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.