to Yale professor of humanities, Peter Brooks:

Gauguin wants something else, something that would remain fully erotic but without the connotations of shame, scandal, and exposure. That he repeatedly insisted on the figure of Eve --rather than, in the manner of Bougainville and nineteenth-century Salon painters, moving back into classical mythology and the evocation of Venus -- indicates a stubborn and no doubt accurate perception that Venus was no longer the point, no longer what nakedness was all about in the Western imagination. It is precisely Eve, with all the connotations of sin and shame, and the complex entry into the knowledge of good and evil, that is central to our perception of nudity, and that thus must be reconceived. As Gauguin stated in an interview in 1895, in response to the question why he had gone to Tahiti, 'To do something new, you have to go back to the beginning, to the childhood of humanity. My chosen Even is almost an animal; that's why she is chaste, although naked. All those Venuses exhibited at the Salon are indecent, odiously lubricious....' Thus Gauguin takes on the almost impossible challenge of revising Eve, of creating a nude in paradise whose nakedness is meant to be looked at in joy and erotic pleasure without the sense that her evident sexuality is connected to evil and pain. His success in this revision is of course dependent on a certain depersonalization of his Eve: in praising her "animality," he removes her from traditional cultural constraints and brackets her own subjectivity, in gestures that could be considered typical of both patriarchy and colonialism. (from "Gauguin's Tahitian Body," online source).

Gauguin - "Two Tahitian Women" - 1899

Gauguin's work, as Brooks goes on to describe, is very much about sexual freedom; for example, in "Two Tahitian Women," the subjects stand unabashed before us in all their erotic beauty. Their expressions are vacant, and so they become no more than an object of the male gaze.

And so, the female nude becomes objectified. But I must stop here - I will hopefully come to a conclusion in the next post. Thanks for your patience!


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On Medieval Nudity and the Art of the Sensual

I'm back! I wanted to address a couple of questions that were brought up by one of my readers before I continue forward in art history.

My friend Matt, a fellow Hillsdale grad, had a two-fold question as follows: "Firstly, if Medieval artists wished to point to genuinely divine things and ultimately to God, using human symbols - Mary, Jesus, the saints, animals, etc., why did they avoid nudity? On the contrary, by and large they piled clothing on their characters. Were all the artists simply prudes? Perhaps the iconographic nude can't and won't open directly up to the contemplation of God. Why is this? Is it something to do with purity? Has it something to do with Him being an infinite person?

Secondly, Titian carries this sort-of Platonic Christian humanism, that you describe, to a high erotic pitch that barely remains appropriate. By precisely that balancing act his paintings have a sensuality that has never in my opinion been matched. But what exactly is the relation between the intellectual experience of sensuality, perfected in the art of the nude, and the knowledge of beauty? Is the sensual aspect of the nude really the best way to get at beauty? Are there others? Did Titian indulge so much in the human side of Venus that he missed the divine?"
To answer Matt's first question, there is some nudity depicted in Medieval art, but it was a culure dominated by the Christian faith. From the fall of the Roman Empire and the split of the Greek and Latin churches onward, there were still oppositional forces in play: pre-Christian culture versus a new Christian worldview. Early on, the Christian faith stressed the value of chastity and celibacy. Nudity had negative associations with pagan religions, and unlike the Greeks and Romans, whose focus was on a fleshly ideal, the Church had no need (or desire) to display nude deities in their art. There were also new attitudes against nude athletics, public bathing, and even the value of the human body. Adam and Eve were still depicted nude, but most of the time, nudity was meant to be a representation of the shame, helplessness and depravity of man. I don't believe the artists were prudes (that comes later, with the Victorian era!), but they were creating their art within the standards and worldview of their time. There are a few nude icons painted in a positive light; they are usually depictions of martyrs, saints, or the resurrected Christ. Iconography was initially designed to be symbolic and unrealistic in an effort to avoid idolatry (again, a reaction to the pagan religions). It is ironic that many Christians went on to worship and pray to those icons anyway...

Matt's second question--"What is the relationship between the intellectual experience of sensuality, perfected in the art of the nude, and the knowledge of beauty?" --is one which has been addressed by the philosopher Etienne Gilson in his book, "The Arts of the Beautiful," which I recommend to every artist and non-artis alike! Gilson explores the meaning of beauty in his introduction to the philosophy of art. He says, "We are not saying that the beautiful itself consists in the pleasure it gives, but rather that the presence of the beautiful is known by the pleasure that attends its apprehension" (p. 23). He goes on to explain that beauty can be caused by nature, truth, or by a work of art "expressly willed for its very beauty". Thus, according to Gilson, the artist can't go wrong in their work as long as they are pursuing "as their proximate end the creation of beauty" (p. 45). The intellectual side of sensuality in art depends largely on the original intent of the artist. We may never know what Titian's thoughts were as he painted his Venus, but as Gilson points out, there is a specific distinction btween the artist's point of view and that of the spectator or the reader. True beauty does not cater to our baser instincts, except when put in the appropriate context - for example, sex within the context of marriage. But a work of art may still be "sensual" and "good," depending on its context and the dignity with which the artist portrays the subject.

Obviously there are many great works of art (landscapes, still lives, portraits, etc.) which display beauty without using the nude form as their subject matter. Nudity, in its proper artistic context, is just one of the many avenues by which we can somehow catch a glimpse of the true and the beautiful. (Hopefully, Matt, I've answered your questions, at least in part).
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