James Baldwin, the American poet and writer, states in his masterpiece “No name in the Street” that:”Nakedness has no colour: this can come as news only to those who have never covered, or been covered by, another naked human being.” Although that was written during the processing of structural racism, out of a social-critical view of American history, it brings about an essential element, proving the quote’s timelessness: that for for the full appreciation of nakedness to be enabled, actual touch is necessitated. And after touch is actualised, then nothing else plays role anymore. Can that be a very modern way of perceiving nakedness? A way which probably overrules the point that was meant to be made by Baldwin?
For that to be examined, and since the expression of nudity throughout the means of popular culture is complex and multifarious, what was thought, is for a series of cross-examinations of it via the comparison of pieces of similar meaning across different eras, to be done. In this review, the conversion of the object that signals purity, the transition from peek-looks to establishment of lightning techniques, as well as the transition from radicalism into shift of the proportion-focus to radicalism into the addressing of freedom of eroticism, will be brought about.
Two artists who can be initially seen as identifying nudity with purity, and so parallelising the depiction of naked bodies with pieces of the earth, are Bill Brandt (1904 -1983) and Jack Gescheidt (1960-). Representing completely different eras and by holding contradictory backgrounds as conceptual properties, they both affirm Lorcas’s quote (addressed previously https://www.nidodileda.com/en/single-blog/115-naked) “To see you naked is to recall the earth”.
Brandt’s work, (picture 1) which is clearly influenced from Parisian Surrealism and the early steps of Photojournalism and Conceptual art, with essential references to Man Ray’s legacy, gave naturalism -which was his central concern- a paradoxical, theatrical touch. Was that because the time during which he was creating, the simplicity of nudity needed to be narrating something in particular so that for it not to be provocatively perceived? Or was it because the complexity of the beginnings of an artificial world, was found as mostly appropriate by him to be narrated through the striking language of naked bodies’ movement? On the other hand, Jack Gescheidt, (picture 2) the contemporary environmental artist, identifies nudity with a complex form of vulnerable powerfulness. That is because what arises from his work is that in order for vulnerable bodies to regain their completeness, they need to resort to earthly elements and there is quite some powerfulness within such a realisation. The main element he occupies himself with, is the communion of naked bodies with trees, as the peak of connection of man with his generator or as an extension of him into the earth. The Tarkovskian-like atmospheric discipline of simplicity he creates, can make someone wonder if he succeeds the opposite point of what was attained by Brandt: that is, if the overly abstract dimensions of the current artificial world, is instead restored by such an attempt to “return to the roots” of purity.
Gyula Benczúr (1844-1920), the Hungarian painter whose overall work may count as one of the most important studies of Caravaggio’s legacy, included in his technique most of early Baroque period’s characteristics, when it comes to lighting. What is evident into his piece “Narcissus” (picture 3) is the diagonal way with which the light enters the room and is shed on the naked male body. Although there is enough light in the room, so that for the expression of the boy to be recognisable, after a closer look it can be observed that the light is as if entering through the opening of a door/window, since its distribution is not equal. That may indicate the peek-look that is given to Narcissus, who despite that he could have been looked at with confidence, due to his own self-centred character, it is as if he is by mistake gazed upon, in that way summarising the embarrassment of the viewer when he realises his nudity. That, apart from a clear-cut reference to Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro technique, is also an artistic choice, -of course situated by the era’s specificities- of how to address nudity.
Even if that one was not the case in all the period’s nudes, it was a common technique that the subject portrayed seems not to have full consciousness about the fact that he/she is being observed. This is the way the peek kind of look of the viewer is maintained, and with that, since the attitude of the subject reminds that of sculptures of classicism or illustrations of the late Renaissance, then the artist is assumed that he/she has not crossed the line of inappropriateness. There has been a lot of artists that reshaped the rules of normative lighting. A contemporary one though, whose striking work could have been placed in any fragment of time due to the honesty of portrayal, is that of Ernestine Ruben.Through her, the transition of observing what the light touch makes possible through a peek-gaze logic, to searching for what is shaped in the shadows in terms of lighting-technique facilitation, is addressed. (picture 4) Her specialty can be summarised by one of her own statements: “Photography is abstract because it starts with a given — what the camera records. The challenge is to transcend that. If you think about it, photography is really deductive, because what makes it interesting — and abstract — is what you take away. It’s very much the way a sculptor works… While photographing bodies, for instance, I want to create new bodies in the shadows.”
Irving Penn, the American photography master of stylised art, as proven by his astonishing work for among other, Vogue, was not only that. As he proved with his fist extraordinary nude photograph on 1947, he was craving for authentic qualities, far away from the over-directed and disciplined proportions of the Vogue corridors. How he developed his pared-down compositional style, where the pure honesty of the subjects he captured was brought about, is by mastering the practice of choosing less perfect to the fashion industry bodies and focusing on some parts of those, who were accountable for “telling” all the body’s story. Violating the perfect symmetries and flow-less prototypes of the fashion world, he asked his models to spin, stretch, reveal and bewilder their body curves. Similarly to Matisse who tended to leave outside of his pieces the framing contours, Penn focused on the rounded forms of breasts, torsos, hips, cutting off the picture some body parts after limiting the image-arena and making the tonal subtleties of the remaining shapes, the pictures’ storytellers, in a way that reminds us of remaining pieces of ancient sculptures. The interplay between his Vogue appropriate and real-life descriptive subjects portrayed, can be seen through his first “Nude No 1.” (picture 5) where the cube-shaped, headless woman, who resembles that of the famous Venus of Willendorf, stands against the perfect analogies of Gisele’s cover story (picture 6).
Helmut Newton, (picture 7) the master of depicting desire, disgust and power through the alluring dynamism of the naked body, and my personal favourite (extensively reviewed here: https://www.nidodileda.com/en/single-blog/102-helmut-newton-a-gun-for-hire) could have been parallelised with various artists for various reasons. That could include the cross examination of provocation, of principles of eroticism, even the demonstration of power-relations. Yet, since the focus here is on detecting meanings of similar magnitude across different eras, then Louisa Gagliardi’s (picture 8) mastery of controversial-topics’ digital illustration, is found appropriate. It may be said that Helmut Newton shook and reshaped the taken-for-granted rules of revelation-standards, domination-principles and edge-lines between eroticism and hedonism from within the headquarters of the fashion world. Then, it can’t but be stated that Gagliardi, in a more contemporary way shakes the same standards, through the creation of figures that look more like avatars than human beings, which though are used by her to break into people’s intimacy and by borrowing elements of everyone’s private space, to celebrate the recreation of naturalism, on the grotesque base of our distorted world. Both artists, each one during their respective time, managed to create the feeling within the viewer that he/she normally should not have been looking at the piece, yet their displayed objects who seem as if posing for the viewer’s eye, make him/her eventually question if their own conservative and unadventurous gaze is what should eventually not be looked back at.
Lastly, Manon Couse, the contemporary, French artist who makes spirituality an earthly issue, by graciously combining erotic elements with religious art references. A modernised version of the Renaissancian “Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses sœurs” by unknown artist (picture 9), is created through Couse’s kaleidoscopic nude, (picture ) wherefrom the young artist’s proud message is gracefully sent out to the public. The original painting’s gesture, was signalling the upcoming birth of a child, where the subjects’ pointing at nudity is a delicate demonstration of future maternity. The erotic character that is given to the gestures of Couse’s subjects though, (picture 10) seems to be neutralised due to the artistic reference to the Renaissancian piece, projecting how the issue of maternity which was once displayed without necessarily provoking discussion, can now be succeeded in a similar non-provoking fashion by the demonstration of nakedness, as another element, interwoven with human existence.
What is yet to be examined though, is that since before nude photography, other art mediums were using art nudes and by that were referring to classical antiquity, can it be that the later maintenance of such references served as exculpation and convenience for the artists so that not to take on them the risk of provocation? Simply put, apart from romanticism in depiction and adoration of an early era, can the antiquity-like poses, soft focus, vignetting and lighting that are sometimes maintained in the nude-work of some modern-age artists, be signalling the preservation of a convenience-zone? Although that cannot be easily replied, what can be stated is that however nakedness is tried to be covered throughout time yet simultaneously used as an active expression form, nudity is a form of dress itself: that of freedom of movement and expression. However masked, framed or limited, it maintains the same bold glow under the moonlight.
Written and curated by Marianna Serveta
Photos taken from the artists’ galleries, no rights infringement intended.