Nudity has been present in art for just about as long as humans have been creating it. The earliest depictions of nudity were often homages to fertility, which eventually gave way to the ancient Greeks’ expression of appreciation for the human form—usually male depictions of nude gods, heroes, athletes, and warriors.
The Greeks tended to clothe women in their art, a tradition that wasn’t broken until the fourth century BCE, when Praxiteles sculpted a nude Aphrodite. Around then, seduction began creeping into western art (though it is worth mentioning that the Hindus had worked sexuality into their art for some time).
Each of us has a body and every one of us was born naked, but for a range of complex social reasons, our relationship to our own bodies and the bodies of others have been distorted for centuries.Nick Hilden
When the Christians came onto the scene, naked bodies were promptly withdrawn from art, with the exception of Jesus on the cross or the nursing Madonna. It wasn’t until the end of the medieval era that attractive female forms began reemerging, and Donatello’s Renaissance-era sculpture of David was the first freestanding nude since antiquity.
Shortly after this, Michelangelo’s David was censored with a fig leaf, though his Sistine Chapel ceiling did bring male nudes back into the picture. Around this time Botticelli’s Birth of Venus gave the female form mainstream acceptance.
Nakedness was fair game at that point, and over the next two-hundred years we saw nudity separate gradually from religious and mythological symbolism. Suddenly it was acceptable to enjoy nudity for the sake of nudity, and we were given revolutionary pieces from Goya (Nude Maja, which got him in trouble with the Inquisition), Rubens, Degas, Rodin, Renoir, Modigliani, and so on.
Nudity in Art Today
Thanks to rule-breakers like Duchamp, nude art in the 21st Century is open to new considerations.
During and after the sexual revolutions of the 1920s and 1960s-1980s, art that portrayed nakedness in manners that were graphic and sometimes shocking pushed the boundaries of social acceptance. Women began asserting control over depictions of nakedness, and female artists and models began implying questions about power relations between the artist, the subject, and the viewer.
Now in the era of #MeToo, all art featuring nudity has become political, eliciting more questions than ever. Who is doing the modeling—a stranger, friend, or lover—and what does that relation connote? What is the intention—to shock, to admire, to arouse?
Nudity in art serves as a sort of mirror forcing us to confront the way society has confounded our bodily relations. It reminds us that the human body can be both beautiful and grotesque, innocent and sexualized, free and controlled, and it forces us to consider where our own beliefs fall in these spectrums.
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