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the history of the nude

29 october 2013

The cover illustration on Flaminio Gualdoni's History of the Nude is Jan Saudek's Untitled. The library aide who checked it out to me gave a start as if I'd just handed her a bag of rattlesnakes.

As Gualdoni notes, the nude has often been meant to shock and upset. But just as often, nudes in art are meant to console, affirm, and convey a sense of innocence: naked as the day you were born. Gualdoni contrasts the polar opposites in images of the nude female: Venus pudica against Venus impudique: the modest goddess sweeping a hand or a cloth across her genitals, or the goddess brazenly spreading her legs.

Sometimes it's hard to say what the heck the artist intended. Last summer in Munich I saw Fragonard's Girl with a Dog at the Alte Pinakothek. Gauldoni says this of Fragonard:

Beyond the excesses of a gracefulness that can at times be cloying, the subjectivity and the intimacy of the gaze that are asserted in such works is unique, freeing them definitively from the shackles of the ideological pretext, utility, the cultured clause, which the representation of the subject involved. (96)
I suppose that's a theoretical way of saying "it is what it is." But is Fragonard's girl innocent or impudique? She's a forerunner of Lolita – but she's got that fluffy puppy! The impact of the painting lies in one not being able to say quite whether it's cute or a come-on.

Gualdoni's narrative of the nude is in many ways a standard capsule survey of Western art. He proceeds from Neolithic artifacts through archaic Greece to the conventional periods of art history, with attention to their canonical highlights, as long as they're the unclothed ones. And many of them are unclothed, of course, from the Venus de Milo to the David to the Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Like many art historians for whom Greece and the Renaissance are the high-water marks of culture, Gualdoni does not have much good to say about the Middle Ages, and he can be snarky about academic art of the 18th and 19th centuries. He is passionate about the traditional high points despite, at times, deriding earlier art historians' excesses of admiration for the glory that was Greece and all that.

I do like Gualdoni's unabashed recognition that people make and look at nude images out of strong prurient interests. Tourists are notorious for strolling through museums looking dispassionately at the pure aesthetics of the human form, and then pawing the gift shop for cards of Persephone's butt or David's junk. Both impulses coexist – the study of form and the scratching of itch – and Gualdoni brings them both to light. He's particularly good on the social dimensions of display. There are nudes meant for spectacular display, for ritual or civic purposes, and then there are nudes meant for the bedroom closet, often for the purpose of dispelling erectile dysfunction. Gualdoni prints plates of pictures made just a few years apart in 19th-century France: Seurat's workaday Poseurs, Manet's stately Olympia, Bouguereau's cavorting, smirking, and rather unsexy bodies in pictures like The Birth of Venus, Courbet's harrowingly direct Origin of the World. (And you can Google them yourself, because I've linked to enough NSFW images for one review.) These are all naked women, but they mean extraordinarily different things.

Gualdoni, Flaminio. The History of the Nude. Milano: Skira, 2012.