The nude in art has been a consistent theme throughout the history of fine art and has remained a critical focal point of Western Art since the Renaissance or ‘the rebirth’.
Be it sacred art or the art of portraiture, the unclothed human figure has always captivated mankind and has been one of the lasting subjects of interest in art.
It is a daunting task sometimes to lead a tour in a gallery or museum and help visitors intelligently understand and appreciate art. However, nudity can be discussed in terms of the reasons artists choose to portray the human body without clothing.
To begin with, the human body is beautiful and that makes it a perfect subject of art. It contains variations of all geometric shapes such as the cone and cylinder making it the best focus in exploring art concepts and forms.
The human body is also extremely communicative and therefore can be used to explain a variety of emotions which the viewer can understand.
Because of people’s familiarity with the nude form, artists can use this form to symbolize and express human values and norms for example a nursing mother or a pregnant woman.
The human form is part of the commonality that binds humanity together and is familiar to all people regardless of upbringing, education, gender, customs or ancestral identity.
Morden attitudes to nude art are varied, not only in style but also in the meanings that the art attempts to express.
In ancient Greece, though mythological stories tell of powerful women, the nude male figure was the focus of art for many years.
Society was based around men since women were subservient and primarily home-bound. The Greek were the first people to determine how to practically depict and still ‘perfect’ the human body in art, giving it skilfully balanced organs, a well-shaped physic and perfect outlines.
The Greek society accepted nudity because their athletes practiced and competed in the nude to show their perfect natural form.
Even though some cultures saw nudity as being equated to submissiveness, disgrace and downfall, the Greek took this image and glorified it; the male nude became the center of splendour and approval.
Even in Africa today, artists are incorporating nudity in their art. In Zimbabwe, there are a few nude pieces made by artists including Rebirth by Misheck Masamvu which depicts a female figure whose upper torso is exposed whilst the head and lower trunk are covered.
Closer home in South Africa, there are a couple of artists who do nude art. Largely, the nudes they do are a female from, expressing the life and sensuality of women.
South Africa’s Amanda Adams seems to be fascinated by the female rear end as in two of her oil paintings, Second Skin and Sunbather; she depicts a woman’s exposed derriere.
There are also various South African paintings and sculptures of standing or sitting nude characters including Waiting by Harriet Jameson Pellizzari, a watercolour painting depicting a semi-nude woman saddened by her thoughts and impatience whilst she waits for someone (presumably a man).
Karl Lilje’s Le Luxe Du Temps (The Luxury of Time), is an interesting mixed media art piece with a nude raven haired young woman sitting haughtily on what looks like a throne with flowers at her feet.
The key reason why people are fascinated with nude art may be found in the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve where it is said that nudity was an inherent element of the enjoyment of Paradise prior to the Fall.
The portrayal of the nude in fine art then can be viewed as part of the redemptive attempt of mankind to salvage his virtue and return to the presence of God and take pleasure from the status of purity that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden.
The nude in art reminds one that in being human, he is also an animal, imperfect and separated from God. It reminds one that he is in a continuum, that his naked body is somehow superior or inferior to that of the nude upon which he looks and also somehow enhanced or poorer than the naked bodies of all those with whom he shares the world.
It reminds one that he criticizes his body because others are constantly comparing it too and that in turn, he criticizes and compares the bodies of others.