My friends and family often ask me why so many artists paint (as they say) “naked people”. Some think that the nude is only pornography, while others just think that it’s out-dated in the art world. Most artists will tell you something along the lines of “we don’t see them as ‘naked’ we just see beauty”. Though this may be true, it doesn’t answer our question. As a classically trained artist myself I have a theory on why people make art using the nude. I think the first step in understanding the nude in art is to understand why people made them in the past, and why they continue to make them.
There are three basic categories of nudes, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive (sometimes they overlap):
The Ideal Nude: Originating with the Greeks, the ideal nude is just a concept really, the basis of which was most clearly explained by Plato. He stated that within all things there is a universal and divine “form” that defines it. For example: if you look at 100 trees, each individual tree will look different, yet they are all similar enough to categorize them as trees. What is the sameness or underlying quality of the tree which makes it a tree? This thing, this sameness, Plato called form. Greek artists took this idea and tried to find the ideal form of the human body. They used shapes in the human body, much like a musician would use musical notes to form a chord. The idea was to create a harmony through repetition and variation of certain visual elements of the body. Excellent examples of this are, of course, classical Greek and Roman sculpture, Leonardo da Vinci (who also could be mentioned in all of these categories for different works), Donatello, Rafael, and the Neo-classicists of the 19th century.
The Observed Nude: Originating in the Fayum portraits of ancient Greece in a technique of painting called Encaustic, which uses wax as a medium for pigment instead of oil or water. The main purpose of this originated in portraiture and was all about trying to capture the individual’s personality and particular appearance. Great examples of this can be found in the paintings of Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent, and ancient Roman portrait busts.
The Expressive Nude: This form is intended to do just what the name implies. The nude is used here as the main vehicle for the artist’s expression, usually with emotive, and in the case of the Renaissance, devotional purposes. Great examples would be the work of Michelangelo (who could be classified under ideal nude as well) and most of the artists of the modern period: Rodin, Picasso, Matisse, Kathe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch, and Paul Gauguin etc…
I would like to rephrase our original question in the interest of brevity and to be more specific. “Why is it that the most recurring subject in all of art history by far is the human face and body?” Modern scientific research also gives us a clue to the reasons behind our question. The human face and the human body are psychologically stimulating to the mind. Our brains are actually hard wired to recognize human form. Take, for example, a chimpanzee. If you look at three different chimps for 5 seconds, would you be able to tell them apart as individuals? Now if you look at three human faces for 5 seconds, I bet your success rate will be much greater. But a chimp can recognize and differentiate between other chimps much easier, just as you can recognize a human face much easier.
You might say, OK I understand why we look at faces, that makes sense, but why nude? Well there are multiple reasons. First (and least important to me) is tradition. There is a long tradition predating even the Egyptians of recreating the human body. So, as a method of teaching art, there are lots of people who have done it before and so there are a lot of excellent techniques and examples for artistic training that have been developed which apply to other forms of art as well. Second, it is a test of skill. If one can make a believable representation of something that we are so familiar with, then everything else is a piece of cake. If I paint a chimpanzee you would be less critical of whether it looks real or not than a human face, simply because most of us don’t see chimps every day for our entire lives. Some artists get caught up in this challenge for perfection and are never satisfied with their degree of skill, (I know I never am) and so continue to pursue impossible perfection even though most people might not see the minute faults of the work which the artist does. -The next passage includes much of my opinion on the subject and is not intended to force my views on anyone, but merely to share another point of view.
Third, (and most importantly to me) the nude, when I choose to paint it, is representative of something more than observation. My works are meant to evoke complex emotions or thoughts in the viewer, and are not meant to be decorative, though beauty is important to me. Since nudity is not often seen in normal everyday settings, it implies that there is something more to the interpretation. It makes the piece more intimate. For me, art is about conveying the complexity of life; its joy and its sorrow. If I paint a nude with a certain degree of sexuality implied, it is to communicate the dual nature of every human being. All of us, from the most pious, to the most base, from the greatest ideals of compassion and love, to fear and jealousy; we are all torn between what we are and what we wish to be. We all have some desire to do or see something greater than what is before us, and we all struggle with the desire for immediate pleasure. It is this tension between our animal and divine sides that I attempt to evoke; and in doing so, perhaps to help myself and others understand a little bit more about being human.