Tim Marlow, British art historian has produced a series of four programs that addresses our fascination with the subject of nude subjects in art. He says, “The nude was not always ‘sexy’.”
In part one, we meet perhaps the first work of art to depict a nude subject, a 25,000 year old miniature statue that may have represented a goddess. Could it relate to fertility?
Then, according to Marlow, 500 B.C. became a crucial moment in art history for the nude. The Greeks who gave us democracy, philosophy, history,science, drama, and art, considered nudes as simply a natural depiction of the body. Much of their work was based on or influenced by the male as an athlete or soldier and therefore displayed strength and superiority.
Socrates, “Artists should represent the working of the soul — accurately observing how feelings affect the body in action.”
The Venus di Milo
Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”
Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa”
Marlow on Picasso
According to Marlow, the controversies of Picasso’s work were due as much to the style as the content. Picasso’s flat, two-plane dimensions ushered in the era of modern art and more specifically, “cubism.” In this case, his subjects stare back at the viewer in a confrontational manner rather than simply pose for viewing. Marlow, “This (Les Demoisells d’Avignon, 1907) may be the most important painting of the 20th century.” and, “…the shock of the nude is more profound than it’s sexuality.”
Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”
Leonardo da Vinci’s study of human anatomy led to a radical development in nude artwork — accuracy. Muscles and bone structures were much more precise. The authenticity was a point of controversy as well.
Marlow, “The human figure is a microcosm of the universe. A figure whose extensions represent the perfect almost divine shape of the circle and square.”
A significant aspect of the Renaissance was the shift of man to the center of art — replacing god. Michaelangelo had used religious themes for his nudes to avoid censorship.
“The Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo da Vinci
Photography as Art
Marlow, “The invention of the camera revolutionized art.” Regardless of whether or not we think that photography is art, there’s no denying that the camera made art — and nudes in particular — available to the masses. Previously, nude artwork was primarily available only to the elite; in galleries.
Also, with the invention of the camera, the debate over “art vs porn” really heated up. Then, in 1953, Hefner came along and started publishing Playboy magazine — and had the effect of throwing a lighted match into the powder keg.