'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

15 September 2010

The Nude In History

In the beginning, innocence saw Adam and Eve naked in the garden.  Genisis 2:25 “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” until the serpent taught them to see evil. 3:7 “ And the eyes of them both were opened and they knew they were naked” They hid because they were naked and God asked 3:13” Who told thee that thou wast naked?” Selective of course, but this is where it began in the traditions of the Judeo-Christian belief system and hence most of the Western world. In the Gospel of Thomas (the sayings of Jesus Christ, rejected by the early church bishops, but re-discovered in 1945 in a cave in Egypt) saying No.37 reminds its listeners of a state where we do not hide what we are and see the world as it is. Pride, innocence and joy perhaps.“His disciples ask him: When will you appear to us? When will we see you? Jesus replied: When you strip naked without shame and trample your clothes underfoot, just as children do, then you will look at the son of the living one without being afraid”
The human body and  the nude male figure has been a subject of art since the first scratchings appeared on cave walls. Stick figures with phalluses denoted the male of the species, procreation and also dominance. In the fourth millennia BCE the male nude appeared in Egypt in the early Dynastic periods and likewise in early Mesopotamia. 

Often the figures in statuary or relief carvings represented the gods, but also the common worker like fishermen or a defeated enemy and the phallus was also a common symbol of creation and fertility. The Greeks in 500 BC had similar divine motivation as they painted or sculpted the male figure, but this soon included the representation of heroes and athletes. In the Classic period the form grew to perfection, which by definition has not been bettered. Kings and notables of the Egyptian, Greek and later Roman world had themselves sculpted naked, as did many others who wished to emulate the same sense of self. A common statue and precursor to the classic image was known as the Kouroi, which seem to have Egyptian and Mesopotamian origins as well as 8th century BC. Greece. They were made according to strict rules of proportion and were most likely offerings and considered magical.
Apart from the subjective aesthetics of the 'perfect' naked form, the early paintings and sculptures described the sexual exploits of the gods and art readily moved to the sexual antics of the common man and his obsession with seduction. As we know, Greek vases depicting seduction and intercourse are common. Also in the East the religious aspect of sex and pleasure was illustrated without reticence in manuscripts and on temple walls.

In many societies however, a patriarchal system developed, women were often considered property and thus had little of this freedom of body, experienced by men and boys, except for being rendered as an object of pleasure for the dominator. The security of inheritance, sometimes passed down through the female line, meant that the mother of one's children must be securely protected from possible insemination by others, and thus another reason for her to be placed out of temptations way. The prototype Eve was a smart if not wise creation of a male dominated society intent on protecting its power and position.

When Europe re-awoke with the Renaissance there was a harking back to the wisdom and beauty of the Ancient Greek world  and the nude male had a resurgence. Although, at times, the Church (one of the great patrons) tried to prohibit the depiction of the nude, artists managed to find enough religious topics which justified the desire to paint the human form. Adam, St. Sebastian, King David, the sacrifice of Isaac and Jesus Christ himself were prime targets to use to expose the flesh. Characters from Mythology were also subjects that lent themselves to nudity and, although considered pagan, sat comfortably beside imagery from the Bible and were often incorporated into religious art.

We worked our way through the great romantic painters who found nude subjects in mere mortals until the Pre-Raphaelites hopped back on the mythology bandwagon a few centuries later to express their view of the naked and sensuous form and then by the Twentieth Century all restraint is off and everything seemed possible, although all has not been tasteful. However it never was. Little known papyri show many erotic and what we would call hard core images from Egypt and there is crude graffiti at Thebes dating back 3,200 years depicting a Queen having sex with her lover. It is well known that Greek vase images and Roman wall paintings and mosaics can be very explicit. Ancient overt sexuality existed, but it is the grace of beautiful art that lingers and adds to the treasury of our inheritance. 
Today the nude is still a major subject in art, although the most common imagery would be associated with what is referred to as pornography( i.e. imagery that is intended to excite sexual stimulation - which obviously can be a subjective definition). However, decades ago respectable magazines could openly exhibit naked native peoples which were racistly not considered sexually stimulating. Today many movies, bowing to censorship, will happily exhibit a naked overweight or unattractive person, as this also is considered funny or not stimulating. The intent of such bias demeans the value of the human form and to me reveal an element of hypocrisy. 

Occasionally the nude is romanticised, but seldom in a blockbuster. One outstanding exception in modern culture would be the popularity of the noble Tarzan. For a hundred years the story of the boy growing up with the animals with none of the restrictions of society has inspired the imagination and spawned so much imagery and over 50 films displaying the almost nude physique considered suitable for all ages.

Early Nude Photography

The earliest photographers used the nude as a subject with some images going back to the 1840's. As with art, the recreation of ancient Greek imagery placed a veneer of respectability over much of what was photographed, although there are many examples of fully sexual imagery as well. Another justification for nude photography of the period grew out of a slim reference to the medical profession and the scientific study of anatomy and motion.Nudity is not the preserve of art alone. It is us as we are. It can be pleasing. It can be crude. But it persists in our imagination, our expression and our desires.
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