This was one of the recommended books within this unit. The book discusses the difference between the female and male nude in art. It first gives a historical overview, contrasting the early beginning of the nude in art – the Greeks where it represented nobility and the potential of the human spirit (a theme which re-emerged in the Renaissance period) and the Christians were nakedness was a symbol of guilt and shame (outward sign of sins of the flesh, punished in Hell). It goes onto to look at the male nude during the 18th and 19th centuries when it was often the subject of academic study, posed after an antique figure. There were a number of reasons for this – the male nude during this period representing perfection; females were considered inferior; studios and academies were male preserves; and, the puritanism of the Christian tradition.
The book goes on to look at the roles played by the, male (active) and female (passive), nude. It sets out that attitudes to gender and sexuality are a result of a patriarchal societies in the west and therefore reflected in the depiction of the nude – males are seen as aggressive, independent and analytical whilst females are seen as emotional, nurturing and intuitive. It then looks at Manet’s Olympia which it states was controversial as the female nude in this image did not play the passive role, The female nude has a bold and challenging stare so that the spectator cannot project the Christian cultural guilt onto her and her gaze is not lowered rather is directed at the spectator (thereby taking the male role of the spectator herself). The chapter then looks at other images depicting active and passive roles, presenting other non-conforming images where images of passive male nudes are based on the Christian images of Christ, embodying spiritual suffering and thereby raising their virtue; in contrast, active female nudes are presenting as the personification of purely male qualities or as a predatory female – menacing and engulfing their male victims.
The next chapter looks at the Fetishised Nude, contrasting the way the male nude is eroticised and the female nude fetishised, mutilated, fragmented and rendered anonymous; it used the Venus de Milo as an example where it was held as the icon of female beauty but is mutilated and therefore powerless and passive. It also uses the work of Bill Brandt which shows fragments of the female nude as an example of work which celebrates mutilation or disabling. It also looks at the anonymity of the female nude being fragmented – reducing the female to an ‘it’ or an ‘object’. There are exceptions to the rule, one of which is Robert Mapplethorpe who photographs both male and female fragmented nudes, both being treated as aesthetic objects.
The penultimate chapter presents the view that in every known society predominate view is that the female is closer to nature and the male closer to culture. It looks at the female nude in the landscape where she is presented either as Venus, Diana or a nymph linked to fertility or acquiescent instinct. It also looks at images of the artist and his model, where the artist is in a position of power and control whereas the model is vulnerable by their nakedness and in a passive role.
The last sections looks at how the nude is being presented in contemporary art to disrupt the tradition of the female nude discussed in the previous chapters. It focuses on how female artists are attempting to reclaim the nude and present it in such a way as to give it a more personal and feminist meaning (e.g Mary Daly who presented her own image free of patriarchal and phallic associations). Female artist use various methods to break with the tradition of the female nude – reworking of myths; deconstruction of visual codes; parody; role reversal and re-presentation of the female body experience/imagery. Feminist argue that any representation of the female nude is open to misappropriation of the final image and therefore continues the tradition.
This was an interesting book raising a number of very valid issues for me in depicting the nude, particularly as I attend life drawing classes with predominately female models. How do I overcome in my art that tradition of the female nude? One criticism of the book for me is that the arguments were predominately in line with the author’s view and very little counter evidence was presented – perhaps of course because very little counter evidence exists? Also, the book ignores the LGBTQ issues. With my limited knowledge of art at present it is difficult for me at this stage to evenly weigh up the evidence either to challenge or accept the argument. However, I definitely felt that the book was presenting a political view point of the author and has to be read with that in mind.