Why are there so many nude artworks exhibited in public places and why nobody cringes about this?
I’ve always wondered why society is all crazy about censoring nudity in social media, television, and so on, when we’re surrounded by it in the art world? What’s the difference? Art is different not only due to the esthetic value of the pieces but the intention of the artists when capturing the nude body, and I understand that some nudes we see in mainstream media aren’t precisely art. But what about those that do fit the description? Why do platforms like Instagram censor an artistic photograph of a naked body and not a picture of a random sculpture on the streets? Is there really a difference? My first guess would be that most of these sculptures and statues are protected by the sole fact that they are considered classic art and thus cultural heritages, while a modern photograph is just an artistic expression. This makes me think about why are there so many nude artworks and why we love exhibiting them in public when we clearly can’t overcome those prudish behaviors that censor the body? But more importantly, how nudity in art was conceived and evolved from one historical period to the other and how has it helped set beauty standards that are still ingrained in our collective imagination?
Venus of Hohle Fels (35-40 thousand years ago)
If you think about prehistoric art, the first works that come to our mind are the amazing cave paintings that portrayed everyday life at the time. Now, the human figures are portrayed more like shadows, so we can’t really talk about nudity here. However, there are some examples of sculptures, often called Venus figurines, that depict nude female bodies. They're extremely interesting because, more than highlighting the shape of the female body, they are kind of deformed to emphasize those parts they worshiped as symbols of fertility like the hips, breasts, abdomen, and even the vulva. For people in the prehistoric period, more than praising the female body in terms of erotic pleasure, the idea of beauty was precisely a woman fit to reproduce and bear children. Interestingly, the figurines that have been found are mainly female, which has led historians to believe that they were actually used for ritualistic purposes, as amulets to conceive, or even as sexual accessories. However, almost no male figurines have been found.
Diskobolos - Myron (450 BCE)
This clearly evolved as soon as civilizations settled and blossomed. Of course, when we think about nudity in art, the first images that come to our mind are the classic Greek and Roman marble sculptures, right? It was widely believed that the Greeks were more liberal when it came to nudity and that these sculptures were a faithful depiction of their everyday life. There are even texts suggesting that some people would go nude on the streets or with almost no clothes. Now, this hypothesis has been shattered for the past century, and actually historians found that nudity was seen as a way of glorifying the perfection of the human body.
Artemision Bronze - Unknown (c.450 BCE
As you know, sports played an important role for the Ancient Greeks. They were part of the religious activities to praise and honor the gods. Therefore, athletes were seen as the perfect examples of humans who had been blessed by the gods with their abilities and strength. During competitions, athletes, all male, competed naked so that people and the gods could see those perfect bodies moving and contorting with the physical effort. Moreover, sculptures of athletes were placed near temples and in the stadiums where these competitions took place. These pieces captured athletes practicing the sport they excelled in, but also were used to represent the main gods, since they were the only human link close to them. They represented the best of humanity and were also were embodiments of glory, triumph, and moral excellence. All in all, athletes were some sort of mortal deities people looked up to.
Aphrodite, Pan, and Eros - Unknown (2nd century BCE)
As for female nudity, they kept the idea that the female body represented the divine act of procreation. However, unlike our prehistoric ancestors, the Greeks did praise the eroticism of the female shape. Most of the statues of nude women were representations of the goddess Aphrodite, who not only represented love, eroticism, and sexual desire, but also a means to procreation. For that reason, sculptors now paid attention to the shape following mathematical proportions fit to represent the most beautiful female figure of the Olympus. Unlike male nude sculptures that depict men proudly showing their bodies, women were portrayed as if they had been just caught in an intimate moment. It wasn’t well seen for women to deliberately show their body, but at the same time, it gave the viewer a voyeuristic role. Both ideas of nudity, for male and female bodies, were followed by the Romans and other civilizations that came to belong to the empire, but more than showing the human body as diverse as it might be, the works stick to idealized representations of what was considered beautiful and appealing.
The Fall of Man and The Lamentation - Hugo van der Goes (1470-1475)
All this naturally changed during the Middle Ages, a time reigned by Christianism and its more conservative ways of perceiving the world. If you take a look at the art created at the time, there are almost no nude artworks. Medieval art was more focused on religious subjects that reflected not only stories present on the Bible, but images that could encourage people to lead a morally accepted life, or that would work as morality tales to prevent them from sinning. As you can guess, the few nude artworks were from that category, and the protagonists were basically our first sinful ancestors, Adam and Eve. In these images, they’re often portrayed right at the moment when Eve is tempted by the snake or right when they’re about to be thrown away from paradise. Nudity in that age was used to show how an impious life can condemn you for eternity.
Nursing Madonna - Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1330)
This last point was specifically for full nudity, since there were plenty images portraying Madonnas breastfeeding baby Jesus. According to art historian Margaret Miles, the main reason why there were so many paintings with this motif that was used until the early Renaissance was more of a propagandistic resource. Rich families used to hire nurses to feed their babies and naturally, most of them were poor and sometimes "sinful" women. According to Miles, the Church believed that it was the obligation of every Christian mother to nurse their children, and so Virgin Mary became the example to follow.
Venus of Urbino - Titian (1538)
The Renaissance wasn’t just an era of innovations in more scientific terms, but it was also a cultural movement where art played an important role. It was a time of awakening and rediscovery, so the classic art from Ancient times that was banned and conceived as sinful during the Middle Ages was seen now as a rich source of inspiration artists extolled. The moral values that the Church established were still prioritized, so there weren’t many nude artworks depicting normal people. Instead, artists made use of the inexhaustible lore of stories and images from Ancient mythology and traditions. So, besides exploring those rich cultures from the past, artists were well aware of the sexual and erotic connotations of nudity. Through these mythological characters and scenes they sought to highlight the sensuality of both the male and female naked body, (although they focused more on the female figure). Unlike the few naked bodies portrayed during the Middle Ages, where artists emphasized Eve's belly as symbol of motherhood and the long process of carrying a child, Renaissance's artists, like their Ancient counterparts, were looking for an idealized image of the body: a beautiful and well-shaped body that could awake everyone’s passions.
The Three Graces - Peter Paul Rubens (1636-1638)
That enthrallment for ancient motifs continued, and perhaps it still fascinates us. However, it was the Baroque current the one that gave us for the first time a more realistic and less idealized perception of the naked body. Both male and female bodies were often represented, but here the idea was to show the most lavished side. While they attempted to show more realistic bodies, conveying the idea that even certain flaws can be beautiful and alluring, that doesn’t mean the art at the time didn’t care for beauty ideals. We can still see some of these patterns being reinforced in the images that were being made. Yes, Rubens’ graces don’t really have the body of Botticelli’s Venus or Ancient sculptures have, but at the same time, they were seen as models of beauty. It was more of a change on beauty standards than being more inclusive and diverse.
Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) - Édouard Manet (1862)
By the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century, the themes and motifs of nudity in art changed. For the first time, artists dared to portray common women and their nakedness without having to convey any moral message or disguising them through mythical characters. Artists explored new techniques and subjects in a freer way. There were bolder and more controversial paintings, like Gustave Courbet’s L'origine du monde, or Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. They wanted to show that beauty can be seen in everyday life and even challenged the art academia and the public by painting what no one had painted before, or at least nothing that had been displayed publicly, like prostitutes and their daily life. There were more provocative faces looking directly at the spectator, instead of the blushing woman who had been surprised while being naked. The social perception of nudity changed forever.
Nude Self-Portrait, Grimaci - Egon Schiele (1910)
Finally, let’s talk a bit about modern and contemporary art. There were no boundaries for the modern artist to explore it, and thus it is reflected in the many styles, motifs, and currents of the time. Now, even though we have nude paintings like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon where there's a completely different approach to the body, we can’t really talk about a disappearance of beauty ideals. Although they evolved to fit different social standards throughout history, they still prevail in our conception of what’s beautiful and attractive and what’s not.
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - Pablo Picasso (1907)
This has been a long journey throughout the history of nudity in art, but let’s go back to our initial question. Why do we like seeing nudes in public? The obvious answer for me is that we still have some ingrained ideas of morality and censorship, so when art subverts them and allows us to explore our interest in a more open way, we feel a sort of rebellious pleasure. Still, that doesn’t mean this pleasure doesn’t allow us to understand and enjoy the artistic beauty of these works of art. On the contrary, the esthetic quality makes them even more alluring. Now, another possibility that would require a deeper sociological analysis is our constant need to establish certain beauty standards. We love looking at an idealized image. It doesn't matter if they’re naked or not, and no matter how free, inclusive, and diverse art has become, we’ll always be enthralled by the ideal beauty of classic art.
If you want to see other sides of nudity in art take a look at these: