Nudity and Gender Representation in Artistic works

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The Decadence of the Romans, by Thomas Couture, 1847. Musée d’Orsay

One of the pertinent problems which artists face today in our societies is the negative impression associated with nudity. It is considered as immoral and pornographic. This may be due to religious backgrounds and traditional believes.

Artists and researchers have found a way to justify nudity as a form of art. For instance, nudity in paintings was introduced by colonial educators in most African countries. In Ghana it was introduced in 1960s at the Achimota college. Nude paintings were used in the study of objects. Models were used to learn the anatomical structure of the human figure to meet the artistic standards of the international market.

Figures with no clothes are peculiarly common in the art of the Western world. This situation might seem perfectly natural when one considers how frequent the state of undress is in every human life, from birth to the bath to the boudoir. In art, however, naked figures relate very little to these humble conditions and instead reflect a very complex set of formal ideals, philosophical concerns, and cultural traditions.

But the issue of gender representation has also become a pain in the butt. Many beliefs are attached to representation of especially female nudes in different societies.

Fragments of a marble statue of the Diadoumenos (youth tying a fillet around his head)
Photo: Courtesy

The ancestry of the female nude is distinct from the male. Male nudes originate from the perfect human athlete according to the art of ancient Greece where athletic competitions at religious festivals celebrated the human body, particularly the male, in an unparalleled way. The athletes in these contests competed in the nude, and the Greeks considered them embodiments of all that was best in humanity. It was thus perfectly natural for the Greeks to associate the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence, values which seem immanent in the magnificent nudes of Greek sculpture. Images of naked male athletes stood as offerings in sanctuaries.

In contrast, female nudity was taboo and extremely frowned upon by the Greek culture. By the mid-fourth century BC when Praxiteles carved the first image of a goddess naked (the Knidian Aphrodite), the sculpture became the center of great controversy due to the fact that even partial nudity was rare in Greek art before the late fifth century BC: the only times female body parts were revealed was when women were victims of violence or represented as prostitutes. Thus, the nude sculpture of Aphrodite needed to be censored. For example, the genitals were not represented, non-existent.

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The Knidian Aphrodite. Courtesy

In French academic art, female nudity was only permissible within the context of a recognisable narrative in an imaginary, mythological or biblical landscape. However, forward-thinking artists portray women in a naturalistic form, engaged in everyday activities, undermining established clichés of femininity and eliminating the voyeurism associated with traditional nudes of the period.

Italy played a major role in the acceptance of female nude art. The lack of Christian influence at that time in Italy coupled with a period of peace through the Peace of Lodi from 1454 to 1494, helped create a period in which nude art could once again develop. Significantly, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in Italy became an important painting which helped spark renewed interest in depicting nude figures and revive classical nudity. Birth of Venus was the first full-scale painting based on a classical theme while portraying the female nude as its principle subject.

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The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

In Birth of Venus, the central goddess of love represents “divine love” and was not created through any religious motivations. Here, Venus appears to be born of sea form and lies on top of the grand scallop shell, revealing everything. The Pompeii Venus shows no sign of modesty and her posture reflects one that conveys submissiveness by lying down backwards as if in a state of vulnerability, called the reclining nude. The reclining nude position soon becomes a trend that other Italians follow, creating a stark contrast with male nudes, who are more often as active, erect, and aggressive.

The Birth of Venus, changed the mindset of French revolutionists who started preaching for equality and liberty which made the female nude art popular.

Ultimately,the motivations and acceptance behind nudist works of arts in society are clearly influenced by increased political freedom. In the case of nudist female paintings, political freedom does not necessarily mean freedom for the country, but rather more political and social freedom compared to men — increased equality.

6 thoughts on “Nudity and Gender Representation in Artistic works

  1. I don’t think it makes sense of talk about the female nude without talking about gender politics, which reduced women to passive sexual objects. The Greek male nude was portraying athletes as they appeared in public. The western female nude portrayed women as they didn’t appear in public but as men wished to see them, and boy, did they have to bend the narrative to get the women’s clothes off.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very good point but i have tried to bring out a little bit of the politics side using the superiority factor especially with the Greek culture, where male nudity was appealing to the eye unlike female

      Liked by 1 person

      • You remind me: Decades ago, I read a book for a university class, Goddesses, Wives, Whores and Slaves in Classical Antiquity (or something close to that), which gives a vivid picture of the roles open to women. It is, at least as I remember it, a fine piece of work.

        And apologies if I came off as a know-it-all in my comment.

        Liked by 1 person

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