Dear Gillian: The art of the nude

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 6:38pm

Dear Gillian,

I love to paint, but all my best work is of nudes, and my mom doesn’t want
to hang them up in the house. I feel like she does not appreciate my talent
or worse — she sometimes seems embarrassed of my art. What should I do?

- Artist Under Wraps

Dear Wraps,

The first thing we need to figure out is whether your mom doesn’t like your art or doesn’t like the nudity in your art. If it’s the art, there’s not much you can do. Though I’m sure your art is striking, everyone is entitled to their opinion when it comes to art appreciation and there’s no accounting for taste. I would say just ask your mom straight-up if she thinks your nudes are pornography or just poor artistry. 

But let’s assume it’s the former, then I’d say your job is to help her work out her hang up and hang up your work out in the open. Don’t settle for a wall in the guest-room-turned-storage-unit. Gallery space is difficult to score; you at least deserve prime real estate in your family home. 

While I can’t provide criticism on form and composition, I can comfort you with the knowledge that you are part of a timeless lineage of artists who have navigated the narrow straits between celebration and scandal when it comes to the nude subject (some have deliberately run aground on either side). Maybe your mom can take comfort in it as well.

On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo depicts the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve with two scenes in narrative sequence. On the left he paints the original couple blissfully nude, possibly in the middle of a shame-free sex act. On the right side is the moment after Adam and Eve have eaten of the forbidden fruit; the newly self-aware pair are leaving Eden shamefully covering their naked bodies. Art historian Kenneth Clark is great on the distinction between naked and nude: “To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone … a balanced, prosperous and confident body.” This, Wraps, might be helpful in determining the interpretive framework with which your mother views your paintings. Are you rendering human vulnerability and eroticism, or do your canvases glow with divine idealized beauty?

To follow one art historical thread down this path: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is celebrated as an elegant and natural depiction of a nude, a goddess — an idealized form of a woman — and her sexuality is soft and unobtrusive. Titian’s Venus of Urbino takes one step toward the risqué plucking Venus from her heavenly surroundings and placing her in an earthly bedroom. Yet Titian’s soft application of paint and the graceful body language of Venus allow viewers to hold on to highbrow associations. Eduoard Manet steps defiantly over the nude/nakedness line with Olympia, first shown at the 1865 Paris Salon where it was met with harsh criticism and outrage. With the same composition as Venus of Urbino, it’s the black choker of a prostitute and challenging gaze that render Olympia overtly sexual and shocking — viewers are forced to confront the sexual naked body and can’t hide behind the pretense of ideal beauty. It gets worse with Sally Mann’s Venus After School (1992), but we won’t go there.

I don’t know your gender or that of your nudes, but the naked/nude division applies equally in depictions of the male body. From Michelangelo’s sculpted David in the early 1500s celebrating human beauty and excellence as those humanists liked to do in the Renaissance to Robert Mapplethorpe’s silver gelatin print Dan S. in 1980 that toes the line between art and pornography. No discussion about the history of nudity in art, not even in an advice column, is complete without a word about the gender dynamics of the artist/subject relationship. I don’t know if the objectification of gaze is the right foot to start off on with your mom, but it probably affords the most insight into the topic.

In the visual arts, it is usually the subject that is nude. But in some of the other creative disciplines, it’s the artists themselves. Dance is a stark example. The (sometimes controversial) dance critic Alastair Macaulay approves of nudity in dance where it advances the artistic intent of a piece, such as by conveying intimacy or highlighting musculature where those are among the choreographic themes, but condemns it where it is purely prurient, raunch for raunch’s sake. He repeated ballet dancer Robert Helpmann’s famous observation of the problem with nakedness in dance: When you stop on the music, not all the parts of your anatomy stop at the same time, which leads to the conclusion that slow choreography can be done nude but a fast dance, only buck-naked.

So, my dear artist U.W., not to get too psycho-sexual, but as Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” teaches us, there can be engrained personal aversions to the human body. In the novel, Tereza’s greatest fear is being reduced to nakedness with no way to distinguish herself from anyone else’s fleshy body. If your mom’s aversion is not as deep-seated as Tereza’s, take the most nude and least naked of your works, bring images and source materials of the great nude works of the creative arts and open the debate with your mom. I’m sure she’ll come around. Unless your work is all down by the naked end of the spectrum. That’s cool too, but you might have to get your own apartment.

   *******

Dear Gillian

I sent my boyfriend a nude photo of myself and he didn’t say anything back.
Later, he replied via text message: “No thank you.” It’s hard not to
take this personally. Should I try again? Maybe from a different angle this
time?

-   Laid Bare

Dear Laid,

I see how you would take this personally. Your gesture was one of giving and vulnerable commitment. In Federico García Lorca’s poem “Casido of a Reclining Woman,” he writes: “To see you naked is to remember the Earth, / the smooth Earth, clean of horses, / the Earth without reeds, pure form, / closed to the future, confine of silver.”  Your body represents a lot, if not everything, and its gift should be accepted joyously and with wonder and gratitude.

A nude photo may serve the same purpose, after a fashion, as Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” in which he sings the song of himself, representative of his being, and shares it with the implied listener/reader of the poem: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” He, too, makes the distinction between naked (“I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked”) and nude (“Who goes there? hankering, gross, mystical, nude”) in this piece.  So I completely understand your resentment and your instinct to refuse to take no for an answer.

To my eye, L.B., your boyfriend’s response is not to the angle of the photo — I’m sure your photo was stunning — but rather is born of prudence. Perhaps he assumes you are opening up a graphic conversation in which he is meant to respond with a photo of his own nude body, and is rejecting the suggestion of this sext exchange. This particular art can be toxic, having felled its practitioners from teenagers — see the novelist Helen Schulman’s “This Beautiful Life” — to Congressmen, not to mention the effects on their loved ones.

“Nudity quickly becomes unremarkable when generally practiced,” wrote the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in “Hiding From Humanity.” Compared to the feelings stirred in the midst of your physical presence, the effect of the nude photo might just not do it for him. Worse, the prospect of having it available all the time might rob your intimacy of its specialness.

This, L.B., is not to say that nude selfies, well executed, cannot be artful and worthy forms of expression — they can.  Look at the early expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self-Portrait (1906) or Latoya Ruby Frazier’s Self Portrait United States Steel (2010).  So maybe the solution here is to put your artistic all into your next photo, paying attention to lighting, focus and frame, not just exposure. Consider black and white or other monochrome effects. Try to achieve an image that conjures a mood much larger than the bare sum of the parts. Then, once you’ve got it firmly on the art side of the nude-naked continuum, send it via Snapchat!

Send an email to DearGillian@michigandaily.com or anonymously here describing a quandary about love, relationships, existence or their opposites. Gillian will attempt to summon the wisdom of the arts (literary, visual, performing) to soothe your troubled soul. We may publish your letter in the biweekly column with your first name (or penname). Submissions should be 250 words or fewer and may be edited prior to publication.