The female nude – art or obscene?
What are the requirements for a female nude to be seen as art and not as obscene? The female nude in art has been scolded, admired, used, and misused in social, cultural, and political debates from its first appearance until today. Its execution mirrors the cultural attitudes regarding sexuality and gender roles and its development went hand in hand with the gradual recognition of women as equals to men who were able to vote, have their own money, and could divorce on their own terms. It is remarkable to note that until the mid-19th century, the nude was bound to a recognisable narrative in a biblical, hirstorical, or mythological landscape for it to be considered as art and not as obscene. As Kenneth Clark remarks: “The female nude marks both the internal limit of art and the external limit of obscenity… It is the internal structural link that holds art and obscenity and an entire system of meaning together. And whilst the female nude can behave well, it involves a risk and threatens to destabilize the very foundations of our sense of order.”
The earliest depictions that are focused on the aesthetic of the naked female body were created in Palaeolithic Europe and served devotional purposes. Examples are the voluptuous fertility figures with exaggerated sexual features, like the Willendorf Venus (25000 BC). In the Old Babylonian time, we find for example the Burney Relief (1800 BC) that either depicts Lilitu, Ishtar, or Ereshkigal, a devotional terracotta plaquette that depicts a naked goddess with clawed feet and wings. The artistic use of the female nude began to flourish with Praxiteles who sculpted the life-size Knidian Aphrodite (360-340 BC) that portrayed an idealised goddess of love with non-existent genitals whose proportions were based on a golden mathematical ratio. The male nude on the other hand was associated with the display of power, liberty, and knowledge and was instrumentalised by the Athenians to distinguish themselves from the Barbarians. As women at the time had only a slightly higher status in society than slaves, common women were often depicted as objects of pleasure for the male eye. A portrayal that was far away from their male counterparts which radiated pride, greatness, moral excellence and prominently displayed their genitalia.
The emphasis on chastity and celibacy in early Christianity resulted in an overall use of the nude in mainly a biblical context. Artists focussed mostly on the portrayal of shame and wrongdoing that Adam & Eve felt when they discovered their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit, like Masaccio’s scene “The expulsion from the garden of Eden” (1426-27), Domenico di Michelino’s “Expulsion from Paradise” (c. 1450-1474) or Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam & Eve” (1504). Renaissance broadened the spectrum of the portrayal of the female nude from a biblical to a mythological narrative, like Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (1485-86) or Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1534). Although most artists started to depict the female nude in a broader sense, the models were most of the time males that were only modified into women on the canvas.
The 17th century led to a more lifelike portrayal in women in historic, mythological, and religious paintings like the popular theme of “Susanne and the Elders” (1610) by Artemisia Gentileschi and Peter Paul Rubens’ “Leda and the Swan” (1601). The 18th century placed the female nude in more trivial surroundings like Francois Boucher’s “Blonde Odalisque” who reclines on a couch in a homely interior. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the strict Academies started using women as models in their courses. By the mid 19th century, the rigid standards of these academies started to be questioned and challenged by a number of young artists who used the nude as a mode of protest focussing on the social and political dimensions like Edouard Manet with his “Olympia” (1863) and Edgar Degas’ “The Tub” (1886). The rise of female social and political equality coincided with the birth of a woman made out of flesh and blood. No longer bound to a biblical, mythological, or historical narrative the female nude reflected could be art in its own right. Independent and free, like the depicted subjects.
“I don’t depict nudes from any sociological, cultural, or emotional intentions. My one intention is to always find new ways to make exciting paintings using the situation of the traditional nude.”
Study for Pat Nude, 1979
During a visit to MoMA Tom Wesselmann was struck by the Robert Motherwell painting “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” (1965-67): “The first aesthetic experience… He felt a sensation of high visceral excitement in his stomach, and it seemed as though his eyes and stomach were directly connected” (S. Stealingworth, p. 12). Wesselmann admired also the work of Willem de Kooning: “…He was what I wanted to be” (interview with G. Swenson, ARTnews, 1964, p. 41). but he soon understood the need to return to the language of art and the need to shift right away from action painting: ‘He realized he had to find his own passion […] he felt he had to deny to himself all that he loved in de Kooning, and go in as opposite a direction as possible.- The traditional situations of painting would be the subjects: the reclining nude, a still life on a table, a portrait, an interior, etc. (S. Stealingworth, 1980, p.15). Focussing on the traditional subject matter and with a constant awareness of tradition Wesselmann returned to composition and subject, something that was abandoned by the Abstract Expressionists, while borrowing imagery of seductive ads and pinup models. With his series the Great American Nudes Wesselmann caught the attention of the art world for the first time. Using a limited patriotic colour palette, the artist combined painting and collage to evoke a daring sensuality with a biting ironic undertone. instantaneous consumption of the works was made impossible due to a multi-layered composition and applied media that demand the viewer to take a step back and reflect on the pleasure that is normally sought when watching a female nude.
“Study for Pat Nude” depicts the artist Patricia Branstead, who was working at the time she met Wesselmann in a print atelier called Aeropress doing etchings and other copper-plate printing. The publisher Marian Goodman/Multiples Inc. who did several prints with Wesselmann introduced him probably around 1976 to Pat when she started printing his aquatint print “Bedroom Face”. Pat posed for Wesselmann first in 1976 and again for a number of drawings in 1978. The artist did some oil studies from the drawings in 1978 and ’79 before completing the large version of “Pat Nude” and another called “Pat Nude with Blue Pillow”. Wesselmann used her again for an etching “Monica Reclining” in 1990. This was still early in the years when the artist was doing his figurative work in laser-cut steel. On a visit to the studio, Pat suggested to Wesselmann that it might be possible to apply ink to one of his steel figures and run it through the printing press, using the image as a metal printer’s plate. This worked surprisingly well, and she did two printed editions for Wesselmann this way: “Monica Nude with Matisse”, and “Monica and the Purple Robe”. Wesselmann did three more prints with Pat in 1991, but soon after she was hired by a larger printing studio in Colorado, so she moved out west.
Wesselmann’s depersonalised treatment of the subject matter and the depersonalisation of the female body resulted in a new critical interpretation of the female nude. The artist deconstructs the male gaze and stereotype of the nude that has been part of our visual tradition for so long by making use of abstraction, cut-outs, an exuberant colour palette, the exclusion of the facial features like the eyes, and nose and underlining the sexual features. These techniques enable Wesselmann to question and challenge the traditional stereotype of the nude which leads to a portrayal of women that have regained power over their own bodies. Their beauty is no longer idealised, and their pose promotes no longer sexual availability. In front of us sits an independent confident woman that owns her sexuality. The female nude has come a long way and its execution can still shock, divide and spellbind the audience mirroring our cultural attitudes and exposing women’s position in today’s society.