“I’m going to promote myself exactly as I am, with all my weak points and my strong ones. My weak points are that I’m self-conscious and often insecure, and my strong point is that I don’t feel any shame about it.” – Patti Smith
Last week I went to see the Nude exhibition at the AGNSW and it really got me thinking. It got me thinking about nudity vs nakedness, censorship vs curation and what all of this looks like in the digital age. Think about it: the most popular subject of all time in both art and social media is our own human body. We’re transfixed. But more often than not, the bodies we see in artworks and on Instagram are anything but real. Despite everything we know to be true, we continue to reject real representations in favour of the ideal. And social media only amplifies this: it’s homogenising beauty, our bodies and making everyone look the same .
Nude: Art from the Tate presents over 100 representations of the nude and is on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until 5 February. (Please, go and see it!) It spans painting, sculpture, photography and print. Naked bodies is the running theme of the exhibition, as depicted by some of the world’s greatest artists across decades, cultures and movements.
In the 1950s, art historian Kenneth Clark identified the difference between the ‘nude’ and the ‘naked nude’ in art. He suggested the ‘naked nude’ was embarrassed, exposed and vulnerable, while the ‘nude’ was something that was “balanced, prosperous and confident.”
The curatorial text explains that each artist in the exhibition has a different way of looking at the naked body: “Some look tenderly; some idealise it; some look anxiously or politically. Together they show how the nude in art has persisted yet changed, shifting shape and acquiring new meanings in the hands of successive generations, from the idealising painters of the Victorian era to the artist-provocateurs of our time.”
We can probably all agree that the nude is just easier for us to digest than the naked. Why? My guess is because the nude represents our ideals, but the naked nude reflects a reality that we’d prefer to ignore.
The artists who look tenderly and idealise tend to be those who create the ‘nudes’. These are artists like Matisse and Picasso, who capture their muses in vibrant fauvist colour palettes to represent passion and desire. It’s also artists like 19th century painter, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, whose artwork ‘A Favourite Custom’ shows two women bathing in an Ancient Grecian bath house, even though the artist is from 19th century England, not Ancient Greece. Clearly the artist has taken some creative license: not just time and place, but also using a particular lighting and composition that captures the women at their most elegant. Their skin is milky-white and smooth, filtered through a flattering morning light… a filter that could almost be mistaken for Valencia.
And just like our own contemporary image-sharing channels, many artists have created their works using clever techniques to manipulate the body in a way that best represents their own aesthetic ideals.
And much like the purpose of this exhibition, social media has become our newest channel for observing each other and ourselves. And by using it, we have the power to create ‘nudes’ out of our ‘nakedness’ using filtered lenses and special apps that can digitally manipulate our own bodies to reflect the wider aesthetic ideal. They can soften hard edges, elongate, shrink and expand. A friend recently introduced me to an app that discreetly removes wrinkles, pimples, or flaws of any kind in seconds. Out of sheer curiosity I downloaded it, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to use it. I guess it feels like lying, because really, what’s the point of another unreal image? In what’s become a newsfeed full of ‘nudes’, I just want to see some ‘nakedness’.
Nakedness is a pretty loaded word that’s become synonymous with weakness, vulnerability and shame: To be exposed without choosing to reveal. Many of the artists in this show who observe the body anxiously or politically are the ones whose work should speak to this idea of the ‘naked nude’. But many depict their subjects not as weak or embarrassed, but rather, empowered and liberated, like Sylvia Sleigh’s reclining male nude. Even though their flaws and vulnerabilities are on display, they appear resolute, confident in their own insecurities. And those that don’t – the ones that appear to be in pain, or weak or vulnerable, like Louise Borgeois’ Arched Figure – this presents us with another aspect of our humanity that is also deserving of recognition. Why? Because there is a power in a type of nakedness that demonstrates the fragility of our lives. The artists who create these ‘naked nudes’ are the ones who are on an earnest search for the truth: to find and show us figments of our humanness.
Social media gives us the power to share a ‘nude’ version of our lives to a huge audience – we can filter, curate and censor images and share a fabricated version of our life story. But behind all the digital manipulation, we’re really all the same: Hard edges, flaws, fears, dreams, aspirations and vulnerabilities. And choosing to be naked in a newsfeed of nudes? That’s brave. So why don’t we try out the possibility of being a little more naked and sharing a bit more of ourselves – I think the world has more than enough nudes.
Feature image: Louise Bourgeois, Arched Figure, 1993 (cast 2010)