Arty Nudes

There goes the age-old art centric debate; what constitutes nude and what naked? Nudity is often viewed as the artful posing of the naked human form, whereas nakedness is often perceived as more vulnerable, unrefined and bare – in such a sense nudity is often elevated to a higher artistic and cultural standing, with nakedness being largely associated with censorship and stigmatisation. The terms are often used interchangeably, and while this may not be 100% linguistically correct, I would argue that it is important to destigmatise the taboos surrounding nakedness; a naked body is just that, whether it can be perceived as sexually attractive should not be central to the manner in which we address it. As demonstrated, both words mean the unclothed human body, so how did such a differentiation in contextual understanding occur? Art critic John Berger previously argued the meaning of the nude has changed over the years; in his 1972 book ‘Ways of Seeing’  he says that the nude has been continuously utilised to portray the female body in a manner that is sexually pleasing to the viewer, whereas a ‘naked’ piece of art depicts a sitter embodying their own space and pleasure. Whether this is true is dependent on the subjective opinion of the viewer, something that has undoubtedly changed throughout history.

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Illustration: Sophie Chapman

Over the centuries, artists have captured the nude (or naked) form in thousands of different iterations, from the pivotal renaissance nude to the abstract form seen in 20th century Modern art – the nude is rarely out of fashion. Not only does it demonstrate to the viewer the intimate forms and emotions of the sitter, the nude can also be utilised usefully as a tool for engaging with debates surrounding the changing nature of societal beauty standards throughout history. Here I’ve handpicked four of my favourite nudes in order to further explore the genre.

Nude 1: Michelangelo’s ‘David’, 1504 – Sculpture in Marble

Arguably one of the most iconic pieces of nude artistry of all time; Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is an impressive and domineering example of male nudity in art, the piece took 3 years to complete and stands at a colossal 17 feet tall. The statue depicts David, the young opponent of Goliath and infamous Christian war hero; what makes this statue so interesting is Michelangelo’s breaking with tradition, his decision to cast David not as a brave warrior adorned with the spoils of battle, but as a young man in the period prior to the fight. Michelangelo’s style is very much reminiscent of the Ancient Greek and Roman periods, he presents a naturalistic, toned male form – not too dissimilar to the idealised bodies we see in the modern media today. Debate is ongoing as to the primary role of the naked male form in art, but it has long been said that male nudity is predominantly utilised as a means for conveying notions of power and militarism – something Michelangelo does not stray far from. It’s possible to view Michelangelo’s ‘David’ in its full glory at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, Italy – if the opportunity presents itself, I would highly recommend paying a visit!

Nude 2: Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’, 1995 – Oil on Canvas

Lucian Freud’s ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ is a personal favourite in the world of arty nudes. His ability to capture the realities of a larger body is refreshing at a time in which mainstream beauty ideals do not reflect such a figure. The sitter of the painting is Sue Tilley, who was at this point an employee in the Department of Health and Social Security, while also moonlighting as a bouncer for a London club. Freud allegedly desired to paint Tilley due to her heavy-set figure, wanting to explore the interplay of volume, depth and texture in relation to the human form. Tilley slept during the long sittings, using the time as an opportunity to take a rest between her long shifts. Freud’s unflinching and honest depiction of her body in a largely desexualised manner presents the viewer with an opportunity to question their inbuilt and socially engineered body expectations. Unfortunately it is not possible to view ‘Benefits Supervisor Sleeping’ first hand following its sale at a private auction in 2008, for a staggering £17.2 million However, the painting can be viewed in detail on the original Christie’s listing.

Nude 3: Annie Leibovitz, Demi Moore for Vanity Fair, August 1991 – Photography 

Arguably one of the most pivotal photographic nudes to appear in a fashion publication; Demi Moore’s decision to debut her pregnant figure on the front cover of Vanity Fair was a ground-breaking one. The shot was originally intended for Moore’s own private use, however, following a conversation with ex-Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, Moore agreed for the image to be featured on the cover. This image was the first of its kind in mainstream fashion, prior to its publication pregnant celebrities were generally only shot from the chest up, with the pregnant body being viewed as cumbersome and unattractive. Following the shoot with Leibovitz, such representation of the pregnant female form has continued to grow in popularity, with many female celebrities following suit – Serena Williams being a prime example. If you’re interested in exploring more of Leibovitz’s work or in gaining further information about this image, Time’s 100 Most Influential Images of All Time provides a great write up.

Nude 4: Mike Parisella aka. @slimesunday – Digital Collage/Photography 

I would argue the primary strength of Parisella’s work is in his ability to combine beauty, humour and provocation – all centred on the naked form. His thought provoking and illusionary work is indicative of changing modern notions of sexuality and nudity; where Michelangelo portrayed a naturalistic, muscular male, Parisella creates abstract engineered ideas of what it means to be human. While it is no criticism, Parisella’s work does not obviously deviate from previous models depicting the female form in a highly sexualised manner; leading us to question is it the perception of the artist that informs such a portrayal, or is it the essence of nudity? Parisella’s body of work is available to view here, or through his Instagram @slimesunday.

– Freya Insoll


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