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The New Nude: Female gaze, male gaze, and everything in between

To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude… Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display… Nudity is a form of dress.” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)

The Birth of Venus (mid 1480s) by Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus (mid 1480s) by Sandro Botticelli

The tradition of nudity in fine art emerged ― like so much else in the Western world ― from ancient Greece, where naked forms were illustrated as “conceptually perfected ideal persons, each one a vision of health, youth, geometric clarity, and organic equilibrium.” Images of male athletes married “the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence” in the minds of Greeks. Nude females, of course, were associated with fertility and “the divinity of procreation.” (It is worth noting the gendered distinctions, here: nude men represented strength and power, while nude women were cherished primarily as vessels.)

Female Nude Reclining in Profile (1853) by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve
Female Nude Reclining in Profile (1853) by Julien Vallou de Villeneuve

This artistic tradition found new life during the Renaissance and on into the Impressionist era with pieces like Manet’s revered Olympia (1863) ― and, concurrent with the invention of the camera, fine art nude photography. Julien Vallou de Villeneuve (1795 ―1866) is credited with capturing some of the first photographs of nude women.

In the past few centuries, depictions of nudity in art have focused almost exclusively on female bodies, created almost exclusively by male artists. This fact is made all too clear in the Harper’s Bazaar slideshow, “10 Nudes That Changed History,” in which only one piece was created of a woman, by a woman ― and not until 2007. This artist was Mickalene Thomas, who “subverts this trope…by painting a nude in the same pose as Courbet or Manet, but one whose black identity is readily on display, Thomas forces the viewer to confront the legacy of objectification and sexism inherent in the art historical narrative.”

Les Femmes d’Alger by Picasso (1955)
The Women of Algiers (1955) by Pablo Picasso

This artistic legacy has often associated nudity with a lack of power, according to Roz Hardie, CEO of the Object organization. She says, “it’s very common for women to be naked and men clothed. For women, unfortunately it’s often associated with over-sexualization, and there’s a focus on our body parts rather than who we are.” Hardie also references Picasso’s Women of Algiers (1955) painting, pointing out that, “it’s a picture of a harem. The most expensive picture in the world ever is an image of women being kept for the sexual availability of men.”

Artists like Mickalene Thomas derive their brave and subversive inclinations from a handful of radical female artists in the seventies. Some of this work was featured in a recent exhibit titled Black Sheep Feminism: The Art of Sexual Politics. Each of the four artists included in this collection “fearlessly confronted sexual mores, gender norms, and the tyranny of political correctness; all faced censorship for the explicit sexual content of their work.” For instance, Betty Tompkins’ explicit paintings and drawings “immediately broadened the repertoire of first generation feminist-identified imagery… [and] made manifest an unacknowledged precursor to contemporary involvement with explicit sexual and transgressive imagery.”

Violet Nude (2012) by Annika Connor
Violet Nude (2012) by Annika Connor

Nude art of the postmodern era – particularly when the artist is female – often attempts to circumvent or supplant the tradition of the “male gaze.” This term “refers to the tendency of images of women… to be mediated by a masculine eye” and has “positioned women as an ‘object of desire’ framed by masculine scopophilia.” Another recent exhibition, In The Raw: The Female Gaze on the Nude, turns this idea on its head.

Leah Schrager is one of twenty artists featured in this collection. She is known for a number of projects, including Escart Girl, ONA, The Naked Therapist, and others. Schrager is interested in the “murky state of censorship… [and] is curious as to when the conflation or confusion of ‘I know porn when I see it’ and ‘I know art when I see it’ slides into the censoring of provocative female bodies.” Indeed, many contemporary nude works seem to further blur the lines between art and pornography. Schrager deliberately exploits this ambiguity in order to draw attention to an enduring double standard in the art world:

“Male artists can use sexy women in their art and make money on it..., yet I’ve seen both criticism of artists who appropriate sexy model images and any model who uses her own sexy image in her art. So the larger issue is that if it’s ‘sexy,’ or has potential arousal appeal or currency outside of the art market in the commercial market, then it’s a no-go… But that’s critically lazy. There’s a richness to arousal-based work that is completely ignored because art and society are still sexually puritan.”

He Makes Me It, I Make Him Him by Leah Schrager (2015) | The New Nude
He Makes Me It, I Make Him Him (2015) by Leah Schrager

In her curatorial statement for Body Anxiety, an online exhibition she helped to organize, Schrager argues:

“If Man Hands touch a woman (i.e. place her in his art), she can become a valuable piece of art. But if Man Hands haven’t touched her (i.e. she places herself in her art), she can certainly be considered art, but her value is likely to be substantially less, and in the world of value (the world of art?), less and more are all.”

For this reason, she ardently promotes the value of selfies, as they “provide the model full legal and economic control over her images.” She says, “it’s important for us to start considering selfies an advanced and florid kind of self-portraiture. People are exploring themselves and owning their explorations, which should be supported as an alternative to ‘man hands.’”

Selfies allow female artists to wrest control from man hands when it comes to how their nude bodies are depicted. This brings us back to the opening quote from John Berger; these artists move from the lived reality of nakedness to the objectification inherent in nudity as an art form. For her part, Schrager uses selfies to direct and manipulate the male gaze at the same time that she thwarts the artistic grip of “man hands.” She reclaims power by orchestrating her own objectification.

Nude 17 (20-14) by Erin M. Riley
Nude 17 (20-14) by Erin M. Riley

One thing is clear: when it comes to the nude, sexual politics and aesthetics are inextricably entangled. Like Schrager, other female artists make politically and culturally charged statements with their nude bodies. In Lady Manes, Rhiannon Schneiderman dons ludicrous wigs as pubic hair. In White Shoes, Nona Faustine poses nude in locations associated with the slave trade. In Nudes, Erin M. Riley sews ornate tapestries of nude selfies.

What all of these artists have in common is their calculated reliance on the naked female body, in varying and alluring ways, as their subject. They daringly elevate the naked body into the nude body, and in doing so, they provoke the viewer to question and explore myriad facets of the status quo.

And then, of course, there are the sexts. In the midst of these highbrow musings lays the ubiquitous and quotidian activity of taking and sharing nude selfies. A Cosmopolitan survey found nearly nine in ten of its readers (mostly female) had “taken nude photos of themselves at some point.” Now that everyone has a smart phone – and now that social politics are shifting in unprecedented ways – the world is saturated with nudes. They've evolved from a fine art form to a casual and pervasive mass medium. We've re-appropriated the term "nudes," reducing it from its highbrow pedestal down to a plebeian ritual. And who could forget the controversial saga of Kim Kardashian’s nude Instagram selfie?

It all begs the question: can this, too, be considered art? How much does creative intention matter? If we accept the precept that, “nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display,” then surely both Olympia and Kim K’s selfie fall within the realm of the nude. Both place the naked body on display. But does exhibition automatically equal art? And does the superabundance of prosaic nudes dilute the power of the nude form in fine art? As the lines between pornography and art increasingly intertwine, the answers to these questions grow ever more elusive.

Note* All images are either used with permission or are available in the public domain or fair use.

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