Research point: The nude

We are asked to begin to consider how the depiction of the male and female nude has changed over the centuries.

Research source:  Ways of Seeing, John Berger et al. 1972.  Penguin Books Ltd.  Essay 3.

Main points of John Berger essay

This is quite a complex essay, and I will go back to it and re-read as I am sure I have missed some of the subtleties of the arguments, but for now the main points I took from it are as follows.

Written in 1970s.  Acknowledges that how women and men are perceived (in art and wider) is changing or at least being questioned.  But sets out the premise that historically:

  • The male image projects power and is external (though may be a “front”)
  • Images of women are internal – she is often observed – by herself and others
  • The power and control is with the male.

To summarise “Men act and women appear”.

Early stories about Adam and Eve – they were naked and unashamed.  When their eyes were opened to “evil” they perceived that nakedness was wrong – and Eve was blamed and made subservient.

Women often painted as if aware the viewer is looking at her.  A mirror was used as a symbol of vanity in women.  As if it is acceptable for an external viewer to look at her, but vanity for her to look at herself – a hypocrisy.  (P. 51)

Notable that in non-European art (Indian, Persian, African etc) “nakedness is never supine in this way”. (P. 53)

My note:  I believe the Hokusai exhibition (yet to see but I have a book on his art) at the Tate has some of his erotic art.  I will be interested to see how women are depicted. 

The nude is not just nakedness but an art form.  But it is/can also be sexual (P.54)

“A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.”

“To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognised for oneself.” P/ 54.

My note: This is interesting.  I am very rarely embarrassed at a life drawing class as the professional models are definitely perceived as “nude” rather than “naked”.  There are all sorts of etiquette I have observed, such as not talking to the model (the individual) when they have no clothes on.  I actually came across a model at a life drawing class who I had drawn at two portrait lessons (with his clothes on).  He recognised me and before he took his clothes off said hello to me and asked me to pass his best wishes on the other art tutor.   As soon as he took his clothes off and posed he was no longer “Steve” from the portrait class, he was a nude model and I was concentrating on his shape and form.  It wasn’t until the end of the class when he had dressed again that we had a short conversation about the next portrait class.  I would never have spoken to him as an individual when he was naked, yet I wasn’t worried about studying very intently some intimate parts of his body when he was nude.

In Western Art, woman does not show passion – no pubic hair (hair = power).

P.57. Points out the few exceptions where the painter is painting an individual woman, but her relationship is clearly with the painter.  (Danae by Rembrandt).

P. 63. The European nude – spectator-owners usually men; objects usually women.


There is such a lot to think about here and I know I haven’t even scratched the surface.  Such a lot was changing when John Berger wrote his essay, and have changed further since.

Sexual orientation

There is very little discussion about sexual orientation in his essay.  Caravaggio was believed to be homosexual and he did some very fetching paintings of young men.  Was that a reflection of his sexuality?  Or his patrons?  There is a multitude of gay art in the mainstream these days, it is hardly credible that in the UK homosexual acts between men were still illegal until the 1960s.   It still seems to me though that gay art is mostly male-orientated, but perhaps I haven’t looked in the right places for lesbian art.  There are a number of major exhibitions out on Gay art at the moment which I will aim to explore.  I have already noted the work of Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) in my sketchbook and notes.

Women artists and their art

The essay author acknowledges that women as subjects of art, and indeed women as artists (and that’s another whole subject) were changing at the time this was written.  Indeed, by the 70s women like Judy Chicago had already started to define what “feminist art” might be.  Yayoi Kusama didn’t seem worried by definitions of what was feminist in her exploration of nakedness in her New York Happenings in the 60s.  Though she had to take pains to insist that she, and her work, was not sexual. (P. 105) Kusama, Y.  2011.  Infinity Net:  The Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama.  English Edition:  Tate Publishing 2011.   (Translated by Ralph McCarthy).

Some other examples of women artists who have reclaimed the nude include:

  • Alice Neel’s portrait of John Perreault (1971) which turns convention on its head by showing the male model in a reclining, one might say vulnerable, position. However, as Perreault was gay, and a self-declared feminist, does that put another slant on the matter?  Are gay men more comfortably with appearing vulnerable?
  • Sylvia Sleigh, who also painted Perreault and his contemporaries.
  • Jenny Saville, whose honest, large-scale paintings depiction strong, real women.

Finally, I note the work of artist Poppy Jackson who is herself the artist and (nude) subject.  As part of the Spill Festival last November she boldly positioned her naked self atop a roof ridge as an action art piece Site.  It put me in mind of Anthony Gormley’s rooftop statues.  But while Gormley’s statues were replicas of himself, Poppy Jackson was allowing her real self to be seen – in all its vulnerability and courage.

Update 6th July 2017


I have been researching Egon Schiele as part of looking at portraits and I discovered that in relation to his nude paintings/drawings that “Accusations of pornography dogged him almost from the beginning of his career” (Vergo, 1981: 214).  This is another area I hadn’t considered.  The dictionary definition of pornography is that it is “the portrayal of sexual matter for the purpose of sexual arousal.” This is another area probably worth an essay on its own.  Why might Schiele’s work be described as pornographic when, say, Hokusai’s is merely erotic (which has a very similar dictionary definition)? And why shouldn’t art be “erotic” or “pornographic”, as long as neither vulnerable subjects or viewers are involved.  For Schiele “sexuality was … a vital source of inspiration” (Ibid) so his art was sexual.  It’s part of life.  Other people like to draw flowers (Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers were described as being sexual –  but she denied this was her intension.)


4 thoughts on “Research point: The nude

  1. Very interesting! – I’ve just done mine too, though I haven’t really gone as far as I wanted to (so I’ve lazily labelled it ‘in progress’). For John Berger – the original TV series is on youtube so you might find that a good way to get in to the book more – he was quite a handsome chap (very intense!) , I really enjoyed watching it – in 3 parts I think. It feels like such a minefield of a subject, has made me question my own approach to life drawing!


      1. Just how I feel – it happens to be the next subject on my UVC course so I ‘m kind of obliged to stuck in to it properly. I bought the book on the chapter reading list – The Nude – A New Perspective (Gill Saunders) which I really recommend (I found a second hand copy online). Very well written – in that she’s taken a difficult subject and broken it down in to straight-forward chunks.


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