Why the nude still shocks

A new exhibition explores art’s long fascination with the naked form. Why do representations of the human body continue to cause controversy? Sam Rigby finds out.

The nude has fascinated artists and viewers alike for centuries – even today it continues to be a subject that triggers debate and controversy. The unclothed human body is one of art’s greatest subjects. It has appeared in almost every major art movement from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to the political art of more recent times. Why does the nude continue to fascinate us? That’s the question posed by a new exhibition, Nude, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which opened earlier this month. It brings together 100 portrayals of the nude from the Tate’s collection, including paintings, sculptures, photographs and prints from the late 1700s through to the present day.

William Strang, The Temptation (1899)

William Strang, The Temptation (1899)

“The nude fascinates us for a very simple and quite profound reason and that is that it’s art about us. We all have a body; we’re all fascinated bodies and bodies in the unclothed state,” curator Justin Paton tells BBC Culture. “The exhibition is a journey through the many different human feelings and emotional states, and that for me is what is most compelling about the nude as a subject.”

William Strang’s late-19th Century work The Temptation takes us back to one of the key stories about nakedness in Western culture – the story from the Book of Genesis in which Adam and Eve became aware of their unclothed bodies. “Out of that comes the modern nude and our anxieties and our excitement about what lies under clothes, which are the two key impulses that has driven the nude throughout its history,” explains Paton.

Sir John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant (1870)

Sir John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant (1870)

When we think of the nude, many of us may carry in our minds a classical image of the heroic, sculpted bodies that dominated 19th-Century art, but as Paton points out, “the nude is actually an ever-changing and endlessly contested form”. In many ways, contemporary portrayals of the naked body differ vastly from Victorian works, but there are also strong similarities.

“The debates about honesty and idealisation from the Victorian period reverberate right through to our own time, which I think resembles the Victorian period in quite striking ways, particularly when you look at the way nudity and body issues are discussed in the culture at large,” he says. “Even today there is this amazing mix of prudity and permissiveness. We’re so used to seeing millions of images of the naked human form, yet at the same time a single nude artwork in a gallery can still prove extraordinarily controversial at times.” Only recently in Australia, an art magazine was compelled by its publisher to conceal the nipples on a female nude painting it had chosen for its cover.

The Knight errant is an example of what scholars refer to as the ‘English nude’, which caused controversy in the late 19th Century because the subjects of these works were deemed too lifelike. “It betrayed its origins, where a painter had obviously stood in front of a real, live female body, and was not concealing that fact sufficiently.”

Philip Wilson Steer, Seated Nude: The Black Hat (c1900)

Philip Wilson Steer, Seated Nude: The Black Hat (c1900)

Can a nude really be too lifelike? Nudes of classical figures like Psyche and Venus can be appreciated purely as art, without having to consider the living, breathing human that sat before the artist. This discomfort with recognisable, everyday people as the subject of nude portraits was only accentuated in the 20th Century as the nude entered the domestic space, with paintings of bodies appearing in bedrooms or studio interiors. Philip Wilson Steer’s portrait from the turn of the century is a perfect example of how one small detail can make a work controversial. When John Rothenstein, visited Steer in 1941 and chose the painting for Tate’s collection, Steer informed him that he had chosen not to exhibit the painting during his lifetime, as his friends had felt it to be indecent. “The reason they felt this way was not because the woman was nude, but because she was nude and wearing a hat,” Paton says. “This was seen as somehow accentuating the nudity in a way that was not completely seemly.” A simple hat, seen on many women of the time, was enough to push the painting out of the world of the ideal and into the realm of the erotic.

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss (1901-04)

Auguste Rodin, The Kiss (1901-04)

It’s one of the most famous images of romantic love, and it’s the star attraction of the exhibition in Sydney – having travelled beyond Europe for the very first time. “A kiss is a very private and intimate moment between two people, and what is genius about Rodin’s work is how often the kiss is actually hidden from us by the limbs or torsos of these figures,” Paton says. Rodin demonstrates the intense physical and emotional connection between these two naked lovers in a number of ways: the rippling muscles of their backs, the way their legs ride up over each other, and their hands. It’s the couple’s hands that Paton believes most worthy of attention. “Their hands feel large relative to the scale of their bodies. When we are in love and when we embrace that person, our sense of touch is heightened,” he explains. “Rodin is telescoping those sensations by drawing our attention to the hands of these figures.”

Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932)

Pablo Picasso, Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932)

The power of an embrace between two lovers is also the focus of Picasso’s Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (Femme nue dans un fauteuil rouge) from 1932 – although it might not be immediately apparent to the untrained eye. While the painting initially appears to be of a lone woman, Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of the artist’s many muses, a closer look makes you realise that two people inhabit this work. “Within her face is the shadow of a male face, which seems to press in for a kiss from the right,” Paton argues. “The arm on the right hand side of the figure strangely seems to detach from the torso of the woman and joins the back of the chair, which starts to read as the torso of a male figure who is embracing her.” He sees it as an illustration of how it feels to be completely consumed by someone, to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish where one person begins and the other ends. “It’s an amazing expression of how it feels to be deeply in love, to the extent that you are fused in the moment of embrace.”

Sylvia Sleigh, Paul Rosano Reclining (1974)

Sylvia Sleigh, Paul Rosano Reclining (1974)

With the advent of feminism, female artists turned the tables on tradition in the later decades of the 20th Century, painting male subjects as the subject of the female gaze. This painting came in the same year that the Australian magazine Cleo included its first ever male centrefold, and it is representative of a bigger shift in the nude more generally. “Sylvia Sleigh was forthright in saying she wanted to paint sexy men for women to look at, but the painting isn’t leering,” Panton says. “It’s tender and warm, and reflects the fact Sylvia knew this man”: the musician Paul Rosano, who posed for Sleigh on more than one occasion. “Her affection for him and her enjoyment of how he looks is apparent especially in the body hair, which she renders stroke by stroke,” he adds.

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum? (1989)

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met Museum? (1989)

The arrival of the women’s art movement also brought with it the protest nude. These new artists looked at the nude through new eyes, and questioned everything that had come before. This protest piece from the Guerrilla Girls – which takes one of the most famous nudes in art history and turns her into a feminist masked avenger – comes from a pivotal moment in the history of the nude, calling out the lack of female artists in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in comparison to the wealth of female nudity on display. It’s an image that has enjoyed many lives since it first appeared on the side of a city bus – where it unsurprisingly made waves. “The image was soon removed from the bus and the lease the Guerrilla Girls had taken out on it was terminated as it was deemed too provocative,” says Paton.

It was a ruling that was at once both infuriating and satisfying. The majority of complaints focused not on the unclothed female body, but on the pink fan held by the figure, which the Guerrilla Girls had modified so that it became unmistakably phallic. It proved a point the group had set out to make: the public is comfortable exposing female bodies, but the same doesn’t apply to the male form. “It is arguably the most influential nude created in recent decades,” says Paton.

Lucian Freud, Standing by the Rags (1988-89)

Lucian Freud, Standing by the Rags (1988-89)

“Freud is one of the greatest painters of the nude in recent years, and I think importantly, he’s also one of the best painters of the naked,” Paton says. Is there really a difference between the naked and the nude? According to art historian, Kenneth Clarke, there is. He said that while the nude is an idealised body that appears to be comfortable appearing unclothed, the naked is a body that has been exposed and deprived of clothing. The exhibition features examples of both, but Paton believes Freud’s work lies firmly in the naked camp. “He called many of his paintings naked portraits, and there’s a sense that he’s letting us know that the painting is telling a raw truth about what it is to be human and have a body,” he says.

Freud always insisted on having a live model in front of him, and the experience of sitting for him is clearly shown in Standing by the Rags, a terrific example of his late style. “You can get an extraordinary sense of the challenges of being one of Freud’s subject, because the model is posed in a way that suggests both a state of sleep and abandonment, but also acute physical pressure,” he explains. This is particularly evident in the oversizing of her feet and lower legs, which appear to be supporting her weight. While this work is certainly an example of the naked, it also evokes the nudes of the past. “The way her arm is out flung reminds me of some of the quite elaborate poses that nudes would occupy in the 19th Century, where they might be cast in the role of a famous hero,” says Paton. “Freud’s hero is very much of our world, but she still has echoes of these older artists.”