DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Mixing in the Eye

Alley, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Most contemporary technologies of color image reproduction use optical mixing to obtain a full range of colors.  Four-color process printing, CRT, LCD and plasma displays, all reproduce a wide gamut of hues and values using tiny dots of ink or luminous pixels in just three or four colors.  The colors remain discrete in the image, and are only blended in the eye.  The illustration below shows a detail of a printed color picture, with inks of cyan, magenta, yellow and black in dots of variable size.  A color monitor performs a similar trick with glowing red, green and blue dots of variable brightness.

Image printed in four-color process, with detail showing halftone dots

The old masters who developed the craft of pictorial oil painting did not, as far as I know, ever consciously use the phenomenon of optical color mixing.  Most of them used some variation of the technique of grisaille, or painting in black and white (or sometimes in greens or earth tones), then adding color by applying thin transparent glazes over this monochrome foundation.  Jan Van Eyck is often considered the first master of this technique, and it’s still commonly used by painters who follow the classical methods.  Here are two versions of a painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, the first version in grisaille, and the second with color glazes applied.

Odalisque in Grisaille, 1824-34, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Grande Odalisque, 1814, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

The great virtue of this method is to achieve a feeling of solidity and luminosity.  The grisaille painting allows for a sculptural rendition of values, and the white of the grisaille reflects all wavelengths of light, which are then subtly filtered by the glazes.  Light penetrates the transparent surface layer of the painting and reflects back to us from a deeper level, tinged as the setting sun or the distant mountain are tinged by the intervening atmosphere.

Directly mixing pigments on the palette or on the canvas, on the other hand, tends to give dull and flat colors.  Every opaque blend of two pigments has less brightness and less intensity of color than either of its components.  The natural mineral pigments available to painters before the industrial revolution were extremely limited, so the glazing technique was often the only way to achieve color that was both vivid and subtle in its gradations.

In the nineteenth century, several technological innovations led to a completely new approach to color in painting.  Photography quickly surpassed the painters in its ability to render monochromatic values.  This made painters strive to reproduce the more vibrant effects of color that photography still could not capture.  Modern industrial chemistry discovered new synthetic pigments that were both permanent and far more vivid than the classical artists’ pigments.  All those paints with chemical sounding names like alizarin and phthalocyanine are products of the new chemistry.  Pre-mixed paints in squeezable metal tubes were yet another nineteenth century development that made it much easier for an artist to leave the studio and study the colors of nature and the effects of light outdoors, or en plein air.

French Impressionism was the product of all these changes.  The old methods started to seem stodgy and lacking in spontaneity, and in any case were unsuited to plein air painting.  You can observe optical color mixing effects starting from the beginnings of the impressionist movement, as in this Renoir painting.

Bal au Moulin de la Galette, 1876, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

In the detail below, you can see that the clothing and shadows on the ground are painted with various bright colors in close proximity, colors that do not correspond with the actual surface colors of the objects being depicted.  The overall impression of the colors in the painting is vibrant but not unnatural.

Bal au Moulin de la Galette, 1876, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, detail

Monet painted haystacks in a field and the facade of Rouen Cathedral over and over again, trying to capture the ever-changing subtleties of light and air.  [Both links in the preceding sentence are well worth a click!]  Here the haystack contains dabs of red, olive, lavender, violet and black.

Grainstack (Sunset), 1890-91, by Claude Monet

Artists such as Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt used optical mixes of odd colors like greens and purples to depict flesh tones.

Lydia Leaning on her Arms, Seated in a Loge, 1879, by Mary Cassatt

George Seurat studied the science of color perception, and developed an analytical approach to painting with optically mixing colors.  He called his method chromoluminarism, though it’s better known today as pointillism, a word originally coined by critics.  Here’s one of his mural-scale canvases, followed by a detail of a face in profile, showing the discrete dots of color.

La Parade du Cirque (Invitation to the Sideshow), 1889, by George Seurat

La Parade du Cirque (Invitation to the Sideshow), 1889, by George Seurat, detail

What Seurat does with analytical coolness, Vincent van Gogh does with fiery intensity.

Sower with Setting Sun, 1888, by Vincent van Gogh

Optical mixing of colors also interested abstract expressionists such as Joan Mitchell.

Weeds, 1976, by Joan Mitchell

Chuck Close is the heir to Seurat’s analytical approach, as in this monumental self-portrait.

Self Portrait, 1997, by Chuck Close

Self Portrait, 1997, by Chuck Close, detail

For my own work in color, I usually use aquarelle crayons on toothy charcoal paper.  The crayons deposit bits of pigmented wax on the ridges of the paper.  Going over an area with more than one color leaves the markings separate, and the colors mix optically.  Here’s a detail of the portrait of Alley featured at the top of this post.  You can see that the flesh tones are made up of strokes of blue gray, pink, yellow, light blue, reddish brown and white, on a neutral gray paper.  The technique is particularly effective at depicting reflected light in shadow areas.

Alley, 2009, by Fred Hatt, detail

Here’s a quicker figure sketch, followed by an enlarged detail.  Here the colors making up the flesh tones include turquoise, orange, fuschia, and yellow.

Maira Horizontal, 2010, by Fred Hatt

Maira Horizontal, 2010, by Fred Hatt, detail

Mixing colors in the eye, rather than on the palette, produces color impressions that are bright and shimmery, that suggest not only the effects of light but the slippery nature of flesh tones.  The actual colors of living human skin are subtle to the point of elusiveness.  Skin is translucent, imbued with underlying colors of blood and fat.  Its surface is nearly iridescent, and reflects and refracts the colors of surrounding objects and lights.  Flat colors cannot capture this subtlety.  Grisaille and glazing can, and so can optical mixing, in a very different way.

All the images in this post, besides those of my own work, were found on the web.  Clicking on the pictures will take you to their source pages, and in many cases, to larger versions of the images.


Dawn After the Longest Night

The Winter, 1563, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo


The year’s longest night falls around December 21st in the Northern hemisphere, and the return of the Sun symbolizes rebirth or renewal in cultures around the world.  Italian Renaissance painter Arcimboldo, who anthropomorphized the seasons and elements as grotesque heads composed of bits of flora and fauna, here reveals the face of Winter in gnarly roots and gray bark, with hair of ivy and lips of fungus, but includes a lemon, surely a sign of the sun.  This shows the promise of returning light and life, of which our understanding of the nature of cycles gives us faith.  In the famous “yin/yang”, the Asian emblem of cyclic nature, the yin contains a little seed of yang, and vice versa, telling us that all dualities are cyclic and each extreme contains the potential of its own reversal.The Winter Solstice is the scientific name for the moment of the Earth’s maximum axial tilt away from the Sun.  On Earth we experience it as the shortest daylight and longest night, and the Sun’s lowest path across the sky, the effect the more extreme the farther one is from the equator.  This photograph combines 43 exposures over the course of a day to show the low southern arc of the Winter Solstice sun looking over the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Mediterranean area between the Italian peninsula and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.  (Of course the Southern Hemisphere’s Winter Solstice is the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer Solstice, and vice versa.) 

Tyrrhenian Sea and Solstice Sky, 2005, photo by Danilo Pivato


The cycles of the heavenly bodies were among the first natural phenomena to be understood with scientific precision.  Artifacts like the Mayan Calendar or the Antikythera Mechanism show that these celestial cycles engaged the most sophisticated minds of ancient times.  While theories of the function of Stonehenge and other megalithic monuments as astronomical observatories are disputed by scholars, new evidence shows that prehistoric peoples conducted ritual sacrifices at these sites around the time of the Winter Solstice. 

Stonehenge Winter Solstice, photographer unknown


Walking a Labyrinth is another ancient ritual that has seen revival in our time.  In walking meditation, the convolutions of the labyrinth provide a physical experience of cycles, of gradual penetration to the depths and re-emergence.  Below is a labyrinth made out of candles, which are themselves symbols of the survival of light through the darkness, set up for a contemporary Winter Solstice festival

Labyrinth of Light, Secret Lantern Society Winter Solstice Lantern Festival, Vancouver, photographer unknown


The most popular holiday of classical Rome was the Saturnalia, a seven-day period around the Winter Solstice when king of the gods Jupiter ceded his throne to Saturn, god of harvest.  It was a time for the reversal of social roles, when servants played at bossing the masters and feasting and revelry replaced work.  We still keep a bit of this spirit alive in Saturn’s day, Saturday, the day to play. 

Saturnus, 1592, by Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio


In a work of satirist Lucian of Samosata, Saturn says, “Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside. But the great things, wealth and gold and such, Zeus [Jupiter] distributes as he will.”  (source of quote) 

In the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, authorities knew it was hopeless to stop people celebrating Saturnalia, so they simply changed the name of the holiday – to Christmas

Saturnalia, 1909, by Ernesto Biondi, Jardín Botánico de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, photo by Daniel Smiriglio


In the Christian era, the central image of the coming of light into the darkness became the Holy Nativity, or birth of Jesus, God made flesh, in a stable for livestock.  Thousands of paintings depict the scene. Giotto’s fresco of the event is stark and simple. 

Nativity, 1304-06, by Giotto di Bondone, Cappella Scrovegni, Padua


Botticelli’s visionary manger scene combines celestial beauty with apocalyptic elements, a version in which the light is on the surface and something darker emerges only on closer inspection. 

Mystic Nativity, 1500, by Sandro Botticelli


By the 17th century, an aesthetic of realism is emerging.  Georges de la Tour, the master of candlelight effects, gives us this intimate grouping around the peaceful sleeping infant. 

Adoration of the Shepherds, 1644, by Georges de la Tour


Proto-psychedelic painter Abdul Mati Klarwein painted this 1960’s “Nativity”, a post-nuclear, pop art, new age vision of a birth of new consciousness.  The yin-yang symbol is there, beneath the legs of the central figure.  (Note that the de la Tour painting is roughly right in the middle between the Giotto and the Klarwein on the art history timeline.) 

Nativity, 1961, by Mati Klarwein


In contemporary American culture, Christmas is a complex and contested amalgam of Christian, pagan, and commercial elements.  The central figure is no longer the baby Jesus but the jolly old Santa Claus.  Santa Claus is himself derived from multiple cultural traditions, some surprisingly devilish.  The very name “Santa”, of course, is an anagram for the name of the Prince of Darkness.  David Sedaris has written hilariously about European Christmas legends that may be surprising to Americans. 

Our contemporary image of the jolly old elf can be traced back to Clement Clarke Moore‘s “The Night Before Christmas”, and to the illustrations of the great political cartoonist Thomas Nast, originator of the Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey. 

Santa Claus, 1881, by Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly


Another icon of the Winter Solstice holiday season is the New Years Baby, popularized by the great illustrator J. C. Leyendecker in annual Saturday Evening Post covers.  For an image of rebirth, I’ll leave you with this awakening infant from an earlier era, troubled like our own.  May you and the 2011 baby face the coming year with innocence and the power of growth!  Blessed Solstice, Io Saturnalia, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all! 

New Year's Baby, 1938, by J. C. Leyendecker for the New York Post


All illustrations in this post were found on the web.  Clicking on the images links to their source.


Flanking Figures

Filed under: Art History,Collections of Images — Tags: , , , , , — fred @ 17:06

Far Side of the Moon with Flanking Figures, 2010, by Fred Hatt

I made these two large reclining nudes, each one 48″ x 30″, with the idea that they would be flanking figures, a human frame for some significant object or image.  They could be on either side of a mirror or a portrait or a proscenium stage.  They could be facing center or away from center.  For me these figures have a lunar quality, so here I have used them to bracket an image of the far side of the moon.

[Tangent:  The far side of the moon was a complete mystery before the era of space flight, as the moon always turns the same face towards Earth, and of course people imagined that it hid alien civilizations or other exotic marvels.  Even now this distant hemisphere is unfamiliar to most of us.  The far side of the moon is mountainous and heavily pocked with craters, and lacks the great “seas” or mare that give the near face the dark patches that we see as the man in the moon, the rabbit, or whatever it is supposed to resemble.  The face that is turned away can be a symbol of the unseen aspect of things.  Here is an interactive map of both sides of the moon, and here’s the source for the moon map used in the illustration at the top of this post.]

Allegorical flanking figures of this sort are a fusty old iconographic tradition.  The ones I had in mind were the figures of Dawn and Dusk on the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici, in the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, designed and sculpted by Michelangelo.  The chapel also features a similar idealized portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici, accompanied by figures called Night and Day.  These nudes, named as embodiments of cycles of nature and shown reclining at the feet of the enthroned noblemen, exalt their central figures by portraying them as masters over Nature itself.  Those Medicis were as self-aggrandizing as Trump!

Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, c. 1530, by Michelangelo

This kind of arrangement of human images embodying abstract concepts became a standard trope in public art.  Here are the figures over the entrance to the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court in London, by sculptor F.W. Pomeroy.  In the middle is the Recording Angel, lurking under a hood and looking far more intimidating than most of the court stenographers I’ve seen.  On the left is Fortitude, with a sword, and on the right, Truth, with a mirror.

Allegorical Figures, Old Bailey Central Criminal Court, London, 1907, sculptures by F. W. Pomeroy

Allegorical flanking figures became such a cliché in the depiction of official power that they are a frequent feature of the engraved headings of stock certificates, such as this one for Shell Oil, Inc.

Shell Oil Company stock certificate engraving, 1975

The tradition probably originates with Medieval Heraldry.  A coat of arms often shows a shield with symbolic emblems or colors, held up on either side by what some cultures would call power animals, such as Great Britain’s lion and unicorn.  Here’s a lovely new variation on the theme, the official coat of arms of Nunavut, the Inuit province of Northern Canada.  The symbolic animals are the caribou and the narwhal.

Coat of Arms of the Province of Nunavut, Canada

Christian religious painting also frequently includes figures flanking a central personage.  The sidekicks may be angels, saints, or the donor who funded the artwork.  It naturally occurs in crucifixions, in which Jesus is often shown between the two crucified thieves, as in this Mantegna painting.

Crucifixion, 1459, by Andrea Mantegna

Raphael omitted the thieves, but framed Jesus between two angels, representations of the sun and moon, and one kneeling and one standing figure on each side.  Clearly the idea here is to convey the centrality of the Christ.

Crucifixion, 1503. by Raphael

I can’t tell you why I was drawn to such a thoroughly old-fashioned figurative motif.  I suppose applying my loose and energetic style to neoclassical subject matter seemed an interesting variation on improvised compositions and experimental process.  Here are some closer looks at these two drawings.  The models are Yuko and Jeremiah.  Let me know if you have anything that needs to be exalted by being displayed in between allegorical figures!

Waning Moon, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Waxing Moon, 2010, by Fred Hatt

My works shown here are aquarelle drawings on black paper, each 48″ high by 30″ wide.  All the other images were found on the web, and clicking on the images will take you to the sites where I found them.


Womb of Art: Paleolithic Masterpieces

Detail of the Lion Panel of Chauvet Cave, France, fig. 84 from "Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave" by Chauvet, Deschamps & Hillaire

These lions look so full of life they might at any moment pounce on their prey.  This is a small detail from the “Lion Panel”, an expansive composition featuring dozens of animals, discovered in 1994 in a cave in southeastern France.  Across a huge cave wall with a niche in the center, the lions appear to be stalking herds of rhinos, mammoths and bulls.  The realism is classical, the scale and energy modern, yet radiocarbon dating has proven this magnificent work is approximately thirty thousand years old!  The mastery displayed here makes a mockery of the concept of “primitive” art.

It has been barely a hundred years since scientists have agreed that the paintings in certain caves are the work of artists of the paleolithic or old stone age, the end of the last glacial period, when homo sapiens coexisted with Neanderthal people and the kind of herds we associate with the African veldt roamed Europe.  In 1879 the nine year old daughter of amateur Spanish archaeologist Sautuola discovered the magnificent murals of Altamira cave, but it took over twenty years before the scholarly establishment accepted the prehistoric origin of the paintings.

Since then, academics have disputed about the meaning and motivation of these works.  In The Mind in the Cave:  Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams, a scholar specializing in ancient rock art, argues that the paintings in the paleolithic caves are the product of shamanic vision quests.  These are not the kind of caves some people lived in, but deep caverns requiring significant effort to penetrate.  Inside these spaces there is no external light or sound.  The paintings may record visions arising from ordeal and sensory deprivation.  Ancient footprints found in the caves show that children accompanied adults into the caves, so the exhibition of the artwork by dim and flickering lamplight may have been a kind of initiation.

Most visual art associated with present-day hunting and gathering cultures is highly stylized, relying on abstract conventions that represent things conceptually rather than accurately following their appearance.  In contrast, the paleolithic art is remarkable for its realism.  Obviously those animals were not posing for the artists inside the caves, but the confident rendering of lifelike animal contours convinces me that these artists were well practiced in observational drawing.  The caves may be significant not as the place of origin of art, but as the place of its preservation, as there must have been an abundance of art outside the caves that did not survive.

I’ll refrain from engaging the scholarly arguments here, and just share a few samples of visual art of the European Paleolithic that speak to me across the millennia, revealing the timeless qualities of great work.  These images come from books in my personal library, and I hope the copyright holders will not mind my sharing them with you.  Altamira, mentioned above, is the source of this exuberant galloping horse:

Galloping Horse, original painting in red, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 130 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

This painting has the lightness and simplicity of the loose brushwork of Asian painters grounded in calligraphy and taoism or zen.

This back-biting bison carving, from Trois-Frères Cave in France could be mistaken for a Picasso:

Bison sculpture in reindeer antler, from La Madeleine, France, fig. 44 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

The Cave of Trois-Frères in France is famous for a human-animal hybrid image known as “The Sorcerer“.  It also has a magnificent complex herd scene with at least forty-five animals, densely overlapping, all of them individually expressed in different lifelike positions.  Is the figure on the right in the detail shown below a hunter disguised in a bison’s skin, a shamanic summoner of animal spirits, or a bison god?

Detail from a mural engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, p. 135 from "La Peinture Prehistorique: Lascaux ou la Naissance de l'Art" by Georges Bataille

Here’s another detail from the same cave:

Bison, engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 121a from "The Roots of Civilization" by Alexander Marshack

These vigorous drawings burst with vitality, conveying the power of the looming beasts and the fury of the hunt.

You may notice that I’ve chosen to show many of these works in copies made by the Abbé Breuil, one of the early 20th century’s foremost specialists in European cave art.  His beautifully rendered copies clarify images that are often hard to read in photographs, painted or engraved on rough and mottled stone surfaces.  It’s difficult for photographs to capture the qualities of cave art, which is not flat and not intended to be seen in harsh bright light.  Many of the original paintings incorporate the bulges of the stone walls as the bulges of the animal bodies.  In other places, paintings continue from walls up to vaulted ceilings, as in this image from the most famous painted cave of all, Lascaux:

Ceiling of the Axial Gallery, Lascaux Cave, p. 111 from "The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs" by Mario Ruspoli

Depictions of animals are far more numerous, and usually more detailed, than depictions of the human form in paleolithic art, but the human figures can be strikingly sensual:

Reclining female figures from Cave of La Madeleine, France, relief carvings above with copy drawings below, fig. 111 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

Those remind me of Matisse.  The carved “Venus” figurines, a selection of which are shown below, prefigure the styles of Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska:

Small paleolithic figurines, from left to right, vitreous rock from the Riviera, hematite from Moravia, mammoth ivory from Ukraine, and mammoth bone from Russia, figs. 121 thru 124 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

From a slightly later period, after the invention of the bow and arrow, we have silhouetted figures like this one, similar in style to South African rock art, but this is from Spain:

Archer with compound bow, rock painting in black from the Spanish Levant, fig. 177 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

This is just a small sampling from an incredible wealth of prehistoric masterpieces.

New note added April 21, 2010:  Get a great feeling for the art in context with the navigable CGI reproduction of the art in context in the cave of Lascaux.


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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