There are certain contentious topics in society – such as such as religion, politics, violence, and sexuality – which have always been at the center of a heated debate. They become even more contentious when represented artistically. There is a widespread notion that art should give rise to strong emotions in the observer; in other words, art should shock and provoke. While there is no universal agreement among artists and critics on this issue, perhaps majority of them would subscribe to the above statement. There is a famous saying by Vladimir Mayakovsky, a prominent Russian futurist, that art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer with which to shape it.
The views on acceptability of sexuality in art have changed many times in human history. Sexuality and nudity have been talked about as anything from assault on public morality to the apogee of high culture (Smith, 1997). The topic of sexuality is intimately interconnected with a host of other socially significant issues, such as procreation, relations between a man and a woman, and, ultimately, gendered power. Therefore, changes in attitudes to artistic representation of sexuality merit scholarly attention. This research paper will explore these changes as they took place in visual art throughout history.
Early Representations of Sexuality
Exploring early representations of sexuality in pictorial art makes sense within two different traditions, namely the ancient (or classical) and Christian tradition. As Doran (2008) informs, “our primary sources for nudity in public art have been Greco-Roman mythology and Judeo-Christian traditions” (para. 1). Before looking into these two traditions, however, it is necessary to clarify the definition of the subject matter of this paper. Where to draw the line between nakedness and nudity has been the preoccupation of artists and critics for centuries, since it served as the basis for classification of art as high (and therefore acceptable, adored, and valued) or pornographic.
Nakedness, i.e. absence of clothes on the figure that is being represented, can border on vulgarity; this is the case when an individual body is depicted. Indecent pictures of naked bodies which are meant for sexual arousal – the basic definition of pornography – always imply imagining a particular body, a body with which sexual intercourse is possible. On the other hand, nudity, as defined in classic art, is a portrayal of abstract, ideal human form, hence the widespread usage of transparent drapes, or draperie mouillée, which were added “to offset the form and contours of the figure” (Smith, 1997, p. 4). Another technique artists used to distinguish their work from pornography was to place a naked body in an appropriately general context: models were portrayed posing for the artist in his studio, which was deemed to be a desexualized activity serving the higher purpose of art. Depiction of naked or semi-naked figures was only acceptable “if the body was transformed into a formalized and generalized sign: the nude” (Smith, 1997, p. 7).
Starting with the ancient tradition, it is necessary to note that public nudity was accepted in Greece whenever practical and appropriate, for instance, during dancing, working, or exercising, and this fact has found its reflection in the art of those times. As Papalas (cited in Goodson, 1991) notes, archaeologists have found many vases portraying naked performers at festivals and laborers in the fields. Moreover, ancient Greeks believed that humans should strive towards becoming God-like both in terms of physical and intellectual development, therefore they valued artistic portrayals of healthy and well-trained bodies, whether nude or not. The term “heroic nudity” was coined to refer to representations of naked semi-gods and heroes in sculpture and pictorial art. However, Hurwit (2007) argues that heroic nudity was only one among many approaches to portraying the naked in ancient Greece: there was also a nudity of differentiation, a nudity of youth, “democratic nudity,” a nudity of status or class, and a nudity of vulnerability and defeat (pathetic nudity). Hurwit (2007) came to this conclusion after analyzing Dexileos stele, set above a cenotaph or heroon built for a young horseman killed in the Corinthian War, which depicts defeated enemy as naked, while the horseman has his clothing on.
However, it is not always the case in the classical tradition that vanquished enemy is portrayed naked as a symbol of his impotency. Vernon (2001) draws attention to the fact that St. Sebastian, the Roman martyr shot with arrows, “is depicted without clothes to show his perfection in death – even at the risk of his image appearing homoerotic” (para. 7).
Christian Tradition of Sexuality
Christian art also deserves a close look in terms of prevalence of sexual themes and messages. However, deciphering those messages requires an in-depth knowledge of Christian theology and history of religion. This paper will only discuss several theories and examples of the nude in Christian visual art. For instance, Steinberg (1997) argues that deliberate exposure of baby Christ’s genitalia on numerous icons is an affirmation of the Lord’s son kinship with the human condition. Moreover, surrounding figures on many paintings attract the viewer’s attention to genitalia of Jesus by implicitly or explicitly pointing at them.
As for artistic representations of Christ in adulthood, an important change has occurred in the 13th century under the influence of different theories of the original sin. Before those times, the prevailing mindset was that Adam and Eve were sexless at the beginning and endowed with procreative organs only after they sinned. Consequently, they became ashamed of their genitalia and covered themselves. Since Jesus was not subject to the original sin, he was frequently portrayed as a sexless being; absence of genitalia meant he did not have anything to be ashamed of. However, St. Augustine proposed that Adam and Eve were created with procreative organs, which were removed from their conscious control after they sinned. In this context, it is interesting to analyze why many depictions of crucified Jesus show him covered with loincloth yet with a clearly visible erection. Apart from the obvious association of the phallic symbol with power, there are two alternative explanations. In the pre-Christian mythology, a link existed between erection and resurrection, therefore Jesus’ erect phallus can be seen as a premonition of what happens three days after. Portrayals of Jesus on the crucifix having an erection were “to show the potency of the new creation that is to be found in the Christ” (Vernon, 2001, para. 7). Another explanation is linked to the conception of the original sin introduced by St. Augustine. Adult Jesus has never been painting with an erection – it only happens either in infancy or after his death. Thus, Jesus’ being in full control of his member during the mature age points to him not being subject to the original sin (Steinberg, 1997).
It is not only Jesus whose disrobed body is symbolic of power and virtue rather than shame and decay: Doran (2008) argues that “from specifically Christian scriptures and traditions, we are presented with the unclothed bodies of martyrs (like St. Bartholomew) and ascetics (like St. Jerome)” (para. 4). Here, we speak of a particular kind of power – moral power stemming from purity and martyrdom rather than actual power. For centuries, “the oppressed, the tyrannized, the unjustly treated have time and again identified with, and found strength to endure/resist, in portrayals of that naked God-man on the cross” (Doran, 2008, para. 8).
It is important to qualify the above statement: it applies only to depictions of naked saints and Jesus himself. When mortals are portrayed nude, the painting acquires completely different connotations, those of downfall, suffering and awareness of one’s own imperfection. As Margaret Walters (1978) notes, “in Christian art, the naked body is a symbol not of pride but of pathos. To be naked is to be vulnerable, sexually self-conscious and guilty” (p. 66).
It is also interesting to note that while portrayals of naked Jesus and other male saints were widespread, there are virtually no depictions of female nudity in Christian art. As Doran (2008) reminds, “when men do show up naked in Christian imagery, they have been known to facilitate spiritual and ethical ends” (para. 8). At the same time, few and far between depictions of females figures usually are with garments on. Doran (2008) concludes that “along with representations of a fully-clothed Mary (the mother of Jesus) portrayals of naked men dominate Christian art” (para. 2). The only exception is portrayal of Virgin Mary with her breasts uncovered during feeding of Jesus. It is possible to explain tolerance towards this theme by the appropriateness of the context in which Mary’s breasts are reveled and by her desexualization and elevation from the status of a woman (and thus potentially a sexual object) to mother.
Renaissance and the Victorian Era
udity was a prominent theme in Renaissance art. Since religious influence was strong during that period, artists were guided by “the belief that the human form is the crowning achievement of God in Creation – worthy of our expert knowledge, and analogous to the scientific knowledge of the human body in medicine and biology” (Gordon College, 2010, “Rationale”, para. 1). However, it necessary to emphasize that the difference between nudity and nakedness discussed earlier was very important for painters of the period. Nudity was believed to be appropriate and devoid of sexual connotations only if nakedness was a natural condition of the figures represented. As a consequence, portrayal of naked female body was usually done in the form of a goddess, most frequently Venus. Renaissance art aimed at following in the footsteps of great masters of the past, especially Greek and Roman sculptors, therefore depiction of naked body was frequent in the art of that period. As Haber (2003) notes, “the discovery, way back in 1506, of Laocoön, the frenetic Roman statuary, had set a challenge to High Renaissance sculpture and an inspiration to Mannerism” (“Virtue and bare flesh”, para. 1).
At the same time, the views of the Church on the appropriateness of nudity in art have changed dramatically. Nakedness was no longer associated with holiness and purity bur rather with earthy temptations and prurient thoughts. A campaign to cover private parts of Gods and heroes in classical sculptures and paintings of the past with a fig leaf started after “the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent ordered public works to be amended to hide nudity in the 16th century” (Gargulinski, 2010, “Art”). The choice of the fig leaf was not incidental, since according to Biblical mythology, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover themselves after sinning and becoming aware and ashamed of their bodies: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Genesis 3:7; cited in Gargulinski, 2010, “Bible”).
Initially, some Greek and Roman sculptors used fig leaves to cover genitalia of their figures, while others did not, and the Church has done it instead. Later on, some fig leaves were removed, yet it was impossible to return some paintings and sculptures their original form without damaging them. Apart from fears about possible damage to artworks, there is another controversy associated with fig leaves which are removed upon excavation along with the grime, dirt and oils that have built up over the years. As Gargulinski (2010) informs, “while this renovates the works into their originally intended condition, it is also stirring up controversy among scholars who say the fig leaves are part of the works’ histories” (“Controversy”).
The Church’s crusade against nudity in art was connected to the fact that during Renaissance times, a great portion of artworks were commissioned by the Church and were meant for display in places of religious observance. Fears have arisen about presence of nudity in such places, given “not just that the faithful might be disturbed in their worship, but that certain individuals might actually recognise a beautiful angel in a fresco as that young model who lived around the corner” (Vernon, 2001, para. 2).
- The Victorian Age
During the Victorian age, attitudes to permissibility of painting nude body were ambivalent at best. Even the most fervent defenders of morality acknowledged that human body was the perfect form which was to be represented in high art. As Smith (1997) writes, “on one hand, the nude embodied the ideal, the highest point of pictorial artist’s practice; on the other, it was viewed as an active incitement to unregulated sexual activity” (pp. 1-2). Several periods can be distinguished in the history of the Victorian England according to their attitudes to the nude: early experimentation with nudity in pictorial art lasted till the 1850s, after which a decline occurred, yet artistic interest to the naked figure resurged dramatically in the 1860s and attracted a wave of indignation from some members of the public.
The resurgence occurred under the influence of French Salon painting; moreover, some artists with an interest in depicting the nude were claiming to follow in the footsteps of the Old Masters of the Renaissance period. It was roughly around that time that a link between portrayals of nudity and artistic excellence was established. Human body was regarded as one of the most sophisticated natural objects, and artists capable of rendering it in a realistic manner were thought of as able to draw or sculpt anything.
It was frequently the case that painters depicted the naked figure in a way that the figure’s hands or other body parts covered genitalia. It is also necessary to note that depiction of women’s breasts was considered more acceptable in the academic art of the period than portrayal of male or female genitalia. Naked female body in general was considered more appropriate than male during the Renaissance and Victorian periods. However, many figures – especially female figures – were depicted from the back to prevent exposure. As Kenneth Clark (1972) writes his classic work The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, “it might be argued that the back view of the female body is more satisfactory than the front” (p. 150).
Nudity of children was more accepted than representations of adults without clothing. Recalling the discussion of sin and shame in the section on early representations of sexuality in religious art, it should hardly elicit surprise. Since nakedness was considered inappropriate only if associated with feelings of shame stemming from awareness of gender-specific peculiarities of one’s body, children were believed to be ignorant of potential sexual implications of their nakedness, they were still in the state of blessed innocence, and many artists felt free to depict child nudity even when they did not dare paint naked adult figures. Child nudity or desexualized nakedness of female figures was meant to point to purity and morality rather than promiscuity: the nude “offers scenes of the model in the studio, emblem of art’s cool eye in search of perfection – and hands-off respect for a woman’s virtue” (Haber, 2003, “The gloves are off”, para. 3).
The fact that nudity was associated with morality in the Victorian era can be explained by one important factor, the primacy of the visual. Galleries’ attendees could only gaze at naked figures in sculpture and on canvas, while touch as another sense for experiencing human body was ruled out by the entire situation. The primacy of the visual originates from the fact that first Renaissance artists and then their Victorian followers have been inspired by classical Greek and Roman sculpture. Materials sculptors were working with, marble and rock, were discouraging touching; they were pleasing visually but repulsively cold when pressed against the body surface (Haber, 2003). As a consequence, the dissociation of art from touch was commonly accepted well into the 20th century, and therefore it allowed for greater freedom in acceptable representations of nudity.
Referring back to the difference between the nude and naked, the appropriate and pornographic, it is necessary to specify that the above discussion applies only to the so-called high art, which emphasized abstract representation of the undressed figure. At the same time, there existed many pictures of less innocent character for private display and consumption during both Renaissance and Victorian era; however, they were banished from the public arena because of their provocative nature (Smith, 1997).
Sexuality in Avant-Garde and Contemporary Art
Modernism has challenged established conventions of academic art and broadened the conception of what is acceptable both in art and the public sphere in general. As Rimanelli (2005) informs, “it has often been asserted that Modernism begins with Manet, in particular with those paintings wherein the vexations of the unclothed female body burst forth with a power of disquietude that appalled the public: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863)” (para. 1). Other avant-garde artistic movements that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries were equally preoccupied with liberation of art and life from oppressive traditions and morals. Walters (1978) comments on expressionist views on naked figure in the following way:
“The Expressionists often saw themselves as free spirits, getting back to nature, back to more instinctive levels of the personality. They would, by main force if necessary, break down bourgeois hypocrisy and sexual repression. And the image which proved their freedom from convention, their artistic and sexual virility, was the female nude” (p. 315).
The portrayal of both female and male nude received special attention after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when artists started to look for new ways of experiencing and expressing sexuality. One of the major developments was the tendency among female artists to paint naked figures of their own or opposite gender. For centuries, painting nude was deemed inappropriate for females, despite the fact that several talented and successful women dared paint disrobed bodies in the 19th and early 20th century (Walters, 1978).
It has been mentioned before that female nudity was accepted more than male in all traditions except for the Christian one. It has also been established in the introductory section of this paper that studying representations of nudity and sexuality is important in light of their role for power relations between genders. In the decades following the 1960s, female artists often depicted naked male body provocatively and programmatically. Walters (1978) cites the examples of Anita Steckel who formed the Fight Censorship group in 1973 “protesting the double standard of museum authorities, only allowing the male nude if decently fig-leafed, while the most blatantly sexual female nude is considered permissible art” (p. 316) and Marion Pinto who called one of her exhibitions “Man as Sex Object”.
Sexuality Case Studies
This section will discuss two works of art which caused heated discussion about representation of sexuality in art in their respective times. Because of crossing the line between nudity and nakedness, the paintings discussed below attracted indignation from art critics and the public when they appeared. The paintings discussed in this section will be Manet’s Olympia and Courbet’s Origin of the World.
It has been mentioned above that Manet’s paintings are sometimes regarded as marking the beginning of modernity, and nakedness of the artist’s models is one of the major reasons for that. Manet’s “women fail to sustain the idealisation of the nude, slipping decisively into the embarrassing (for some) terrain of the naked” (Rimanelli, 2005, para. 1). Although the source of Olympia was a classical one, i.e. Titian’s The Venus of Urbino (1538), Manet’s Olympia is distinctly modern and disturbingly naked, stripped of the academic veneer of classical nudity. T.J. Clark (1984) writes in the chapter of his The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers titled Olympia’s Choice that “the past was travestied in Olympia: it was subject to a kind of degenerate simian imitation, in which the nude was stripped of its last feminine qualities, its fleshiness, its very humanity, and left as ‘une forme quelconque’- a rubber-covered gorilla flexing its hand above its crotch” (cited in Rimanelli, 2005, para. 2).
Before modernism, nudity was considered acceptable only if depersonalized and in a number of particular contexts. Contrary to the acceptable academic nude, Manet’s Olympia “is a portrait of an individual, whose interesting but sharply characteristic body is placed exactly where one would expect to find it” (Clark, 1972, p. 164). Olympia is placed in a brothel, where viewers would expect to see naked female form in the inappropriate context of paid sex.
Courbet’s Origin of the World is even more provocative: a close-up view of female genitalia, with the rest of the woman’s body out of picture, made critics of the day dismiss the painting as a brutal objectification of female figure and therefore as pornographic. The painting was originally planned to be of erotic nature, since it was commissioned by Khalil Bey, a former ambassador and negotiator of the Ottoman Empire retired to Paris, who already owned other Courbet’s works by provocative nature, such as The Turkish Bath and The Sleepers. It look several decades before the artistic and philosophical significance of the painting was acknowledged.
This paper explored how the views on acceptability representations of sexuality, nudity and nakedness in visual art evolved though history. As times changed, such representations attained different symbolic significance. In classical Greek and Roman sculpture, naked human figure was extensively depicted to glorify the beauty of a harmoniously built body. However, there were other meanings attached to nudity: vanquished enemy was portrayed naked as a sign of his helplessness and defeat. Thus, “the ambivalence of nudity is its ability to carry not only the extremes of human vulnerability, but also that of human perfection when nakedness takes on classical form” (Vernon, 2001, para. 7).
In Christian art, Jesus and saints were often depicted disrobed to attest that they were not subject to the original sin and therefore unaware of potential sexual implications of their nakedness. While portrayals of unclothes male figures were common, female nudity was less accepted in Christian art, except for the scenes where Virgin Mary is breast-feeding baby Jesus.
The situation was reversed in the Renaissance era, when great masters paid a lot of attention to the study and portrayal of the nude. Usually, it was a male artist portraying a female model; however, an important distinction existed between academic nudity and nakedness. It was deemed appropriate to represent figures without clothes only if absence of garments was a natural condition for them, like for Greek and Roman gods and heroes, for examples. Therefore, most nude sculptures and paintings of the period represent nude female form as a goddess. Another distinction between nudity and nakedness originated from the context in which nakedness occurred. If a model was passively posing for an artist in his studio, such nudity was regarded as serving the higher purpose of art. If a naked woman was places in a brothel, like in the case with Manet’s Olympia, such a painting was deemed inappropriate by contemporaries. However, avant-garde artists used nakedness extensively to shock and provoke their public. A resurgence of the nude in visual art happened after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and one of the prominent trends of the subsequent decades was portrayal of naked male body by female artists in an attempt to correct for centuries of unbalanced relations between genders.
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