DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Meanings of the Nude

"Venus of Lespugue", c. 23,000 BCE

“Venus of Lespugue”, c. 23,000 BCE

Why is the naked human body such an enduring focus of art?  Of course the image of the human form excites our mirror neurons, and can express all aspects of the human experience, but it could usually do that just as well in clothes.  Art students study nude models in order to see the structure and movement of the body unobstructed, but the nude figure in art clearly has an importance beyond its function in learning anatomy.  The naked body is an object of desire, but the nude in art can evoke a far more complex response than can pornographic imagery.

The nude evokes many contradictory things.  Historically, the nude figure has been seen as representing innocence and purity as well as sensuality and sexuality.  The artistic nude can be Apollonian, showing the harmonies of sacred geometry as embodied in the human form, or it can be Dionysian, expressing unconstrained energy or emotion.  Power and weakness, pride and shame, pleasure and pain:  all of these are the experiences of being in the flesh, and all can be shown in the image of the flesh.

William Blake, "Glad Day"
William Blake, “Glad Day”, 1794

In the formal experimentation of the moderns, the nude as a subject maintained a connection to artistic conventions and provided a vital link of identification, humanizing abstraction.

Matisse, "Blue Nude"

Matisse, “Blue Nude”, 1952

In contemporary art since Bacon, the nude is often a mirror reflecting the darkest aspects of society through fragmentation, commodification, dehumanization, dissociation and repulsion.

Jenny Saville, "Hybrid", 1997

Jenny Saville, “Hybrid”, 1997

For the practicing artist, scopophilia, the erotics of seeing, can be an important motivating factor, stimulating the considerable focus of energy that is required in producing art.  Despite the popular image of the artist as lubricious libertine, no real art is produced unless the erotic impulse is sublimated into the creative drive.  Thus the artist of the nude may also represent both sensuality and chastity through her or his practice.

Boucher, "Nude on a Sofa", 1752

Boucher, “Miss O’Murphy”, 1752

Anthropologist Ian Gilligan, who studies the prehistory of clothing, says “Clothing is the thing that separates us from nature, literally and symbolically . . . It actually affects us in the way we perceive ourselves and our environment.”  Clothing is a barrier between us and the world, and between us and our own physical selves, with “implications for how we think about ourselves in relation to other things, but also in how our bodies interact with the world. . . We’ve fabricated a whole artificial environment, which is a kind of externalised clothing. Many aspects of modern existence insulate us from the outside natural world.”

This separation from Nature has become an unhealed split, a division of the self expressed in the root myths of human culture.  In the story of Adam and Eve we are told that the initial manifestation of self-awareness is shame at nakedness, and God’s punishment for it is suffering and death.  Thus our very bodies are seen as the source of evil and sin and must be hidden.

Masaccio, "Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden"

Masaccio, “Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden”, 1423

Observing death we see that the living person or soul becomes separated from the body, and so we imagine that these things are inherently separate, forced together by a cruel deity to test us.  The mind or spirit is heavenly, angelic and pure, while the physical body binds us to death, destructive urges and suffering.

The body is identified with the Earth, whose odorous solidity it shares.  Body and Nature, and all the living things of Earth, are then reduced to objects, to be tamed and exploited without mercy for the advancement of the supposedly pure spirit.  The Earth has suffered from this division within Man, but as creatures of Earth we do not escape the pain.

Michelangelo, "Awakening Slave", 1519

Michelangelo, “Awakening Slave”, 1519

The West or the Abrahamic religions hold no monopoly on this hatred of the body.  The way of Yoga would seem opposed to the split, a practice of fully embodied spirituality, and yet the Yogasutras, the most revered ancient source of Yoga philosophy, clearly state the aim of the practice of Yoga is to “transcend the qualities of nature”, to purify ourselves of all physical desires and to “disentangle ourselves from involvement in even the subtlest manifestations of the phenomenal world,” as quoted from B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Scientific humanists might rail against religious ideas of the soul or the afterlife, but still long to upload the mind into a computer as a way of escaping the fallibility and mortality of the flesh.   (As long as computers don’t last even one tenth as long as the human body, this would hardly seem to solve the problem!)

For the fundamentalists in all cultures that fear individual freedom and the open mind, the image of the human body is a threat to order, as it reminds people of pure animal joy.  The free body terrifies authoritarians.  If the people experience freedom at the level of the body, there will be no controlling them!  Thus “modesty” must be strictly enforced.

Gustav Vigeland, figure from Vigeland Park, Oslo, c. 1930

Gustav Vigeland, figure from Vigeland Park, Oslo, c. 1930, photo by Simon Davey

The image of the nude reminds us that we are our bodies, that sexuality and appetites and mortality are our very nature, and that the beauty of our animality cannot be separated from the beauty of our spirituality.

Perhaps death separates body and spirit, but if we separate them in life we are like a house divided against itself, that cannot stand.  We cannot, like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, deny and conceal the part of us that decays.  I believe mind and matter are two surfaces of a single membrane, and neither can exist in isolation from the other.

Fred Hatt, "Pregnant Couple", 2008

Fred Hatt, “Pregnant Couple”, 2008

For me, the nude is an image of unity, of spirit incarnate and matter imbued with life.  A work of art is in itself an attempt to put living energy into a physical form, so the subject matter perfectly fits the activity.  The nude hides neither its eroticism nor its mortality, but shows the human as a cell of the body of Earth.  The nude is a talisman to heal the ancient division afflicting humanity, and an assertion of freedom and joy against fundamentalism and fear.

I would like to hear readers’ responses to this post.  Please comment.

Fair use claimed for all photos of artwork.  Click on images for links to sources.

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