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!



  1. Muchly good!

    I didn't follow the argument at the end. How are Gauguin's women objectified? Is it because he is 'depersonalizing' them, in Brooks language? It sounded at first as if Gauguin was making of his 'models' just as much a mythical Eve as the Renaissance painters were making of their models a mythical Venus, and by accomplishing this, Gaugain had restored to art the Ideal of Beauty, which it lost somewhere in the Enlightenment. No doubt a revised idea of beauty, which posited true beauty in some unattainable pre-lapsarian utopia, rather than in a vision that still announced itself to mankind from time to time, but an Idea all the same.

  2. You're right - that's because there was no argument in the end! Thanks for calling me out on that - I was in such a hurry to close that I didn't back up my statements. So I'll conclude the discussion about Gauguin tonight. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...