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A femeneutics of the nude

Elspeth Bezemer

submitted in fulfilment
of the requirements for the degree



in the
at the



December 1997


I keep my friends as misers do their treasure, because,

of all things granted us by wisdom, none is greater
or better than friendship.

- Pietro Aretino (1537)

Plate 1: Henri Matisse, The Dance


abstract (translation by Izan Hartman):

The nude is generally approached as a historical and cultural product of specific societies,
while a generic conception of the nude as a genre of gendered art (Gill Saunders, 1989),
rather than as form (Kenneth Clark, 1956) is more vaguely perceived in underlying
assumptions in texts on the nude, and the works themselves. The tradition of the nude is
extremely varied, and complex. My purpose is not to unify or simplify this tradition. Any nude
is never one thing alone, but is subject to interpretation. The nude, largely through recent
feminist interpretations, has come to fulfil the role of trustee for alterity (Lynda Nead, 1992).
By considering the main typologies in which the nude has been studied and interpreted, I
hope to show the importance and significance of gender in art, aesthetics, and finally,
The significance of this thesis is to confront the antagonism between traditional and
contemporary feminist issues and that of the standard patriarchal tradition. In this regard the
nude is an interesting and rewarding genre of the expression of gender, as it deals with the
delicate concerns of this category. The central problematic of the research is the question of
gender. On an epistemological level, feminism 'introduces' the category of gender, which
subverts and challenges all previous conceptions of the human subject. While I wish to bear
in mind the history of oppression through the neglect and negation of the category of gender,
I also recognise the vital importance of moving beyond this structure by proposing the
celebration of plurality through more life-affirming readings of nudity in art.
Although femeneutics may sound idiosyncratic, I propose to use the term as shorthand for
feminist studies combined with a hermeneutic approach.
Die naakstudie word in die algemeen as 'n historiese en kulturele produk van spesifieke
samelewings benader, terwyl 'n generiese opvatting van die naakstudie as 'n genre van kuns
(waarin geslag van belang is) eerder as vorm in onderliggende aannames in tekste oor
naakstudies en die werke opsigself beskou word. Die tradisie van die naakstudie is uiters
gevarieerd en kompleks. My doel is nie om hierdie tradisie te verenig of te vereenvoudig nie.
'n Naakstudie is nooit slegs een ding nie, maar is onderhewig aan interpretasie. Volgens
onlangse feministiese interpretasies vervul die naakstudie die rol van voog van alteriteit.
Deur die hoof tipologiee waarin die naakstudie bestudeer en geinterpreteer is, in oorweging
the neem, hoop ek om die belang van geslag in kuns, estetika en laastens filosofie uit the
Die belang van hierdie tesis is om die antagonisme tussen tradisionele en kontemporere
feministiese kwessies en die van die standaard patriargale tradisie te konfronteer. In hierdie
opsig is die naakstudie 'n interessante en lonende genre van die uitdrukking van geslag,
aangesien dit die sensitiewe aangeleenthede van hierdie kategorie aanspreek. Die sentrale
problematiek van die navorsing is die vraagstuk van geslag. Op 'n epistemolgiese vlak stel
feminisme die kategorie van geslag bekend wat uitdaging en ondermyning bied aan alle
vorige opvattings van die menslike subjek. Terwyl ek die geskiedenis van onderdrukking
deur nalating en ontkenning van die kategorie van geslag in ag neem, erken ek ook die
noodsaaklikheid daarvan om hierdie struktuur te transendeer deur pluralistiese interpretasies
van die naakstudie in kuns voor te stel.
Alhoewel 'femeneutiek' idiosinkraties klink, sal ek hierdie term gebruik om te verwys na
feministiese studies gekombineer met 'n hermeneutiese benadering.


The financial assistance of the Centre for Scientific Development (HSRC, South Africa) and
The Rand Afrikaans University towards this research is hereby acknowledged. Opinions
expressed and conclusions arrived at, are those of the author and are not necessarily to be
attributed to the Centre for Scientific Development. Furthermore, a special thank-you to Jean
Iddon at Pyromet for making the final copy possible.

Aan Mama en Papa wil ik zegen dat jullie my terug-geholpen hebt toen ik het egt niet meer
alien kon doen. My exceptional friends who stood by me, and helped where they could and
when I allowed them. I'm stubborn and confused, but with what I know will be a long journey
together still (all things being as they should) we will find much time to cross each others
paths. Tessa for her endurance and faith, Izan's concern and sanity, Borris (5 pages) loaning
me a printer at the apt moment, my people at 'Teapot Hall' - Harry, Kapsie, Eileen, Hugh and
Angus. Jenny, Andre, Herselman, Louise, Hennie, Prof van Vuuren and his family Nettie, Liz,
Mocke, the many `Jordans', The Bead Shop (Melville) - Gus, Gus and Gus jnr., my other
brothers Damme and Kris (and their families), my people in Holland, Bob's and Dwaal Berg',
and everyone else; thank-you for believing in me (Peter Pan rather than Descartes).

It's been traumatic - it's over!

list of contents

page number

Nudity, gender and art

1: introduction
2: contemporary feminism
rehash: sex/gender
a three-tiered struggle
feminine, or feminist, aesthetics
3: gender: artist, work, reception
gender of artist
gender of the nude image
gender in reception
4: procedure







A femeneutics of the nude

1: introduction
2: the aesthetic meaning of nudity
the "alchemic" powers of art
western guilt and shame
3: the question of gender - femeneutics
(i) interpreting gender in a few examples
women versus men
a dialectic of self/body/other
(ii) genealogies of meaning
4: conclusion



The politics of the body: the history of oppression

1: introduction
2: Gill Saunders: a new perspective
historical context
a gendered typology
New Directions
3: Lynda Nead: frames and framing
the 'official' aesthetic of the nude
utopia - a holding in and keeping out
breaking the boundaries and re-drawing the lines
4: evaluation


Vitalstatistix: the significance of ideal form

1: introduction
2: Kenneth Clark: the naked and the nude
3: Clark's typology: an interpretative synopsis
The Ideal Form: Apollo and Venus
Expressive states of the mind - Energy and Pathos
Alternative conventions - the Dionysian and Gothic nude
4: a "vindication" of formalism
Pure Form: The Nude as an End in Itself
the stakes of formalism
ideal, rather than significant, form
5: evaluation






list of illustrations

page number

Chapter I:
Henri Matisse, The Dance
The Naked and the Inquisitive
Linda Nochlin's parody


Chapter II: Clark's typology

Hermes holding the infant Dionysis (after Praxiteles)
The Cnidian Venus (after Praxiteles)
The heroic diagonal: Borghese Warrior
Provencale 15 th century, Pieta
After Scopas 4th century B.C, Maenad
Van Eyck, Eve
Henry Moore, Recumbent figure


Chapter III: feminist informed typologies

Passive female / Active male - Ken Kiff, Man Greeting Woman
Passive male - Benedetto Luti, Male nude huddled on Ground
Active female - Robert Mapplethorpe, Lisa Lyon
Fetishized female - Tom Wesselmann, Great American nude


Pre-historic figurines - The Willendorf Venus and Cycladic marble doll

The Damaged Venus - Velasquez, Rokeby Venus
Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll
Jo Spence (in collaboration with Tim Sheard), 'Exiled' from narratives of Dis-ease


Chapter IV:


Vitruvian man
Leni Riefenstahl being steadied by Nuba man
The Reclining Female
Goya, The Naked Maja
Manet, Olympia
Fear of Full Frontal
"Well two can play at that game"
Caroline van der Merwe, The Prisoner
Dialectic: self/body/other
Tumura Lempicka, Adam and Eve
Rembrandt, Bathsheba
William Blake, Glad Day


Chapter I
Nudity, gender and art

the only nude we need to remember

is the little girl who is strung up
by her feet
naked, shivering and cold
branded by the hate
she hears in her own words
(Elspeth Bezemer, 1995)

1: Introduction
Nudes are a consistent image in our (Western) history. They appear in every
epoch, and can be found in practically every artist's oeuvre; this tradition
contains some of the oldest portrayals of humanity's reflection on itself. It is in
Western culture that nudes have been contextualised, anthologised and
analysed. These works are usually approached as a historical and cultural
product of specific societies during specified periods which coincides with the
accepted or standard way in which art history is divided into eras (such as
Ancient, Early Christian, Renaissance, Baroque, Modern and so forth). The
significance and interest in this particular genre of art is presently revived mainly
due to the radical changes of women's role and identity in the twentieth century
through the rise and 'revolutionary' effects of feminism.

'Nudity' and 'nakedness' are synonymous in so far as both words are related to
the unclothed body. A certain degree of nakedness is required for sexual
encounters, which might or might not be extended to the erotic. There are,
however, further associations which can be derived from meanings and
situations of 'nakedness' that make up the basic phenomenology of nudity. As
'uncovering' both extremes of vulnerability (for example, stripped bare or
humiliation) and truth (as in total or undisguised revelation and without ornament)
are implied. The more neutral response is found in descriptions of a 'bare'
landscape or tree when meaning 'uncluttered' or 'leafless' - although 'bare' and
'barren' again indicate something unprotected, infertile and unprofitable. To be
'bare' oneself could be merely not wearing any clothes, but also (as in 'stripped
bare'), denigration and exposure to either the natural elements or scrutiny. As
'disclosure', the adjective naked can indicate both indiscretion and being
forthcoming, open and frank. To see with the 'naked eye' connotes sight
unassisted with instruments, promoting a human scale of vision. The
associations of innocence and purity or cleanliness are implied when connected
with, for example, bathing or babies.

There is a vast scale of associations and meanings ranging between the 'severe'
or negative, and the 'pure' or positive connotations.

(i) problematic

There are two intertwined issues concerning the nude that I wish to concentrate
on in this study: firstly, the aesthetic meaning of nudity; and secondly the
question of gender. The interrelationship between these two issues lies in the
nude providing a tradition in which the complexities and significance of gender
can be explored as this necessitates a broader conception of the 'self, or human
subject through the aesthetic meaning of the images of the female and male
body and their connectedness.

The nude in art can be categorised in various ways. As a 'tradition' the long and
consistent historical presence of images of the unclothed human body indicate a
chronology of artistic interest in the human body. In this study, I refer to the nude
as a genre of art, rather than a topic or topos, when I wish to point to
idiosyncratic aesthetic characteristics. For example, even in radically cubist or
symbolic images, nudes retain elements of representation or mimesis of the
human body. As topos, using the human body as a scale of proportion might
also be indicated which, independent from unclothed figures, is not the subject of
this study.

A working definition broadly expresses feminism as a field of inquiry which is

primarily concerned with women's experience in a world which is identified as
either antagonistic or indifferent to her experience. Although feminism is a
comparatively recent addition in academic study, little explanation is needed of
its extreme influence in probably every discipline, its depth of gender analysis,
and the variety contained within its own purpose. This success is guaranteed by
the subversion of the central subject of concern in all our endeavours: ourselves.

Feminist theory and criticism of the last twenty years has been fertile
... a creative phase of thought continues and, indeed, changes and
expands its interests almost yearly. The history of this phase has

already been written, a movement characterised by a criticism which
is both interdisciplinary and international. This is what one would
expect of a form of thought founded on the recognition that a new
category of discussion, the category of gender, transforms and
reconfigures the categories of the disciplines it addresses (Armstrong,
1992: 1).
The human subject has always been gendered, but no particular notice (at least
academically) was taken of this until women entered the worlds usually inhabited
by men. This new category vastly complicates how we can speak of the self.

In nudes, unlike most other topics in art, the subject is blatantly gendered. The
male and female body resemble each other, but have different forms. They have
also been rendered differently, and have been treated as having opposing
associations. The gender of the artist and that of the spectator play a complex
role which further complicates the understanding, meaning and interpretation of
these images. This is not only because our bodies are an intricate part of our
identity, but also because we respond to different bodies in different ways.

(ii) methodologies
I am primarily concerned with the associations we have with this genre, rather
than with any particular work's historical audiences and reception. This is not a
history of the nude, but rather an analysis of gender and the complex
relationships within the dichotomy through a close examination of the tradition of
nude artworks.

In order to do this, I firstly give a brief overview of the aims within contemporary
feminism, as it is this field or discipline which informs my interest in the category
of gender. Julia Kristeva proposes a poignant three-tiered framework in which
the benefits of the three different approaches, or generations, are circumscribed
and so are rendered appropriate (rather than being treated as outdated) within a
broader postmodern feminism.
A strategy which I apply throughout this study is the close reading of both written
texts and visual examples on the nude. In this dissertation, I concentrate on

three written texts on the nude - Kenneth Clark's (1956) seminal The Nude; a
study in ideal art, Gill Saunders's (1989) The Nude; a new perspective which is
representative of first generation feminism, and Lynda Nead's (1992)


Female Nude; art, obscenity and sexuality representative of second generation

feminism. I have used Clive Bell's (1961) classical aesthetic text on formalism to
supplement the analysis of Clark. My reading of Kristeva, and Michel Foucault is
limited to concepts, so far as these assist my presentation of the interpretative
structures of meaning concerning gender.

The images I have selected in Chapters I and IV by no means offer an

alternative typology of the nude. They have been chosen to assist and illustrate
my argument concerning the complexity of the gendered subject. Different
examples might not overtly express the particular point I make with the use of
selected images, but would still allow the kind of gender-sensitive reading which I
am proposing. The illustrations in Chapters II and III reflect the alternative
typologies suggested by the three main authors of this study; I have only
provided one example for each type and have chosen distinctive images which
the authors themselves have discussed.

Although I use historical information surrounding the texts, meanings and

interpretations are achieved more from our current contexts or situation. The two
most important characteristics of the contemporary world that I draw from are,
firstly, the benefits of two and a half generations of feminism, and secondly, the
general atmosphere of postmodern pluralism. Pluralism, unlike relativism where
'anything goes', is consistent with the simultaneous presence of different
readings or understandings which are rendered interesting, possible, relevant or
appropriate regarding the problematic, in keeping with "restoring life to its original
difficulty" (Caputo, 1987: 1). Pluralism acknowledges the likeliness of different

My aim in this study is to emphasise the importance and significance of gender
in art, aesthetics, and finally (by implication) philosophy. While I wish to keep in
mind the history of oppression through the neglect and negation of the category
of gender, I also recognise the vital importance of moving beyond this structure
by proposing the celebration of plurality through more life-affirming readings of
nudity in art.

2: contemporary feminism
What I set out to do in this section is, firstly, to concentrate on the theoretical
debates within contemporary feminism. Feminist aesthetics is an extension of
feminist ideology, or the critique of patriarchy; where patriarchy is understood as
"the system of male dominance by which men as a group acquire and maintain
power over women as a group" (Tierney, 1991: 265). However, it is important to
emphasise that feminist ideology is not a unified political strategy, but rather an
interwoven complex of discourses which amount to a highly varied
epistemology'. An illustration of the complexities of the feminist concern is
provided in the second section in this chapter (Plate 2) which concentrates on
the division of the artistic situation into the three central points of focus within
aesthetics concerning the artist, work and spectator (or reception) - all three of
which are sexed and gendered subjects.

Part of the dilemma confronting contemporary feminism is the continued

assumption that the genders can be strictly differentiated. Biologically and
pictorially this is indeed so, yet the significance and meaning of the duality of the
human subject is complicated beyond simple biological essentialism. A
conceptual analysis of the sex/gender debate assists, by way of introduction, the
complexity of an understanding of the subject, or 'self'.

1 An example of this plurality can be seen in the differences between the Anglo-American and
french feminisms, and more recently, Third-World feminism.

(i) rehash: sex/gender

One of the earliest examples of feminist subversion of the traditional human
subject as a unified collective, is the distinction which is drawn between sex and

'Sex' denotes the biological differences between males and females,

whereas 'gender' refers to the social constructions of femininity and masculinity.

The motivation behind this strategy is that biological differences should not be
used to justify discrimination in the social roles that men and women fulfil.

Gender is a cultural construct: the distinction in roles, behaviour, and

the mental and emotional characteristics between females and males
developed by a society. ... Sex is a term that encompasses the
morphological and physiological differences on the basis of which
humans (and other life forms) are categorised as male or female. It
should be used only in relation to characteristics and behaviours that
arise directly from biological differences between men and women
(Tierney, 1991: 153).
Research concerned with the differences between the sexes occurs primarily
within the natural sciences, and has subsequently become extremely
sophisticated. Examples of such research entails the sex-specific functioning of
the brain, mental development, creative and language faculties and so forth.
However, these differences are often slight and based on generalisations. It is
still generally accepted that men and women belong to the same species, but
that they have highly varying social histories. The sex/gender debate is
reminiscent of the Cartesian body/mind duality of western philosophy - in both
the two poles are abstract or conceptual rather than exact, and, furthermore, the
one necessarily influences the other.

The category of gender disrupts the basic understanding of 'body' as this term
does not have a singular 'source', but is rather divided into two different shapes
which have been treated very differently as I will show throughout this study.
How exactly this affects the mind and social functioning is open to speculation
and assumption.

Initially, the emphasis in feminist arguments lies in the superior role of social
conditioning above biology. Although this perspective now seems extremely
dated and simplified, it points to an inherent dilemma within the feminist
endeavour - there are essential biological differences between women and men.
However, 'sex' and 'gender' cannot be mutually exclusive concepts because we
cannot know what women and men are like under 'better' circumstances, or with
a different history. One of the traps which an analysis of gender can fall into is to
make claims based on a biological essentialism, where the notion that, for
example, merely being female necessarily indicates a set of values or
assumptions that cannot be based on sex. The distinctions between female,
feminine and feminist have the advantage of indicating different areas of
concern, these being biological, cultural and political issues respectively. While it
is accepted that the concept 'gender' does not exclude 'sex', this is not
necessarily the case vice versa.

Sex is reserved exclusively for biological

differences, and by extension, the different anatomy of the two kinds of bodies.

(ii) a three-tiered struggle

There are two common endeavours or aims within feminism which can be traced
in any text concerned with gender in a variety of combinations: on the one hand
the dominance and sexist operations of patriarchy are analysed (i.e. criticising
the standard social order), while on the other woman's nature and history is
explored and recorded (i.e. establishing their own epistemology). These aims
are conflicting: how is it possible to realise woman's true voice, nature and
potential if she has been constantly and consistently suppressed or oppressed?

Until recently within feminist epistemology, there had been two distinct
approaches to the gendered subject based on the focus on either of the aims
above. The first wave of feminist thought centres around a hesitancy to
acknowledge any significance beyond the basic physical distinctions between
the female and the male, because difference lead to discrimination in rights and
opportunities. This generation of feminism culminated in the 'equal but different'
debate in which certain forms of discrimination are not only necessary but also

benefit women (for example, maternity wards). By concentrating on what it
means to be a woman, a second generation of feminism (mainly during the
sixties and seventies) can be discerned in the emphasis of difference, by
focusing on the feminine. Neither approach is satisfactory in 'overcoming' a
biological essentialism because both are based on a strict distinction between
the male and female, and, furthermore, both remain within an oppositional
analysis of gender.

The contemporary French feminist, Julia Kristeva, has offered a view based on
the two aims of feminist endeavours which contextualises the conflict between
them. What makes Kristeva's analysis refreshing 2 is that she argues that the
"feminist struggle must be seen historically and politically as a three-tiered one"
(Moi, 1985: 12) rather than a chronological process of one stage following the
next. Toril Moi (1985) schematically summarises Kristeva's position:

1 Women demand equal access to the symbolic order. Liberal

feminism. Equality.
2 Women reject the male symbolic order in the name of difference.
Radical feminism. Femininity extolled.
3 Women reject the dichotomy between masculine and feminine as
metaphysical (Moi, 1985: 12).
First generation feminism is not so much concerned with epistemology, as with
increasing the scope of women's participation in societal operations. Identifying
political theory as the motivating strategy behind first generation feminism is
useful because it separates the necessity of liberating women from present
subordinate positions (although these are fewer now than at the onset of
feminism), and from meta-theoretical concerns when looking at the category of
gender in terms of epistemology. In a three-tiered struggle against patriarchy
these different and at times conflicting endeavours within feminism each have
their own place, significance and importance.

The political effort entails the initial confrontation of the suffrage movement,
which culminated with women acquiring the vote and entering the public realm
(or the symbolic order) previously inhabited by men only. This fairly militant
group demanded equality without necessarily insisting that women make a
uniquely different contribution to society, thus concentrating on the first aim of
feminism mentioned above: equal rights and opportunities. Part of this
endeavour entailed pointing out that discrimination based on sexual differences
were unquestioningly adopted in the prescription of social roles. Thus, to use an
old example, because women bear children (distinction based on sex), they were
held responsible for their rearing also (distinction based on gender). First
generation feminism concentrated on imposed gendered distinctions, thus
undermining the role of biological differences.

What has been achieved by this attitude remains ... of capital

importance for women... It could be said, with only slight
exaggeration, that the demands of the suffragists and existential
feminists have, to a great extent, been met ..., since three of the main
egalitarian demands of early feminism have now been implemented
despite vagaries and blunders: economic, political and professional
equality [in (mostly) Western democracies] (Kristeva, 1986: 196).
Mainly lacking in the first generation is the focus on women's identity. For
Kristeva, identity is linked with sexuality, especially women's role in reproduction,
and feminine subjectivity. One of the difficulties is whether feminine subjectivity
is defined by patriarchy, or can be free from this dominant culture. The shift
which has taken place is that in the second generation of feminism, sexual or
biological differences are explored in more depth. These feminists are
concerned with matters that involve women exclusively or specifically as

Psychological and aesthetic experience play an important role in second

generation feminism; in contrast to the first, there is an "exacerbated distrust of
In "Women's Time" (1986) Kristeva explains the interwoven complexity of feminist epistemology,
rather than the different political strategies which characterise their ideologies; her focus is on the
second generation, where female subjectivity (rather than political activity) is explored in depth.

the entire political dimension" (Kristeva, 1986: 194).

This movement

"emphasizes women's radical difference from men and demands women's right
to remain outside the linear time of history and politics" (Moi, 1986: 187). The
focus here lies in the complexity of the female experience, and how to maintain
individuality within this 'sisterhood'.

In order to illustrate that either focus on its own is narrow, Kristeva points out the
controversy about women's desire to have children in both generations, which
illustrates that although both equality and difference are extremely valuable
within feminist struggle, neither provides a sufficient framework. In the first,
motherhood is generally seen as alienating and reactionary, while the second
does not provide a standard or role-model which women can follow- although
lesbian or single parenting is often seen as more desirable than a nuclear
heterosexual structure.

This brief exposition of feminist history and thought demonstrates the inherent
essentialism within feminism; both first and second feminist generations are
dependent on the truism that the human race is divided into women and men,
and furthermore remain within oppositional, and so directly comparative, patterns
of meaning. This critique is the point of departure in third generation feminism,
where the dichotomy between the genders is rejected on the basis that there is
more to the category than the division into two structures of meaning based on
femininity and masculinity. This generation of Ifjeminists have to be pluralists:
there is no pure feminist or female space from which we can speak" (Moi, 1986:
205). This is not only because a feminine subjectivity cannot be independent
from the patriarchal culture, but also because of individual and particular
experiences, or appearances, for that matter (for example, men being effeminate
in body structure or lack of facial hair).

While the first two generations of feminism reiterate what the cultural stereotypes
are and how they function, third generation feminism restores the complexities
which are reflective of the diversity within people's lives. The inherent pluralism

of gender is more compact and complex than merely an oppositional duality. An
example of the rejection of the traditional dichotomy is through exploring the
possible asymmetrical relationships within the distinction between sex and
gender, such as the connections in male/feminine and female/masculine.

A political venture is better suited to the first two feminisms, depending on the
strategy needed to empower women. The pluralist third generation is suited
best, I argue, for an aesthetics which takes gender as a central subject of
interpretation and concern, because in art, interpretation is not only encouraged
but also demanded, in the translation of image to meaning. This, however, is not
the case - the two main feminist approaches in aesthetics correspond to the
same conflict described in the two different aims in the first two waves.

(iii) feminine or feminist aesthetics

Feminist aesthetics is not simply a linking of feminism and aesthetics:

feminism forces us to reconceptualize aesthetic inquiries. Issues
traditionally associated with aesthetics, such as form, quality, and
beauty, recast from a feminist critical perspective, necessitate the
recognition of historical and social contexts and assumptions that
shape definitions of art and artists (Krumholz & Lauter, 1990: 158).
This field of feminist inquiry has become immensely broad. There are now
journals devoted to these issues, and many feminist exhibitions have been taking
place since the seventies'. The first great impact of a feminist contribution to
aesthetics is in literary criticism, and the issues debated in this field can be
transcribed into a broader conception of art works. Kristeva argues that "it is in
the aspiration towards artistic and, in particular, literary creation that women's
desire for affirmation now manifests itself' (1986: 206-7). Writing literature, and
by extension art-making, does offer 'liberation', although this might not be overtly
political or ideological:

Cf. Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock's (1987) Framing Feminism; art and the women's
movement 1970 - 1985, which collectively discusses essays and exhibitions and their reception.

Is it because, faced with social norms, literature reveals a certain
knowledge and sometimes the truth itself about an otherwise
repressed, nocturnal, secret and unconscious universe? Because it
thus redoubles the social contract by exposing the unsaid, the
uncanny? And because it makes a game, a space of fantasy and
pleasure, out of the abstract and frustrating order of social signs, the
words of everyday communication? (Kristeva, 1986: 207).
Writing stories and painting pictures are, I think, vastly different forms of
expression. Yet what they have in common, and this is the central concern in
feminist aesthetics, is that their creator is either male or female, and that their
work reflects the different circumstances and treatment the two sexes experience
in society.

In general, there are two main opposing approaches to the gendered content of
a text or work of art, for that matter: on the one hand, a feminist agenda (i.e. in its
most basic form, to liberate women) is sought or exposed; while on the other,
feminine writing or art-making is explored as an alternative to masculine writing
or art-making.

The first of these, which is often associated with the Anglo-American school,
argues that "feminist criticism is a specific kind of political discourse: a critical
and theoretical practice committed to the struggle against patriarchy and sexism,
not simply a concern for gender in literature" (Moi, 1986: 204). In order to do this
some critics point out, for example, the sexual politics in the Great Tradition of
male artists, showing that there is a male bias or suppression of women. There
are many different theoretical positions exploring this angle of criticising the
dominant social order. However, there is also a definite movement toward rather
concentrating and analysing women's work, be it fiction or visual art. This in turn
ties up with the feminist aim of establishing 'their own' alternative epistemology
which is concerned with empowering, liberating and celebrating women and their

The second approach tends to evade identifying a specifically feminist project.
There are many examples of women's writing which do not seem to necessarily
or explicitly focus on the political realm of feminism, but rather explore the
feminine. 'Femininity' is a very controversial subject within feminism. On the one
hand, some feminists feel that the feminine subscribes to patriarchal attempts to
silence women's nature by imposing a standard of behaviour or identity, such as
the soft, gentle, caring, pretty, kind, emotional but quiet stereotype; on the other
hand, the feminine is also often used to connote an expressly female interest in
topic and style, which ranges from the more militant expositions of typically
female experiences such as menstruation, to a quiet enjoyment of domesticality.

The french feminisms 4 , specifically, have radicalised the feminine. The crucial
element for the French is that they tie different kinds of writing to the different
sexual constitution of women and men's bodies. In other words, the biological
(quite literally, sexual experiences) is manipulated as the starting point or
metaphor of writing. Men's sexuality, and so masculine writing, is stereotypically
linear - directed at seeking gratification which takes the form of only one,
perhaps magnificent, conclusion. However, women's sexuality and language is
much more complex and cyclical rather than linear.

It is continuous, compressible, dilatable, viscous, conductive,

diffusible.... It never ends, it is powerful and powerless through its
resistance to that which can be counted, it takes its pleasure and
suffers through its hypersensitivity to pressure; it changes - in volume
or strength, for instance - according to the degree of heat, it is in its
physical reality determined by the friction between two infinitely
neighbouring forces - a dynamics of proximity and not of property
(Luce Irigaray "This sex which is not one" (1977: 109-10), in Toril Moi
1986: 142).
In this approach to aesthetics the third generation feminist thinking can be
discerned. It is not necessarily to correlate women's and men's language and
sex so completely.

Kristeva for example, explores feminine writing in

experimental and subversive texts, often focusing on male modernist authors.
This approach to gender moves beyond oppositional thinking, by not simply
saying that there is a difference, but expressly pointing out an asymmetry, in the
above for example, between male and feminine. Being female does not mean
that the text can necessarily be identified as feminine writing - "[i]t would take a
denial of all cultural tradition for women to produce even a true 'female' art"
(Bovenschen, 1977: 118). Furthermore, feminine writing does not necessarily
subscribe to a feminist agenda, if feminism is understood in the traditional sense
expressed in the working definition above, because to be feminist the writing
must primarily attempt to liberate women as a (biological) group.

I have reservations in calling the third generation of thought 'feminist', mainly for
two reasons: Firstly, the term 'feminism' is complex and promotes confusion as
to what is meant in such an approach; and secondly, the concern with gender is
not necessarily ideological as suggested by `-ism' if the concern is primarily with
the discourse of gender or sex, and not with specific issues pertaining to women
and improving their situation. In the following section, I will show how gender
plays a vital role in all three elements of aesthetics (artist, work and audience or
reception), through which I will indicate the possibility of a 'dialectic' plurality
between self/body/other.

In the second section of this chapter, I provide gender sensitive interpretations

concerning the artist, work and reception. Up until the twentieth century the
tradition of the nude was dominated by male artists and masters while the
subjects of the paintings were overwhelmingly female. The nude appears to
have had two main functions during the pre-feminist period; firstly, it provided a
classical training from life for aspiring artists, which allowed them to work in the
highest deemed form of art (the second purpose) - historical painting. In a
critique of the blatant sexism of this tradition, it is important to bear in mind that

This 'movement' is written without the grammatically correct capitals, because there is no
specific political or definite strategic link between the different authors. The motivation behind the
lower case is to retain the intended diversity.

the form of the two bodies vary, and that this plays a role in the way in which
they have been re-presented.

3: gender - artist, work, reception

Plate 1: "The Naked and the Inquisitive" - photograph from The Star, 21 October

Here the artist presents herself as part

of the work, while the
audience is conventionally kept on the
outside looking in, or
at, the contained box a parody on the television set.

The stereotypical, or expected, scenario of male audience and female model are
present. A first generation interpretation might be that the `natural' woman
submits to the gaze of the `cultured' man, where she bares all and he consumes
with pleasure. A second generation feminist might concentrate on the act of
constructing an enclosure where femininity can be explored - the work is called
`Graft' as opposed to craft which is 'traditionally' women's work. This oversimplistic analysis does not do justice to the complex gender relations contained
within the dynamic of artist, work and reception.

Although my study focuses on the current dynamics of the artworks rather than
the processes of their creation and reception, the latter two aspects play a
significant role in the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nude from the
perspective of the gender- or the feminist informed nineties. What is important
here is that the tradition of the nude in this century has been dominated by male

artists until the seventies, while the subject of these works has been dominated
by the female - in other words, in the tradition of the nude men have
predominantly painted women. There are two ways in which the reception of the
works can be analysed: firstly, by considering the audience to whom the work
was directed, and secondly, by considering our own position towards a vast
collection of ancient to contemporary pieces and deciding what the relevance or
significance this has to our own understanding of both the history contained in
these portrayals, and the role that images of the body play for us. This last point
hints at the notion of ahistoricity which was initially one of the motivating features
for painting nudes.

(i) gender of artist

In her classic feminist article, "Why have there been no great women artists?"
(1970), Linda Nochlin argues that this is partly due to the young female scholar
not being allowed to enter the academy of art in general, and life-drawing
classes in particular, until as late as 1893. She argues that although there has
been a constructed mythology surrounding the geniality of the great masters,
most of these were at some stage in their lives apprenticed to an artist of repute,
and had access to the life-style of an artist:

The making of art involves a self-consistent language of form, more or

less dependent upon, or free from, given temporally defined
conventions, schemata, or systems of notation, which have to be
learned or worked out, either through teaching, apprenticeship, or a
long period of individual experimentation (Nochlin, 1991: 149)
Nochlin argues that there are no female equivalents of the Great Masters,
because women were not treated as a potential genius artist in an academy
when they were permitted, and because they would have had to make a choice
between marriage/companionship (sex and children) and being devoted to, for
example, painting. Women were expected to be proficient at painting quaint
landscapes, and accurate portraits rather than seen as 'Real Artists'.
Furthermore, Nochlin argues that although men chose to abandon the security of
a wife and family (a typical example being Paul Gauguin who substituted a

nuclear family for the island girls of Tahiti), "none of them was automatically
denied the pleasures of sex or companionship on account of this choice" (1991:
167), which would, she implies, be the case for women.

This statement supports the mythology surrounding the virility of the male artist,
which is most often pointed out in the relationship that he might have had with
his female model. Clark writes that "as a matter of history, the Victorian moralists
who alleged that painting the nude usually ended in fornication were not far from
the mark" (1956: 353). Saunders and Nead emphasise the unbalanced nature of
the clothed artist with his naked model, and that she is necessarily in a
powerless role and the object of his sexual whims, which then might, or might
not, be expressed on the canvas.

The salient feature of Nochlin's thesis for this study, is her description of the
sexual sanctions women experienced probably till World War I and the
subsequent rise of (first generation) feminism. Women were denied access to
the tradition of drawing from life which formed a major part of an artist's
education in anatomy, and consequently enabled him to participate in the highest
regarded form of art - historical painting (based on either Greek, or Christian
mythology). "It was argued by defenders of traditional painting in the nineteenth
century that there could be no great painting with clothed figures, since costume
inevitably destroyed both the temporal universality and the classical idealisation
required by great art" (Nochlin, 1991: 159). As is expected, it was deemed highly
inappropriate for women to study nude models, whether from life or classical
sculptures. This crucial stage of training was unavailable to women, yet "it is all
right for a ('low', of course) woman to reveal herself naked-as-an-object for a
group of men, but forbidden to a woman to participate in the active study and
recording of naked-man-as-an-object, or even of a fellow woman" (Nochlin, 1991:

It is interesting to note that "while individual artists and private academies

employed the female model extensively, the female nude was forbidden in

almost all public art schools as late as 1850" (Nochlin, 1991: 159). This
information further propagates the potential privacy of the relationship between
the artist and the naked model.

It is clear that up until the later nineteenth century the academy of art, in which
painting nudes played a central role, was dominated by men. Women played a
limited role within this institution; mainly as the source or model for the ambitious
and perhaps pretentious subject of historical painting. It is somewhat incredible
that this was the main motivation for the vast collection of nude artworks, and
that the potential erotic content of the subject was undermined. This patriarchal
institution is the primary (although unacknowledged) context of Clark's seminal
text on the nude, and is considered in detail in Chapter II.

(ii) gender of the nude image

The second element of aesthetics, the works themselves, is the main focus of
this study and can here be merely briefly discussed by way of introduction.
Nudes are sexed rather than gendered in that this genre entails the display of
female and male bodies which do differ substantially. More often than not,
women's bodies are softer in appearance than those of men, and have less
muscle definition. Women's genitalia are hidden and they have prominent
breasts. Men are flat-chested, narrow-hipped and have external genitals. The
male and female body resemble each other, but have different forms which, I will
argue in Chapter IV, plays a role in how either has been expressed in art.

In the following two photographs, Nochlin has parodied the "time-honored

metaphor" of breasts as inviting fruit by replacing the woman with a man, and the
apples with bananas. The point she is making is that the original photograph is
ridiculous, yet quite acceptable and often used in `high' art; whereas the "linking
of the male organ to food is always a figure of meiosis - an image of scorn,
belittlement, or derision: it lowers and denigrates rather than elevates and
univeralizes the subject of the metaphor" (1991: 141). The reason for the
inclusion of these images here is not so much to indicate the intricacies of the

politics between the sexes (the focus of Chapter III), but rather to show the basic
physical differences between the two distinct bodies, and that the same pose
cannot be used to express the same attitude. To what extent this is due to the
institution which has been created around female and male nudes, and the
spectator's expectations will be considered in detail in Chapter III. We should
not, however, lose sight completely of the possible role that these two very
different shapes might play in their rendering, outside of the implications for

Plate 2: Linda Nochlin's parody

Whether there is a sexual, or erotic content in nude artworks, depends on

societal attitudes on nudity. Although nudity is seen as deviant outside the
privacy of one's bed and bathroom, the public display of naked figures has
always been part of 'our' culture. This paradox has traditionally been maintained
by the opposition between the naked and the nude (Cf. Clark, 1956: 1-25). 'Art'
reflects the aesthetic meaning of nudity, whereas being naked is what mere
mortals are when not wearing clothes. The nude has always been distinguished
from erotic painting. Rembrandt's painting of Bathsheba (see Plate 26) appears
in many anthologies, yet his miniature engravings of love making in which the
couple are less exposed, are harder to find. It seems possible then, that the
nude figure does not necessarily, exclusively or primarily have a sexual content,
but also indicates an aesthetic pleasure at the appearance or image of human

bodies. In my study, I hope to show that the nude can be interpreted as a
celebration of humanity, and for this to be possible there must be a degree to
which a fixed or permanent meaning must be negated.

(iii) gender in reception

The reception of these artworks can be considered through the analysis of three
very different audiences: firstly, the original audience for whom the work was
created (nudes were often commissioned), secondly, the academic or arthistorian (standard patriarchal interpretations), and thirdly gender-sensitised or
feminist-informed spectators. The latter two are open to further nuanced
categories, while an understanding of all three will enhance a more intricate
understanding of the tradition of the nude. However, the first step towards
liberating the nude entails a process of freeing the work from its initial artistic
situation. It is obvious that particular works or types of nudes were created
within specific contexts, but I wish to show (through hermeneutics) that it is not
necessary to contain them within these contexts that we can no longer
understand and do not agree with.

Although it is in certain respects either prescriptive or essentialist to categorise

gender, there now is a separate 'group' which justifies this kind of analysis: "not
because of automatic and unambiguous differences between the writings [or
paintings] of women and men, but because of the recent cultural phenomenon of
women's explicit self-identification as an oppressed group" (Felski, 1989: 1). In
other words, through the efforts of feminist concern with aesthetics, a new kind of
spectator or reader has surfaced. This 'reader' concentrates first and foremost
on the gender dialogue in the given artwork or genre of art.

Feminist theory ... through its attention to the difference that gender
makes and has always made in the creation, reception and evaluation
of art, not only permits us to understand many perplexities of art and
the artworld as interpreted by previous theories [such as formalism],
giving artist-status to women in the bargain, but also re-enfranchises
art by revisioning its complex relationships to culture(s) (Lauter, 1990:


The 'feminist' or 'gender sensitive' reception of this extraordinary tradition in art

has already greatly influenced the form and content of images of the body.
However, these are still too firmly rooted in a political project of liberating the
female. I propose that a more sophisticated interpretative genealogy of meaning

(femeneutics), not only breaks the oppositional framework of analysing gender in

terms of the self/other because different bodies indicate a possible space (desire
is one example) which interferes with the containment in either one or the other,
but also to point out that there is no self-evident exploitative relationship between
the male and the female because in art this is always subject to interpretation,
and 'we' can attempt successful, valid and positive interpretations of nudes.

4: procedure
There is no explicit agreement between all the different ways in which feminism
is explained - here I have given an illustration of how some seemingly
contradictory aims do inform each other, with the emphasis on the pluralism
available to discussions within the category of gender and how this subverts
standard interpretations of the unified human subject. This is an alternative
reading of the paradoxical pluralism of gendered research in aesthetics, to that
proposed by Bovenschen:

There is no proof of a different (female) relationship to detail and

generality, to motionlessness and movement, to rhythm and
demeanour. At present, this is all still conjecture. I find the only
sensible approach to be the search for evidence within individual,
concrete texts (1977: 135).
By working with images of the two bodies, my study on the nude enhances the
debates concerning gender and sex, and offers a way in which biological
essentialism can be acknowledged without either prescribing binary oppositions
in the continued 'warfare' between women and men or being restricted to
concentrating on one particular work.


The next two chapters concentrate on, firstly, Clark's seminal text on the nude,
and secondly, feminist responses to this. Saunders and Nead do not merely
criticise Clark, but offer alternatives to his conservative, and necessarily dated
text which purports to be oblivious of feminism. On the one hand, these two
approaches (i.e. pre-feminist and feminist) demonstrate the formalist thesis in
aesthetics, and on the other, the feminist critique of the standard order which
typically focuses on content rather than form.

Unlike Saunders and Nead, I will argue that there are redemptive features in
both Clark's thesis, and the tradition itself. A close reading of Clark will
emphasise issues that he deals with that are ignored, or silenced, in the recent
feminist contributions. Even though it is extremely dated in its ignorance and
neglect of gender relations and ideologies, there are pertinent points in this text
which remain valuable and significant in a contemporary study of the nude. The
initial distinction which Clark draws between the naked and the nude still
dominates the theoretical perspective of this tradition, and sets the framework for
his thesis. There are two interrelated arguments within this distinction; firstly, this
insists on a mutually exclusive relationship between art (images) and non-art
(bodies), which, secondly, calls for an aesthetic justification for the fascination
with the human shape which Clark seeks in a vindication of formalism. A
sympathetic close reading following the four main types (ideal form,
representations of expressive states of mind, alternative conventions, and pure
form) of nudes, attempt to show why Clark is still significant and informative, and
where the restrictions of his thesis lie.

Saunders's approach is rooted in the first generation of feminist epistemology,

and provides not only an important critique of the dominance of the female nude,
but more importantly for my endeavour, a starting point which exposes the
exploitative relationship between the male and the female. For Nead, the nude
has an inherently paradoxical nature which she points to using various
oppositional frameworks, such as art/obscenity, sublime/beautiful and


By focusing on the female nude, her endeavour can be

contextualised within second generation feminism.

On the one hand, in the nude female (and male) sexuality is exploited and
denigrated to images of titillation and consumption for the masculine, while on
the other this is also a tradition of feminine (and masculine) celebration. The
representative feminist attempts are prescriptive as is the formalist work they
criticise. Both feminist texts prescribe a particular way of interpreting images of
the body. The prescriptions do differ radically. It seems that nowhere in this
academic realm, space is allowed for the glorification or celebration of the human
body. There is still a vast collection of works which find an aesthetic in the body,
which is appreciated - not only by male audiences, but, as I will point out in
Chapter IV, by female audiences as well The female body is idolised (as is the
male, although to a lesser extent) which indicates that there are benefits to this
tradition in the acceptance and pleasure of plurality - in gender and shape.

The tradition of the nude is extremely varied and complex. My purpose is not to
unify or simplify this tradition because any nude is never one thing alone, but is
subject to interpretation. I propose that a new conceptual framework,

femeneutics, helps to contextualise the pluralism inherent in approaches to

aesthetics by the inclusion of the category of gender.

'Fern' retains the concerns

explored in feminine or feminist aesthetics, while the second half of the concept
alludes to hermeneutics. Hermeneutics explores the different interpretative
possibilities in textuality, which I think, provides the appropriate framework for the
paradoxical pluralism of third generation feminist aesthetics.

In this re-search, I want to re-deem, re-interpret and re-instate the celebration of

the nude.

Chapter II
the significance of form

We may no longer worship [the body], but we have come to

terms with it. We are reconciled to the fact that it is our
lifelong companion, and since art is concerned with sensory
images the scale and rhythm of the body is not easily
ignored. Our continuous effort, made in defiance of the pull
of gravity, to keep ourselves balanced upright on our legs
affects every judgement on design, even our conception of
which angle shall be called 'right'. The rhythm of our
breathing and the beat of our hearts are part of the
experience by which we assess all other proportions in
nature. The disposition of areas in the torso is related to
our most vivid experiences, so that abstract shapes, the
square and circle, seem to us male and female; and the old
endeavour of magical mathematics to square the circle is
like the symbol of physical union.

Kenneth Clark, The Nude, a study of ideal art (1956: 23)


1: Introduction
In the past there has been little academic interest outside of public art schools
(or apprenticeship) concerning the nude. It was only in the middle of this century
with Clark's book that the first serious attempt at theorising this prominent genre
was made; Clark expresses his own surprise:

Considering how the Nude dominated sculpture and painting at two of

the chief epochs in their history, one might have expected a small
library on the subject. But in fact there are only two general studies of
any value [both being in German] (xxi).
Clark's contemporary critics recognise the value and importance of his book
primarily as a study which is addressed to the layperson as well as the
academic, on a subject which had been neglected in aesthetics. For example,

"The Nude is the first true history of one of the most important themes in
European art and art lovers, historians and artists alike must be profoundly
grateful to Sir Kenneth Clark for this fascinating book" (Ettlinger, 1957: 349 - my
emphasis). The reception as reflected in reviews is positive to the extent, at
times, of being honorific: "The polished ease with which he proceeds to handle it
is some indication of the scholarship and artistic perception underlying his
approach to the subject. Such is the persuasive eloquence of his language that
even the most prudish of readers will be swept along on a crest of aesthetic
enjoyment while the most niggling of critics will find it hard to quarrel with the
general arrangement of the text" (Kay, 1956: 158). "The immense worth of the
work lies mainly in the author's combination of sensitivity to individual works of
art with a grasp of the nature of artistic tradition, both quite exceptional"
(Robertson, 1958: 169). The book appealed to its contemporary audience, and,
although there are points of critique (which I will look at in my evaluation), there
is unanimous conviction that he has handled the subject extensively. It is only
with the rise of feminism in the seventies that the obvious lack of concern with
gender comes to the fore, which is the main force of critique which has been
levelled at this text.


Clark points to the initial difficulties for a study on the nude: "The subject is
extremely difficult to handle. There is a difficulty of form; a chronological survey
would be long and repetitive, but almost every other pattern is unworkable. And
there is a difficulty of scope; since Jacob Burckhardt no responsible art historian
would have attempted to cover both antique and post-mediaeval art" (xxi). The
arrangement of the text competently overcomes these difficulties by, firstly
presenting his general argument and perspective concerning this artform,
secondly establishing an inclusive typology of the most extensively expressive
forms, thirdly those forms which contest the classical tradition, and lastly through
a vindication of formalism which embraces his thesis of the nude as an end in
itself. An informative chronology based mainly on the periods where the nude
was most prominent (i.e. Classical, Early Christian, Renaissance, Impressionist)
structures his discussion in each section.

The central thesis which underlies Clark's arguments concerning the nude is
defined by his project:

In this book I have tried to show how the naked body has been given
memorable shapes by the wish to communicate certain ideas or states
of feeling. I believe that this is the chief justification of the nude, but it
is not the only justification. At all epochs when the body has been a
subject of art, artists have felt that it could be given a shape which
was good in itself (Clark, 1956: 335).
The concern in this chapter is to provide an interpretative synopsis reflecting the
structure of this seminal text on the nude. By 'justification', I understand that
Clark wants to validate the significance and importance of the nude as an artform
worthy of serious academic study, rather than merely as either of anatomical
interest, or as providing a titillating subject.

There are four sections in this chapter: the first concentrates on the distinction
between the naked and the nude; the second looks at the four types of nudes in
Clark's typology; the third reconsiders the formalist basis in terms of Clark's

application of this aesthetic theory; the fourth is an evaluation of Clark's thesis of
justification and his typology. The first essay, "The Naked and the Nude",
orientates the perspective which is proposed as the correct way of going about
this genre.

2: Kenneth Clark: the naked and the nude

The purpose of this chapter in Clark's text as a whole is twofold: firstly, the
perspective offered here provides the general theoretical orientation of the study,
and secondly it is here that Clark defines his topic. In this section I concentrate
on how Clark initially defines the nude by what it is not (i.e. naked). The
relationship between naked and nude for Clark hinges on two arguments: one,
the anti-mimetic notion that in art "we do not wish to imitate; we wish to perfect"
(4); and two, the inherent erotic content of the nude. In order to justify his
definition, Clark analyses the classical origin of the nude.

The strict distinction between the concepts 'naked' and 'nude', is based on the
"elaborate generosity" of the English language when the latter word "was forced
into our vocabulary by critics of the early 18th century in order to persuade the
artless islanders that in countries where painting and sculpture were practised
and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of
art" (Clark, 1956: 1). In other words, 'Art' is a civilised, educated and cultured
endeavour which should not be confused with our own personal and human
feelings toward our own bodies, because "to be naked is to be deprived of our
clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel
in that condition" (1).

It is Clark's project to educate 'us' in the proper way to contemplate nudes. The
illustration of Velasquez's Rokeby Venus on the same page, a very confident
and beautiful nude painted by an apparently austere and deliberate man, serves
his argument. The Rokeby Venus subscribes to Western standards of desirable
feminine beauty; she is slim, white and "pretty". Her back faces the spectator,

while she admires herself in the mirror held up by Cupid. Above all else, she is
the mythical goddess of love and not an individual found in the 'real', and Clark
hints at this being a crude, world. He introduces the nude as art because the
"image it projects into the mind is ... of a balanced, prosperous and confident
body: the body re-formed" (1). Nudes do not represent or imitate naked people;
"the naked body is no more than the point of departure for a work of art" (4). The
role of mimesis is further discredited because "the nude remains the most
complete example of the transmutation of matter into form" (23). Transmutation
is not merely transfiguration, but indicates that the form of the naked model is
completely different to the form of the nude in a painting or sculpture.

[Nevertheless] no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the

spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even although it be only the
faintest shadow - and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false
morals. The desire to grasp and be united with another human body
is so fundamental a part of our nature, that our judgement of what is
known as 'pure form' is inevitably influenced by it; and one of the
difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot
lie hidden ... but are dragged into the foreground, where they risk
upsetting the unity of responses from which a work of art derives its
independent life. Even so, the amount of erotic content which a work
of art can hold in solution is very high (6).
Again the distinction between our own weaknesses and desires and the role that
this might play in the contemplation of art, is reflective only of ourselves and the
world that we inhabit. It has little, if anything, to do with the works, according to
Clark. How we perceive, respond and associate with nudes is insignificant, as is
the relationship between the artist and the model. This is a problem (i.e.
controlling his carnal urges) that the artist has to face:

To scrutinise a naked girl' as if she was a loaf of bread or a piece of

rustic pottery is surely to exclude one of the human emotions of which
a work of art is composed; and, as a matter of history, the Victorian
moralists who alleged that painting the nude usually ended in
fornication were not far of the mark (Clark, 1956: 353).

sic - the subject of these paintings are women, not children.

For Clark, Classical Greece provides the origin of the nude as an artform. "The
(perfect) bodies were there, the belief in the gods was there, the love of rational
proportion was there. It was the unifying grasp of the Greek imagination that
brought them all together" (Ibid.: 22). The classical heritage is vital in Clark's
understanding of the nude, because the "antique scheme had involved so
complete a fusion of the sensual and the geometric as to provide a kind of
armour" (Ibid.: 348).

For Clark the distinction between the image and the body is complete - naked
and nude are almost mutually exclusive concepts, and although both entail a
certain amount of eroticism, in art this is intellectual and does not entail the
states of arousal which are labelled as uncultivated responses to real bodies. In
his typology, or the rest of the book for that matter, Clark does not return to this
argument but rather elaborates on the intellectual pursuit of the perfection which
has occurred through nude artworks through the prominent ages.

3: Clark's typology

an interpretative synopsis

Clark has a very clear idea of the origin of the nude which is represented by the
Classical gods Apollo and Venus, to the extent of isolating the first male and
female sculpture from Antiquity which can be said to embody ideal form (first
type). This idealism can also be traced through the active or passive states of
the mind shown by the heroic body either victorious or defeated (second type).
Clark warrants an alternative tradition (third type) to that concerned with ideal
form; the parallel tradition of Dionysis and his companions (mainly female) uses
ideal form without its rational and contained context, while the Early Christian
Gothic nude redescribes the proportions of the body. The forth type of nude "As
an End in Itself", is on the one hand inclusive of all works which could be named
thus, and on the other justifies the interest in the nude as pure form.

(i) The Ideal Form - Apollo and Venus
The first nude sculptures are the Greek male Apollos from the sixth century B.C.
Although naked prehistoric figurines date earlier, these do not qualify as art but
are rather, one surmises from Clark's thesis, cultural artefacts. It was a whole
century later that the female counterpart to Apollo made her public entry. Apollo
is the Greek Olympian god of Reason and Light (his Roman planetary
connection is the sun), while Venus is the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite, the
goddess of love and desire. Clark explains the later entry of the female nude by
saying that love between men was more highly regarded, and that women
played a very limiting domestic role which kept them out of sight. Men were
lightly clad in society and partook in athletics naked, while women were always
heavily draped.

For Clark, it was the perfect cultural climate of ancient Greece which inspired and
incited the conception of the ideal nude. In an atmosphere of "passionate
pleasure in the human body [and] heightened sensuality" (29),

it is the moment of balance - a physical balance between strength and

grace, a stylistic balance between naturalism and the ideal, a spiritual
balance between the old worship of the god and the new philosophy,
in which that worship was recognised as being no more than a poetic
exercise. And of these three the last was never achieved again.
During the next century the frontiers of physical beauty were extended
materially (38).
This threefold balance applies more to Apollo than to Venus. According to Clark,
understanding the influence of the god Apollo in the tradition of the nude is
crucial to realising the significance of this form of art. Clark writes that for the
Greeks "Apollo was like a perfectly beautiful man ... because his body conformed
to certain laws of proportion and so partook of the divine beauty of mathematics"
(26). From the earliest sculptures of this god the two characteristics of being
clear and ideal precede the characteristic of aesthetic beauty: "The shapes they
present - their members and the areas of their bodies - are neither pleasant in
themselves nor comfortably related to one another, but each one is firmly

delineated and aspires to a shape which the measuring eye can easily grasp...
[Greek art] starts from the concept of a perfect shape and only gradually feels
able to modify that shape in the interests of imitation" (27). From the illustrations
Clark uses to support this argument, imitation entails a more fluid stance and the
fleshing out of, especially, the torso. Whatever his shape and pose, "Apollo is
static. His gestures are dignified and calm" (50).

Rhythm, balance and proportion are the crucial elements in the ideal form of

Plate 4: Hermes holding the infant

Dionysis (after Praxiteles).

"A figure may have within itself the

rhythms of movement, but yet always
comes to rest at its true centre. It is
complete and self-sufficient. But
balance is only half the problem. The
parts balanced must have some
measurable relation to one another:
there must be a canon of proportion"
(Clark, 1956: 33).

The "placing of a portrait head on the ideal nude body [by which] evidently it was
thought that the divinity of the ruler could be enhanced by giving him the
authorised body of a god" (43) occurred during the era of the Roman empire.
This is an extension of Clark's thesis that nudes are ideal representations rather
than realistic copies of the subjects - it is inconceivable for him that these
emperors had attractive bodies.

From about the second century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. the "idea of naked
perfection appears relatively seldom... When at last Christianity began to evolve

its own symbols' there were few contemporary models from which Apollo might
be transpersonalised into Adam" (47). It is really only during the Italian
Renaissance that the Apollonian nude makes its re-entry in the tradition of the
nude; Michelangelo being the most successful artist in achieving the
embodiment of ideal form through a sensitivity of the sensual fluidity of harmony.
More specifically, he "exaggerated the Polyclitan stance (one foot before the
other, which in a subtle way slants the pelvis), so that the axis of the shoulders
contrasts violently with that of the hips, and has indicated the muscles with
anatomical exactness" (57).

Plate 5: The Cnidian Venus

(after Praxiteles)

The beginnings of the ideal female form are

not as clear as that of the male. According
to Clark, there are two basic forms of
expression that the female body undergoes
in the search for the ideal - these being the
celestial (or Crystalline) and natural (or
Vegetable) Venus. This duality is already
present in Venus being the goddess of
sacred heterosexual love, while inspiring
unreasonable desire and lust in all men
who saw her. According to Clark, these
two features were initially completely
distinctive which he illustrates with
prehistoric figurines. However, the
justification of the female nude lies in the
attempt to silence the irrational expression
of love:

The two main male figures of Christianity, Adam and Jesus, are typified in the Gothic alternative
convention and Pathos respectively, and will be discussed in these sections later on.


Since the earliest times the obsessive, unreasonable nature of

physical desire has sought relief in images, and to give these images
a form by which Venus may cease to be vulgar and become celestial
has been one of the recurring aims of European art (64)... These two
basic conceptions never quite disappear, but since art involves the
application of laws, the distinction between the two Venus's grows
very slight; and even when most unlike one another they partake of
each other's characters (65).
On this continuum, the Classical Venus is celestial. In other words, the erotic
content is restrained within the contours of her ideal form. For Clark it is during
the Renaissance with the reclining nude, that the erotic content lies much closer
to the surface. Although there is no clear boundary, in general Venus "passed
from religion to entertainment, from entertainment to decoration: and then she
disappeared. When she emerged again everything made by man had changed
its shape: clothes, buildings, written characters, systems of thought and morals;
and the female body had changed also" (87).

Clark calls the prelude to Venus "short and scrappy" because it "contains
evidence of vitality and a sense of physical charm, [but] is entirely without that
search for finality of form which, on our definition, is the basis of the nude" (67).
He gives two reasons for this: "There were both religious and social reasons for
the scarcity. Whereas the nakedness of Apollo was a part of his divinity, there
was evidently ancient traditions of ritual and taboo that Aphrodite must be
swathed in draperies... The naked Venus was embarrassingly associated with
oriental cults, and it was because the beauty of her body might seem an
inducement to heresy and not for moral reasons that [she] became an object of
clerical disapproval" (65). It serves Clark's thesis to associate nudity more
readily with Reason than with Love.

For Clark, the plastic elements of femininity were formally embodied in the fifth
century B.C. with a "stocky little peasant such as might be found in any
Mediterranean village" (67). The figures before are fairly stylised and static; ideal
female form or the "architecture of the body which will control the observations of

classically minded artists till the end of the 19th century and has been given
fresh life in our own day by Renoir", according to Clark, entails that "breasts will
become fuller, waists narrower and hips will describe a more generous arc" (68).
With these alterations the step from imitation to perfection is more complete.

In the expression of ideal form, the use of drapery is found to have many
advantages for the female body: "This device was used from archaic times
onward, the earliest sculptors seeming to recognise how drapery may render a
form both more mysterious and more comprehensible. A section of a limb, as it
swells and subsides, may be delineated precisely, or left to the imagination; parts
of the body which are plastically satisfying can be emphasised, those which are
less interesting can be concealed; and awkward transitions can be made smooth
by the flow of line" (68-69). The beneficial use of this device, for Clark, is
partially draping the legs which solves the problem of having the figure
precariously balanced on "spindly" appenditures.

The most successful standing pose which displays femininity according to Clark,
is similar to that which perfected the male nude; i.e. the weight of the figure is
carried by the right leg while the left is bent as if walking. "This disposition of
balance has automatically created a contrast between the arc of one hip,
sweeping up till it approaches the sphere of the breast, and the long, gentle
undulation of the side which is relaxed; and it is to this beautiful balance of form
that the female nude owes its plastic authority to the present day" (71). A further
development in this structure is the arms positioned in such a way so as to
indicate modesty, again emphasising the breasts of the figure.

The cult of sanctifying is what allows Venus to be celestial, and in the search for
finality of form, Clark establishes her tradition first. However, in and amongst
these idealised forms, the Venus Naturalis finds expression as well, and
according to Clark, this "false twin" became the christianised Venus in the Gothic
period. The celestial sister disappeared, possibly when Pompeii was destroyed
in the first century A.D. In her place, when the female nude appeared at all, she

was natural rather than heavenly. The ideal Venus was finally uncovered and so
rediscovered during the Renaissance and this with the help of the Three Graces.
A group in Sienna "which was to assume such importance in the Renaissance,
was not, even then, considered a masterpiece of sculpture, but only the
repository of a beautiful idea" (85). However, "Venus, as was to be expected,
was not at first admired for her celestial attributes. There remained a large
section of conservative opinion which regarded her simply as the embodiment of
lust" (89-90).

As Clark himself has admitted in the beginning of his chapters on Venus, the
distinction which can be drawn between the two is not absolute. What plays a
role in Clark's judgement is, firstly, form - the Natural Venus has "more generous
proportions than were usual in antiquity [especially the] width of pelvis [and]
ample expanse of stomach" (117); secondly, there is a sensuality in the "art of
colour" in creating "this panoply of flesh" that surpasses the pale surfaces of
marble; thirdly, the setting for these figures, "the more tangible environment of
thick grasses, rustic wells and abundant foliage" (113), encourages the biological
and generative form. The setting used for reclining figures together with form
determines whether she is Natural or Celestial. These factors allow that the
Natural Venus has an "unprejudiced sensuality" and "gives an impression of
directness unprecedented in the nude" (116).

One of the themes that appears in this naturalisation is the "antique habit of
personification by which the essence of every pleasant thing in nature - springs,
flowers, rivers, trees, even the elusive echo - could be thought of as having the
shape of a beautiful girl" (115). The Natural Venus, unlike her Celestial sister, is
not primarily associated with divinity. The distinction between the two Venuses
can also be found in subtle changes of expression; for example, the pose that
was modest in the Celestial Venus is modified slightly so that the breasts are
propped and emphasised rather than 'covered'.

Clark's treatment of the ideal forms of the male and female differs, but he
sanctions this through the historical context in which they occurred. This is
characteristic of the way he 'treats' gender in his whole thesis. It is also apparent
that Clark is most comfortable with the 'cold' monotone medium of marble which
necessarily encourages an analysis of form, than with the more sensual and
imitatory medium of paint. By firmly rooting the nude to its classical origin Clark
hopes to define its purpose as a form of art. In the next type, he uses this as the
foundation for two expressive states of mind which are complete opposites,
giving the indication that nudes are either active or passive.

(ii) Expressive states of the mind - Energy and Pathos

Plate 6: The heroic diagonal:
Borghese Warrior

In this second of Clark's four types,

the (predominantly male) body is used
to express victory or defeat. "Energy
is eternal delight", Clark quotes Blake
at the start of this chapter. The
movement that Clark intends here is
noble and controlled. It is directed
and purposeful - a celebration of
man's power over his adversaries and
own body'. The two embodiments of Energy are the Athlete and Hero, although
they are not mutually exclusive and were initially combined. The total lack of
energy in Pathos indicates that which we cannot overcome - our mortality.

There are immediate formal problems when presenting the naked human body in

These early artists considered the human body, that forked radish,
that defenceless starfish, a poor vehicle for the expression of energy,
compared to the muscle-rippling bull and the streamlined antelope.
Once more it was the Greeks, by their idealisation of man, who turned
the human body into an incarnation of energy, to us the most
satisfying of all, for although it can never attain the uninhibited
physical flow of the animal, its movements concern us more closely"
The naked male body with a defined muscular structure, together with his
celebration in Antiquity, is the athletic hero that is typified in this genre.
However, there is an inherent irony in attempting to embody energy in painting or
sculpture which are static media - the moment of action must be chosen and
frozen. This entails, according to Clark (cf. 163), degrees of distortion, violence
and aggression. So the presentations of the body that we find here show their
energy through deliberate poses that emphasise the muscles used in that action.

Besides muscles, there are four further technical 'distortions' that allow the
uneasy translation. One, the use of drapery is useful when flowing around the
body, indicating the movement that the body is involved in. Two, the formal
technique that Clark prescribes is the use of the heroic diagonal - "at an early
date it was accepted that a figure striding forward, one leg bent, the other
forming a straight, continuous line with his back, should be the symbol of vigour
and resolution" (173). This diagonal can be further enhanced with the arms.
The third distortion is illustrated in Michelangelo's work - "the value of twist and
foreshortening, which not only increase the stock of admirable attitudes, but
make it possible to compose in depth... Twist accelerates movement;
foreshortening is an urgent appeal to the eye, which must hasten to recognise in
a small space what it is accustomed to visualise in extension" (194). The fourth
distortion is to include various stages of an action in one pose. Single figures are
often a concentration of strength, while a group of figures can be used to express
energy and movement more successfully but can cause confusion.

3 It is interesting to note that there is a similarity in this description with the way in which, according
to Clark, the desire of the male spectator should be controlled - male virtues in images and life are
the same in the attempt to control his body (Louise du Toit pointed this out to me).


"In the nudes of Energy the body triumphed... [In Pathos] the beautiful body,
which seemed secure and serene, is defeated by pain" (214). In other words, for
Clark Pathos is the binary opposite to Energy.

This nude embodiment ... is always the expression of the same idea,
that man in his pride has suffered the wrath of the gods. And because
this may be interpreted as the triumph of the divine over the material,
it admits of this development; that the body must be sacrificed to the
spirit if man is to preserve his status 'a little lower than the angels'
In this chapter Clark reflects on the spiritual character of humanity in the face of
the divine. However, in the four typical legends adopted by the Greeks, it is the
pride of the gods that has destroyed the mortals. Niobe suffers the loss of her
children because she is proud that she has so many (fourteen to Leto's two); yet
the sculptures show the suffering of the children who had no part in this pride.
Hector and Meleager, both heroes to their own kind, are defeated. The first by
the god Achilles, and the second by his mother who plays the catalyst to his birth
determined fate. The illustrations in Clark's text entail the heroic ceremony
surrounding their entombment. The third prominent legend is the story of
Marsyas, who was destroyed by Apollo because the former enjoyed playing the
flute. Apollo needed to confirm his status amongst the mortals and challenged
Marsyas, who was then flayed because he could not produce music equal to that
of the god. The fourth, and final, legend is the fate of Laocoon, the "disobedient
priest" (215). Laocoon actually warned the citizens of Troy not to trust the
wooden horse, even though it was a gift from the gods. He was punished for his
astuteness by a sea serpent which embroiled his sons, and himself, in his
attempts to rescue them.

In all four cases, thus, it is the wrath, jealousy and pride of the gods in enforcing
humility on the mortals that causes the pain, suffering and defeat; "the early
legends in which the gods assert their divinity are often, to our way of feeling,
cruel and unjust" (215). Perhaps what we should read from this, as Clark seems

to suggest, is the way in which pain is expressed in totally powerless defeat.
Which is, of course, a happy coincidence for the later Christian embodiment of
Pathos; especially the way in which Jesus accepts his fate.

The important formal aspects are (i) the body which retains its ideal proportions,
thus retaining dignity; (ii) one arm thrown back together with the head; (iii) being
captive, limp, or restrained from action, and so succumbing to fate. Pathos
reflects the moment captured in death. Pathos is either expressed by the
tension of the body, or its loss of virility. What is perhaps strange is that Clark
does not consider this as an extremely human indulgence (the preoccupation
with death), he merely states that "this is the passive attitude to our mortal
bondage" (235).

Plate 7: Provencale, Pieta

The Christian incarnation of

Pathos is seen in works depicting the Crucifixion, expulsion,
flagellation, entombment and


In these subjects there is

conflict between how the body

should be treated - ideal or emaciated. There are positive connotations to both: if the body of
Christ is expressed as ideal,
perfect and beautiful it shows
the ability to spiritually overcome the physical circumstance (cf. 230), while
displaying the utmost degree of anguish will rouse in the spectators the same
pitch of horror in the torment of sin (cf. 226). In either the "body can no longer
triumph in its physical perfection, but feels itself vanquished by some divine
power" (235).

The Romantic expression of Pathos remains within the same realm although
here the concern is with mere mortals. It is here, however brief and rare, that the
female nude is treated similarly to the male: "she is pale, delicate and
defenceless and ... awaits the onslaught of brutality" (260). In this typology the
extremes of vitality and defeat are expressed with similar applause or idealism of
humanity. 'Man' can be dignified in victory and in loss.

(iii) alternative conventions - the Dionysian and Gothic nude

Although Clark does not call the Ecstatic nude thus, she (this type is
predominantly female) does present an alternative convention to the idealised
nudes he has discussed so far. In this type there is loss of control, and to a
certain extent, dignity as well. The nudes of Ecstasy are Dionysian rather than

Plate 8: Maenad

"'A little Olympus outside the greater' ...

describes that population of satyrs, maenads,
sylvans and nereids which represented, in the
Greek imagination, the irrational elements of
human nature, the remnants of animal
impulse which the Olympian religion had
attempted to sublimate or to subdue. And in
art, too, beside the embodiments of impulse,
of abandonment to enthusiasm or panic, or to
the mysterious influences of nature" (Clark,
1956: 264).

The freedom of movement, and lack of constriction in moral lesson allow the
nudes in this type to escape, or abandon, the narrow confines of the contained,
rational classical nude.

There is a necessary unstable element in their

expression which, although initially representing irrational abandonment, later
under the Christian influence also entails spiritual liberation.

The Ecstatic nude counters the rigidity of the previous types. In contrast to the
male nudes of Energy, here "the will has been surrendered, and the body is
possessed by some irrational power; so it no longer makes its way from point to
point by the shortest and most purposeful means, but twists and leaps, and flings
itself backwards, as if trying to escape from the inexorable, ever-present laws of
gravity" (264). Instead of Pathos, "it showed death only as a passage of the soul
through some less rigid element in which the body is remembered for its joy of
sensuous participation rather than for its weight and dignity" (264).

This celebration of body and spirit comes from the drunken riots of Bacchanal
feasting and dancing. Again, as with Energy, movement is achieved by the use
of drapery and pose. The pose is very different: the dancers are usually on their
toes with their heads thrown back, while their arms swing on following the rhythm
of delight. The sea creatures, on the other hand, almost weightlessly levitate,
float and glide over each other. The example that Clark provides of the Christian
translation of the former is Michelangelo's drawings of the Resurrection in the
free explosion of dance, and the latter can be seen in the Creation of Eve
retaining the mystical dreamlike entrance. What was accepted as part of
Graeco-Roman society is not merely adopted, but rather adapted to be
appropriate to the puritan' ideals.

For Clark, there is an undeniable decorative purpose to this genre, making them
flippant and not completely worthy of serious contemplation. Rather, they
provide light, pretty relief. "The nude of Ecstasy has continued to provide
decorative material till the present day, ... the vacant spaces in theatres and
restaurants were filled with a vulgarised Dionysiac imagery" (292).

Considering that this form originates from the drunken Dionysian orgies some adaptation must
take place.

Decoration exists to please the eye; its images should not seriously
engage the mind or strike deep into the imagination but should be
accepted without question, like an ancient code of behaviour. In
consequence, it must make free use of clichs, of figures which,
whatever their origins, have already been reduced to a satisfactory
hieroglyphic. From this point of view the nude provides a store of
perfect decorative material. It pleases the eye, it is symmetrical and it
has been reduced to a simple, memorable form almost as a condition
of its survival (272).
Although his attitude dismisses the human vitality for happiness, Clark redeems
the nude of ecstasy by saying that "even when it seems to be only a factor in
decoration, [it] is always a symbol of rebirth" (296). He forgets that she is the
nude of love and happiness and does not need the burdened weight of
Michelangelo's males to be included in the tradition of the nude: "In our dreams
we fly or swim, and attain thereby a rapturous freedom which, in our waking
lives, we know only in love" (273). Frivolity is a wholesome human quality, which
is, indeed, an alternative to the (largely) austere attitude of the classical nudes.

Throughout the book Clark has given warnings of an alternative convention of

proportion for the (mainly female) nude, to his preferred ideal classical tradition of
proportion. The problem for Clark is that "the shape of the Gothic body, which
suggested that it was normally clothed, gave it the impropriety of a secret" (314).
In other words, this alternative does not comfortably subscribe to his thesis of the
distinction between the naked and the nude.

Roots and bulbs, pulled up into the light, give us for a moment a
feeling of shame. They are pale, defenceless, unself-supporting.
They have the formless character of life which has been both
protected and oppressed. In the darkness their slow biological
groupings have been the contrary of the quick resolute movements of
free creatures ... flashing through a transparent medium, and have
made them baggy, scraggy and indeterminate. Looking at a group of
naked figures in a Gothic painting or miniature we experience the
same sensation. The bulb-like women and root-like men seem to
have been dragged out of the protective darkness in which the human
body had lain muffled for a thousand years (300-1).

That these nudes, for Clark, are more naturalistic or realistic than their classical
counterparts might inflict doubt at their inclusion in this canon of the nude at all.
"The answer is that since nakedness was required in certain subjects of Christian
iconography, the body had to be given a memorable shape, and in the end the
Gothic artists evolved a new ideal" (301). The most apparent subject entails the
stages of degradation and humiliation of Adam and Eve after tempting the wrath
of God. However, "in the opinion of the early Church, [pagan idols] were not
simply pieces of profane sculpture, but were the abode of devils who had
cunningly assumed the shapes and names of beautiful human beings ... [which]
gave to nudity a diabolical association which it long retained" (301). So to
represent the moment when the first humans 'knew that they were naked', the
body had to change its status. It had to express shame.

Plate 9: Van Eyck, Eve

The shame embodied by these figures, Clark maintains, is

by their pitiful comparison to the confidence of the
incarnation of perfection in the Greek gods. But there is
also a humility in being stripped of any `protective armour',
when the body becomes fragile and vulnerable - almost
naked. The modest pose is easily transcribed in the figure
of Eve, while Adam stands meekly by. Christian
iconography and morals interpret the shame at nakedness
as a sexual function. No longer free, romping animals, the
`burden' of reproduction introduces a functionality of sex
which is vastly different to that of antiquity. This is
something that Clark fails to mention, which is important to
an interpretation of the alternative form of the female nude.
"The curve of the stomach is created by gravity
and relaxation. It is a heavy, unstructural curve,
soft and slow, yet with a kind of vegetable persistence. It does not take its shape from the will
but from the unconscious biological process
which gives shape to all hidden organisms" (312)


Her body is not only elongated, but heavily swollen around and below the navel
which is not merely a symbol of fertility, but reminds of how she became
pregnant in the first place - Eve's, and subsequently women's, punishment for
crossing God's order.

It is within this typology that the female nude comes precariously close to
embodying desirability rather than desire: she becomes symbolic of female
vanity and is "presumably intended to embody sensual charm, unabashed and
irresistible" (313). Clark says that "there can be no doubt that [she is] intended to
be physically desirable" (313). On the one hand, it is ironic that the iconography
that attempts to circumscribe sexuality is more open to expressive attitudes of
lust, while on the other (according to Clark) this shape is consistent with these
attitudes - Eve is the embodiment of Adam's temptation. For Clark, this
alternative female shape is the iconographical embodiment of shame. Thus,
although she reminds Clark of naked women, she can still be regarded as a

The alternative convention is, for Clark, the typology in which to classify those
nudes which do not suit the classical convention. His observations come
dangerously close to contradicting his central argument to distinguish the
naked/imitation from the nude/perfection dichotomy. The Gothic proportion is
redeemed not by its shape, but by its expression of Christian morality. How does
Clark's canon of the nude vindicate the otherwise exclusive interest in the
essential quality of form, characteristic of formalist aesthetic theory?

4: a "vindication" of formalism
Clark's typology is primarily based on the form of the particular nude. By form,
the basic shape and proportion of the figure is prioritised above its context and
expression. For Clark, this thesis is determined by the origin of this tradition; in
Classical Greece ideal form was sought to express divinity; context and

expression justify the divergence from ideal form. This was nowhere so radical
as the Gothic creation of a completely different form which serves the purpose of
showing humanity as humble and vulnerable. However, it remains that the form
of the nude determines its interpretation.

Beside the expressive states of the mind within the ordinary needs or actions of
our lives, there are many nudes which are independent of such plastic
construction; these "do not express particular ideas" (335), but can be justified as
an end in themselves. This last chapter in The Nude endorses Clark's use of
formalist aesthetic theory most directly.

In this section, I firstly give an overview of the chapter. Secondly, I look at the
theoretical stakes of formalism. I do this with the help of, primarily, Clive Bell and
move toward a comparative analysis between his conceptions of formalism and
how Clark has altered some of these basic precepts.

(i) Pure Form

The Nude as an End in Itself

Plate 10: Henry Moore

Recumbent figure

To explain this "striving for formal perfection" (337), it is crucial to understand the
dynamic around the "point in the history of European art when the nude became
the centre of academic discipline" (337). Being apprenticed to a master in the
Middle Ages was replaced by the academy where "art is justified, as man is
justified, by the faculty of forming ideas: and the nude makes its first appearance
in art theory at the very moment when painters begin to claim that their art is an

intellectual, not a mechanical activity" (337-8), which was during the fifteenth
century. The "basis of academic procedure is a study of the nude" (338), where
a knowledge of anatomy is encouraged or expected. The idea was that in
painting the nude the underlying structure determines the ultimate form: "begin
with the bones, then add the muscles and then cover the body with flesh in such
a way as to leave the position of the muscles visible" (338). This academic
practise is still used. In the academic nude, therefore, there need not be "the
smallest justification of subject-matter" (340) because what is studied is the body
itself. This practise extended to developing the components of a painting of
figures in the nude first, and then, once satisfied with the composition, the actual
figures would be painted. Clark calls this the "arbitrary use of the nude ... with no
other purpose but to display them as perfect units of form" (342).

However, life studies were of the male body: "the male nude kept its place in the
curriculum of art schools out of piety to the classical ideal, but it was drawn and
painted with diminishing enthusiasm, and when we speak of a nude study ... we
tend to assume that the subject will be a woman. No doubt this is connected
with a declining interest in anatomy and so is part of that prolonged episode in
the history of art in which the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a
sensuous perception of totalities" (343). The other reason that Clark gives is that
in the "eventual establishment of the female model, the tug of normal sensuality
must have a place" (344) - a direct statement that it is his assumption that the
male heterosexual desire is normative. Finally, the plasticity of the expected
female form allows that artists "have found it easier to compose harmoniously the
larger units of a woman's torso; they have been grateful for its smoother
transitions, and above all they have discovered analogies with satisfying
geometrical forms, the oval, the ellipsoid and the sphere" (344).

"A return to the fundamentals of design has always meant ... a return to the
nude; and yet to the creative artist the nude was deeply compromised by its
subjection to the formulae of academic training" (344). This is especially the
case in the art of Clark's contemporaries. Here he discusses the work of

Matisse, Picasso and Moore. The first two reacted not only to the academism of
the nude, but also to the notion that the painter is no more than a "sensitive and
well-informed camera" (345). Both these artists used the nude as "elements of
symbolism and abstraction" (345). Matisse sought this in simplification and
"brings us so close to the sprawling naked body that I, at least, retreat in
embarrassment" (348). Picasso's work, on the other hand, "developed into an
enraged protest at everything involved in the conventional notion of beauty"
(348). As with Matisse, Clark finds the explicit sexual and erotic character of
Picasso's work offensive, and perhaps even inappropriate.

This does not mean that the attempt to create an independent form on
the basis of the human body is a lost cause; only that the old
approach by which art-school nudes are scrambled into a new pictorial
language involves too great a sacrifice of fundamental responses.
Such a metamorphosis, in so far as it seems to be necessary to our
own peculiar needs, must take place deep in the unconscious, and not
achieved by trial or elimination (355).
Clark uses Moore's sculptures as an illustration of how "modern art [can show]
even more explicitly than the art of the past that the nude does not simply
represent the body, but relates it, by analogy, to all structures that have become
part of our imaginative experience" (357). This does differ from the formalist
attempt at pure disinterested contemplation, where association is seen as a
completely inappropriate attitude in aesthetic quality. Some formalists even go
so far as to say that association dismisses the work as art.

The Nude presents a

modification of the basic formalist arguments; Clark justifies the nude by arguing
that the form is what allows the correct kind of association, which is what makes
these works art. Without this 'formalist' association, nudes would be vulgar,
unrefined, uncivilised and embarrassing.

(ii) the stakes of formalism

By briefly considering Clive Bell's introduction of formalism as an aesthetic
theory, I emphasise the initial problematic of reconciling the nude with this
aesthetic theory. Clark reverses Bell's premise concerning association, but stays

within the general concerns of formalism. This is, in turn, explored by looking at
how formalism revises the previous essence of art (i.e. mimesis) through an
analysis of the artistic situation which coincides with Clark's theory of the nude
being an example of ideal form. The main shift that has occurred is that from
significant form to ideal form.

In this section, the theoretical framework of Clark's project is considered in detail.

In order to achieve a satisfactory understanding of the formalist thesis, which
should precede a reconstruction of Clark's application, I will first give a concise
overview of the original concept of significant form which was conceived by Bell
in 1914, and revised in 1949. Bell admits to a gap in his generalised theory, and
it is within this that Clark finds a suitable way to reconcile the nude with
formalism. Because Clark does not elaborate or explain his aesthetic theory, but
rather uses some of the main and basic arguments from the more recent
conception of formalism, I use Gombrich and Woodfield to express these views.
I want to explain the theory first, and then show how Clark uses these concepts
to justify and analyse the nude.

Bell states in the preface that,

in this little book I have tried to develop a complete theory of visual art.
I have put forward an hypothesis by reference to which the
respectability, though not the validity, of all aesthetic judgements can
be tested, in the light of which the history of art from palaeolithic days
to the present becomes intelligible, by adopting which we give
intellectual backing to an almost universal and immemorial conviction
(1949: 7).
Bell's hypothesis is based on the necessary and sufficient condition for all works
of art - i.e. significant form. With this essential property in hand he then explains
the entire history of art. He also presents arguments to explain how people (the
art critic or aesthetic philosopher is suggested) have been lead astray by not
realising the significance of form. Significant form not only defines art, but also
defines the limits of true aesthetic contemplation, thus refining the role art can


In Bell's aesthetics there is a peculiar relationship between the objective

necessary and sufficient property of art and the subjective emotion necessary for
experiencing this as significant form. His analytical approach is grounded on
"the personal experience of a peculiar emotion" (Bell, 1949: 21). Furthermore, if
this peculiar emotion is not primarily felt when contemplating a painting, this
painting cannot be deemed art. In all artworks "lines and colours are combined
in a particular way [so that] certain forms and relations of forms stir our aesthetic
emotion. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these
aesthetically moving forms, I call 'Significant Form' " (Ibid.: 23).

What relations and combinations excite aesthetic emotion? For Bell the answer
seems to be those works which do not allow our attention to stray or be diverted
from form. Thus any descriptive or representational work is at worst, pure
imitation and thus not art, and at best disguised art; "the reason why some forms
move us aesthetically, and others do not, is that some have been so purified that
we can feel them aesthetically and that others are so clogged with unaesthetic
matter (for example, associations) that only the sensibility of an artist can
perceive their pure, formal significance" (Ibid.: 61).

How, according to Bell, can the human shape be used in art? According to Bell
"in the best works of Poussin, the greatest artist of the age, you will notice that
the human figure is treated as a shape cut out of coloured paper to be pinned on
as the composition directs" (Ibid.: 157). Bell does not contribute to an
understanding of the prevalence of the nude not only in two major epochs,
indeed he dismisses the entire Renaissance when he states that "more first rate
art was produced in Europe between the years 500 and 900 than was produced
in the same countries between 1450 and 1850" (Ibid.: 132), but rather stretching
across the history of humanity. This 'form' signifies something more than
disinterested contemplation. Nudes are descriptive, representational and even
possibly imitations (for example portraits), thus to extrapolate from Bell's critique
of representative art,


they interest us; they may move us too in a hundred different ways,
but they do not move us aesthetically. According to my hypothesis
they are not works of art. They leave untouched our aesthetic
emotions because it is not their forms but the ideas or information
suggested or conveyed by their forms that affect us (Ibid.: 30). 5
Bell acknowledges openly that his theory of art is a generalisation of a simple
hypothesis which he assumes is shared by most people. He says that any one
particular work could undermine his hypothesis, although "the man who stabs a
generalisation with a fact forfeits all claim on good-fellowship and the usages of
polite society" (Bell, 1949: 11). The purpose of a generalisation is not to explain
individual works. His generalised theory is, however, quite open to manipulation
due to the subtle ways that the significance of form might be argued to operate in
a work. This presents a gap in which a formalist thesis might be elaborated or
revised, over and above those he admits to. For example, Clark considers 'form'
to be the significant element or essence of art, he does not feel restricted to
conceptual works, but discusses form in a highly mimetic topic in art.

How does Clark vindicate formalism in a study of the nude as ideal art? A
simplified way of explaining this is to say that Clark revises the hypothesis of
significant form to ideal form.

(iii) ideal, rather than significant, form

While Sir Kenneth views the nude first and foremost as a significant
form, he would like to give the term wider implications, and this leads
to a certain indecision in the interpretation (Ettlinger, 1957: 349).
The associations that we might have toward the naked body are not present in,
although they might affect, our appreciation or contemplation of the nude,
because nudes are primarily ideal and not mimetic. According to Clark, the
idealisation of the human body can be analysed by taking account of two
approaches within the tradition. On the one hand, Clark elaborates the notion of

perfection rather than imitation, by considering geometric and almost scientific
(or rather, alchemic) methods of proportion and design. This theory is enhanced
by anti-mimetic formalist observations of the artistic situation. This is further
supported by, on the other hand, the classical foundation of the nude where ideal
form is observed as an intricate part of Greek philosophy. Although these two
aspects are intricately linked, I will discuss them separately, as the first is tied to
a formalist thesis, while the second relies on a conception of archetypes.

The later formalists take their cue from Bell:

I have not discussed as fully as I might have done the relation of the
essential to the unessential. There is a great deal more to be said
about the mind of the artist and the nature of the artistic problem. It
remains for someone who is an artist, a psychologist, and an expert in
human limitations to tell us how far the unessential is a necessary
means to the essential - to tell us whether it is easy or difficult or
impossible for the artist to destroy every rung in the ladder by which
he has climbed to the stars (Bell, 1949: 8).
The basic problematic with which formalism is concerned is describing the
aesthetic experience of art. 6 The basic premise is that the objects of
contemplation in aesthetic theory (artworks), exist due to the person who created
them. Therefore, to understand the meaning of art, we should find out what the
artist thought when he/she made the piece. According to this theory, the artistic
situation which gives rise to art and "how the art historian gains access to the
contemporary perception of works of art produced in the past" (Woodfield, 1994:
138) will explain the aesthetic experience of art. The interpretation of the artistic
situation is basically defined in the formalist thesis as trying to offer an
explanation of the artist's perception and depiction of his/her contemporary
world, and how this is related to how the spectator sees or experiences the
resulting object. Thus the fundamental problem is the relationship between what
the artist perceives and how this is depicted.

In the following section I explore how Clark reverses exactly this thesis.

From this we can derive two main areas of concern in the formalist conception of
the artistic situation: first, the role of the artist and second, the history of art.
Underlying these concerns, "Formalism as a program for the interpretation of
works of visual art is the position that the aesthetic significance of the work
inheres in the arrangement of its plastic elements" (Sartwell, 1994: 327).

Gombrich in Art and Illusion (1986) describes the role of the artist when he writes
that the "content of a work of art that can be grasped conceptually and
expressed in verbal terms does not represent the artistic substance which owes
its existence to the creative powers" (10-11). In formalist aesthetic theory the
artist as the creator of the artwork has complete authority over the "plastic
elements" of the completed product, which is also the form that the spectator
perceives. The formalist is concerned with how the artist perceives nature, and
then how she/he chooses to depict it. In other words, a painting is never an
actual mimetic representation of life. "The artist's ideal but impossible aim was to
arrive at some kind of fit between visual experience and depiction" (Woodfield,
1994: 135).

According to formalism to arrive at this 'non-representational fit' the experience of

the artist must be considered more closely. The intervention of knowledge plays
a role in how the artist perceives nature. With increased knowledge of the
environment more things become noticeable. An example of this is that a visual
artwork is necessarily static, which is never the case in nature; "the painter's
problem was to reconcile this freedom of movement, and point of view, with the
need to create a single image" (Woodfield, 1994: 135). The second problematic
area which is close to the first is that "even the simplest sense impression that
looks like merely raw material for the operations of the mind is already a mental
fact, and what we call the external world is really the result of a


psychological process" (Gombrich, 1986: 13). The idea that nature is not
represented in art is also evident and, I think, justified in the formalist

This could also be depicted as the basic problematic of all modern aesthetic theory, i.e. 'what is

interpretation of the relationship between space and form which again reflects
the relationship between the artist's perception and her/his depiction. The artist
ultimately creates forms, rather than trying to imitate nature (space). From the
formalist perspective, the artist is seen as having exceptional ability and skill in
recognising form in nature and expressing that on a canvas. This coincides with
Clark's perspective that we instinctively perfect rather than imitate:

It is widely supposed that the naked human body is in itself an object

upon which the eye dwells with pleasure and which we are glad to see
depicted. But anyone who has frequented art schools and seen the
shapeless, pitiful model which the students are industriously drawing
will know that this is an illusion (Clark, 1956: 3).
This is so even in photographs, because in this medium the artist can touch up,
affect the lighting, shades and so forth. During the Renaissance there were
various attempts to work out the exact proportions and geometrics of the ideal
shape. In the female, for example, the size of the head equals the distance
between the breasts and is also the length from the breasts to the navel, and
from the navel to the "division of the legs" (Clark, 1956: 17). The male nude "is a
model of proportion because with arms and legs extended it fits into those
`perfect' geometrical forms, the square and the circle" (Ibid.: 13). However, the
attempts to precisely formulate the ideal proportions have lead to highly
unattractive figures - for example Durer's Nemesis.

Clark leaves room for an

almost mystical element in his argument around proportion, which he justifies by

the cultural supremacy of the Greeks. Clark demonstrates that the
circumstances around the Greek conception of the ideal nude can never be
repeated by emphasising the role nudity played in that society:

In our study of the nude it is the unlikeliness which is significant: not

simply because Greek athletes wore no clothes, although that is of
real importance, but because of two powerful emotions which
dominated the Greek games and are largely absent from our own:
religious dedication and love. These gave to the cult of physical
perfection a solemnity and a rapture which have not been experienced
since (Clark, 1956: 29).

In other words, according to Clark the initial artistic situation of the nude in
general can never be repeated. What we are left with are numerous examples of
the ideal embodiment of form, from which we can derive significance if not a
watertight formulae.

A second major concern in the formalist thesis is how, being chronologically

removed from the initial artistic situation, spectators experience the same object.
It is felt that the formalist certainty about the artwork can be experienced in each
situation of contemplation, and can therefore not be purely representational.
What is the role of the art historian, and less 'refined' spectators in general,
considering that up till formalism, art was looked at, or experienced, falsely as
mimetic? By using intuition (our instinctive, unmediated, and natural response to
the image. Cf. Lang, 1992: 403, 405) we can share the artistic experience
ahistorically. Intuition will thus distinguish art from non-art, as it is only art that
incites the aesthetic experience. The "history of art became the history of forms
of visual attention" (Woodfield, 1994: 137).

The formalist position against the mimetic nature of (visual) art might appear as a
rather unnecessarily meticulous argument, which can fairly freely be assumed in
contemporary aesthetic thought. However, at the time that formalism was
quickly becoming an important new trend in aesthetic contemplation (i.e. after
the turn of the century, preceding Word War I) the previous standard tradition in
aesthetics relied strongly on mimetic notions. This can be seen in the art of the
Renaissance (portraiture becomes popular) climaxing in Impressionism (trying to
capture the slightest perceptual moment of an impression). Mimesis could not
reach a further end in comparison to the technological, and thus scientifically
accepted as "correct", imitation of the art of photography. Representation, or
mimesis became a less prominent feature of an aesthetic theory of visual
artworks, which can be seen as one of the "achievements" of formalism.
However, the formalists wanted to replace mimesis as the essential quality of art
with 'form'.

But merely replacing one essence with another is not a fair retrospective
exposition of the formalist project. They also wanted to re-describe the whole
history of art using the new "intuitive" aesthetic theory of form. The intuitive
aesthetic experience of form should match the "innocent eye" of the artist (or
original intuition), which entails that the "objects or activities evaluated possess a
characteristic which is simple or `unanalysable' - irreducible and non-natural - not
located in space or time" (Lang, 1992: 403). This coincides with the attitude
Clark tries to cultivate for the contemplation of the nude by providing, what he
feels to be, an inclusive typology.

5: evaluation
I have considered Clark's thesis and theoretical underpinnings in detail for
various reasons. His text represents the standard tradition of the nude, and is
seminal in being the first academic analysis of this genre of art. I also feel,
however, that there are benefits to his formalist approach to the nude, but that
these need serious revision because attitudes and discourses towards
aesthetics, art and gender have changed and developed radically since his
contribution to an understanding of the nude. The critique levelled at Clark here
is symphatetic to his particular historical context - 'he did not know any better'. I
will return to these issues in Chapter IV after I have considered the feministinformed critique against his naive and largely unfounded assumptions
concerning the gendered politics of the body - I have quoted at length as this
illustrates sufficiently that he makes assertions relating to gender without
providing evidence. The most obvious example, is that he assumes that his
readership is male and heterosexual and will naturally agree with his proportions
for the ideal form of the female body.

Clark's contemporary critiques do not find much fault with his text, other than
quibbling about the exact dating of certain works (Cf. Robertson, 1958: 171),
whether Moore's sculptures can be appreciated as 'ideal' or not being British
enough (Cf. Squire, 1956: 1108), to cite a few examples. In Ettlinger's review

there is a brief critique of Clark's thesis that all nudes should contain 'some
vestige of erotic feeling': "While this argument certainly is pertinent, such a view
can be applied at best only to a limited number of nudes. Even without falling
back to the old psychological theory of empathy, it must be realized that the
appeal of a nude of any kind - and hence the expressive vocabulary of all nudes
- is psychologically and aesthetically more complicated" (1957: 349). Although
Ettlinger does not say as much, he points to the inevitable role that personal
taste plays in the appreciation of the erotic content of a nude, and this is indeed
more complicated than what Clark allows.

Clark's discomfort with 'Other' tastes, expressions and shapes is best illustrated
in his discussion of the Gothic nude. There must be quite a few reasons why I
do not understand this nude as being more desirable than any other.' Clark
seems to think that as soon as artists observe from nature (which the Gothic
nude is to him), the female nude becomes exemplary of a horrified curiosity and
"appetite for accident [in which the] eye sought for the peculiarities of the body"
(315) is shown. Discomfort, for Clark, is related to being naked, which in turn is
related to the real world, which in turn distracts from his argument of the chief
justification of the nude as perfection rather than imitation. Clark cannot
consistently prove that naked bodies are merely a starting point for studies of the
nude. It is not satisfactory to limit the discourse of sexuality to the artist/model

Clark allows that desire plays a role in the contemplation of the nude, but his
thesis does not sufficiently analyse, on the one hand, the assumed 'maleness' of
this gaze, and on the other, that this is dependent on personal taste and
experience. There are benefits to a conceptual distinction between the naked
and the nude, but they are not mutually exclusive. Why is Clark so adamant in
his attempt to keep art separate from life? Besides the anti-mimetic sentiment of
the time, he has created a text which takes as serious this tradition or form of art

Being heterosexual and female might have much to do with this.

and so encourages the contemplation of (rather than the titillating or voyeurist
content) the most direct expression of humanity.

Why does Clark recognise a necessity or need to justify the nude? Unfortunately
he does not overtly motivate his project, and so leaves this crucial question open
to speculation. I have surmised, through reading and analysing his text, that the
so-called prudish Victorians needed an academic or intellectual explanation for
the dominance of nude figures in art. However, credence must be given to
Clark's attempt to 'save' figurative art from the 'formalist invasion' on this
institution, and in this, I think, he was successful and it is for this reason that The
Nude remains important as a corner stone to an aesthetics on the nude. Nudes
are artworks, and this allows, or rather encourages, an interpretative dialectic of
this genre which opens a whole field which is worthy of serious consideration for
anyone interested in the discourse or category of gender.

Chapter III

The politics of the body:

a history of oppression

On 10 March 1914, shortly after 10.00 am., a small woman, neatly dressed in a
grey suit, made her way through the imposing entrance of the National Gallery,
London. It was a Tuesday and so one of the Gallery's 'free' days, when the
entrance fee was waived in order to allow those who could not afford an
admission charge an opportunity to enjoy and be instructed by some of the
western (sic.) world's most well-known and valuable works of art. The woman
made her way through the gallery's succession of rooms, pausing now and then
to examine a painting more closely or to make a drawing in her sketch-book.
Eventually she made her way to a far corner of Room 17, where she stood,
apparently in rapt contemplation, before a picture on an easel. By now it was
approaching lunch-time and the room was beginning to empty of the crowds who
filled the gallery on its 'free' days. Suddenly, the tranquillity of the museum was
broken by the sound of smashing glass. The attendant who was on duty in the
room immediately looked up towards the skylights; some labourers had been
working there earlier and perhaps there had been an accident. But within an
instant it became clear that the noise came not from a broken skylight but from
the corner of the room where the woman in grey had produced a small axe or
chopper and was attacking the picture in front of her. As soon as the attendant
realised what was happening he rushed over to stop her but slipped on the
recently polished gallery floor, which slowed him down for a few critical seconds.
By this time, other visitors in the gallery and two plain-clothes detectives had also
joined the fray. The woman, who put up no resistance, was disarmed and led
out of the gallery, followed by attendants and an angry and noisy crowd of
visitors and tourists. The woman in grey was Mary Richardson, a well-known
and highly active militant suffragist; the painting that she attacked was
Velazquez's Rokeby Venus'.
Lynda Nead (1992: 34)


1: introduction
Clark's thesis could be called pre-feminist not because feminism had not yet
made an impact on different levels of society, but because he takes no account
of the relevance of the gendered nature (the male and female nude) of the
subject of his text. The painting mentioned in the story above, is the one which
opens his discussion on the naked and the nude, and can be used to illustrate
the radically different approaches formalism and feminism have toward art and
its possible role(s) in society.

Formalism curbs the many different responses to art by claiming that the
aesthetic experience is achieved through the disinterested contemplation of the
formal elements. In other words, aesthetic appreciation is detached from
associations; the focus is the construction of the work itself. For feminism, the
content of the work and its reception determine its possible meaning(s); the
associations the work provokes are central. It would, therefore, seem from the
outset that these two theories conceptualise aesthetics in completely divergent
ways, to the degree that the fields of interest appear to be different subjects.

For Clark, the Rokeby Venus illustrates how the naked body is transformed or
idealised by art; "wrinkles, pouches and other small imperfections ... are
eliminated" (1956: 4). By his thesis, the Rokeby Venus' mutilation forty-two
years previously, had he mentioned it, demonstrates an inappropriate or
uneducated response because the aesthetic boundary between naked (non-art)
and nude (art) is not maintained. Richardson's demonstration shows, to say the
least, an "uncomfortable overtone" which is appropriate only as a response to the
vulnerability and embarrassment we feel about our own nakedness. Nowhere in
Clark's text is space allowed for socio-political responses to the nude, let alone
the possibility that male and female spectators might respond differently to the
work, whereas "the spectre of the axe-wielding Mary Richardson stands behind
every feminist pronouncement on the representation of the female body" (Nead,
1992: 43).


Since Kenneth Clark's major study, The Nude, appeared in 1956,

value changes and social changes (influenced particularly by the rise
of feminism), as well as aesthetic and technological developments in
painting and photography, have produced new attitudes to the role
and meaning of the naked body in art (Saunders, 1989: 3).
The category of gender is central to feminist discourse. There are two feminist
texts of note on the nude that I will concentrate on here. The principle aim for
Saunders (1989) is to provide 'a new perspective' (also the sub-title to her book)
or typology for nudes, while Nead (1992) is concerned with the academic and
artistic frames which characterise the female nude. These two texts can be
contextualised by the shift between first and second generation feminism
respectively. The primary aim of the first generation is to expose patriarchal
structures of meaning which uncritically or actively endorse the submission and
oppression of women. A typical strategy within this socio-political framework is
to analyse gender in terms of binary oppositions, which is used extensively by
Saunders to show how the nude expresses the control of female sexuality by the
masculine or patriarchal society. Second generation feminism is concerned,
almost exclusively, with women's nature and history which coincides with Nead's
focus on female nudes in order to arrive at an understanding of the different
interpretations of femininity and female sexuality.

The problematic with which this chapter is concerned is how the discourse of
gender has been analysed and presented through studies on a blatantly
gendered genre in visual art. There are two main sections which focus on
Saunders and Nead respectively. Saunders is more specifically concerned with
presenting an alternative typology to Clark's, while Nead's focus is on exposing
and criticising the standard theoretical tradition surrounding the nude.


2: Gill Saunders: a new perspective

Saunders states in the Preface that "this book surveys what has always been an
emotive and contentious subject, from the perspective of the 80s" (1989: 3).
This contrasts radically with Clark's justification of the nude which steers the
reader's thoughts completely away from the emotive and contentious. Rather
than criticising Clark by analysing his thesis, she views his text primarily as being
dated and only of interest in showing the attitudes of the fifties on this subject.
This dismissal is seen clearly in her view that "the female nude was devised as a
category of secular art with no purpose beyond the more or less erotic depiction
of nakedness" (116). For Clark, the female nude presented the artist with a
different construction of forms (the oval and ellipsoid) within the context of
heterosexual male desires. Although he does not deny that the nude has a level
of erotic content, this is not the focus of academic or aesthetic concern.

Feminism, according to Saunders, has radically altered this way of thinking

resulting in "new attitudes to the role and meaning of the naked body in art" (3).
In defining the subject, Saunders does not draw any distinction between the
concepts naked and nude which she sees as being artificial. Saunders mentions
that the "female body is used extensively and indiscriminately in our visual
culture" (7), implying that the nude as a genre does not necessarily (as it does
for Clark) have its own rules and contexts, but rather presents stereotypes of
patriarchal values. Furthermore, she states that the "'nude' is synonymous with
'female nude' because nakedness connotes passivity, vulnerability; it is
powerless and anonymous. In other words it is a 'female' state and equated with
femininity" (7).

Saunders' approach can be identified as first generation feminist aesthetics,

where the primary aim is to reveal patriarchal values and strategies in order to
show how women have been relegated to inferior roles, which consistently
undermine, oppress and suppress. The association of nakedness with femininity
coincides with this feminist method of deconstructing the discourse of gender

where male/female is analysed using self/other. The self represents patriarchal
(male) values while its binary opposite indicates the conception of the other

The central argument in Saunders' book is that the nude expresses the control of
female sexuality by the masculine or patriarchal culture. "Patriarchal tradition
defines sexuality in terms of opposites - domination/submission, active/passive characterizing men as aggressive, independent and analytical, and women as
emotional, nurturing and intuitive" (21). For Saunders this becomes apparent by
looking at the different treatment of female and male nudes; for example, female
nudes are much more common than male nudes, making our response to the
former stereotypical and to the latter awkward.

Saunders' aesthetics is based on the notion that "like any other cultural
production, art serves to construct and identify the stereotypes" (21). In her
'new' typology, nudes are analysed in terms of two prominent dichotomies, the
most important being the active/passive polarisation which entails four types
(passive female, active male, passive male, active female) followed by the nature
(female)/culture (male) opposition. There is one further type - the fetishized
female nude (also extreme passivity). Underlying this typology is the notion that,
according to Saunders, "the real criticism to be levelled at the nude is that it
presents a male fantasy of women's sexuality" (74). The last chapter in her book
looks at ways in which artists, far more often women than men, have attempted
to break with the traditional approach to the nude.

(i) historical context

Saunders says that "our culture is built, in part, on two contradictory philosophies
whose conflicting ideas are clearly evident in the attitude to the naked human
body" (9). These philosophies are dependant on the cultures in which they were
founded: the Greek and Gothic. "For the Greeks, the nude, apart from its
celebration of physical beauty, expressed the nobility and potential of the human
spirit, but in Christian theology nakedness became a symbol of shame and guilt"

(9). Saunders is in agreement with Clark concerning the attitude and meaning of
classical nudes, although she does not call this ideal but rather intends to
emphasise the stereotyped association with the naked human body free from
guilt and shame, which has since, according to Saunders, never been repeated
due to the influence of Christian morality on the Western world.

The point that Saunders is making is that the "naked body in art is ambiguous,
and nudity subject to conflicting interpretations" (10). This ambiguity is perhaps
nowhere so apparent as during the Renaissance. Although "the Renaissance
nude demonstrates a reversion to classical ideals and precedents" (10) this
occurred within the Christian framework. In continuation of some medieval
topics, Renaissance artists strove to symbolise ideal concepts based on classical
forms, but more often than not, expressing Christian morality - for example,


Temptation, Last Judgement and Torments of Hell were particularly popular

topics at the time: "the moral is obvious - nakedness is the outward sign of the
sins of the flesh indulged and will be punished accordingly" (9).

The Western tradition of the nude has overtones of uncomfortability. For

Saunders, the aspect of vulnerability is inextricably connected with nudity (Clark
circumvents this dilemma by distinguishing between the naked and the nude).
"The nude has remained constant as a subject of art in all ages of European
society, whatever the prevailing attitude to the public display of the body.
Objections to the fact of nudity are rare; it is only the character or presentation of
that nudity which attracts attention" (10). The standard tradition of the nude, as
put forward by Clark, avoids the controversial and awkward - it is Saunders'
project to show how this precarious balance is maintained through patriarchal
culture, and the double standards this necessarily entails.

The differing treatment of the male and female body in art is already apparent
during the fifteenth century where the male nude became "the basis of art
training" (17). A painter's apprenticeship started with copying classical
sculptures, and progressed to painting from the live (male) model when "his

imagination was well stocked with ideal forms to counterbalance the distressing
variety of nature in the individual" (17). It is important to note that Saunders is
here describing the attitudes of the training process during a particular period,
whereas for Clark this conception of ideal form is what distinguishes the nude
(art) from the naked (non-art). It is also interesting that both authors draw a
distinction between the shape of the model and the expectation of the work
which reiterates the attitude of public art school training.

Saunders gives three reasons for the use of the male nude in this context:

[The] first being that the male represented physical perfection and that
woman was necessarily physically, as well as morally inferior.
[Secondly] studios and academies were a male preserve which
excluded women in any capacity, student or model. [And thirdly] the
sexual puritanism of the Christian tradition also militated against the
study of the female life model (17).
In academic institutions the female model was not used till late in the nineteenth
century, and then drawing from life was no longer a obligatory feature of
professional art training (cf. Saunders, 1989: 116). It is interesting to note that
there are very few documented examples of these academic male nudes, and
that it was the same time, according to Saunders, that the female nude became
prominent again. This very distinct difference in attitude towards the male and
female figures prompts Saunders to look more closely at the prevalent
dichotomies based on gender underlying the nude.

(ii) a gendered typology

Saunders' main concern is to point out the stereotypes that are most prevalent in
the tradition of the nude.

Since the period of the ancient Greeks, the nude as a subject of art
has been an obvious site for the construction of sexual difference...
Attitudes to gender and sexuality enshrined in the essentially
patriarchal societies in the West are reflected in representations of the
male and the female (21).


For Saunders, in this construction of gender extreme binary stereotypes are the
only expressions of sexual difference, making men dominant, independent,
rational, public, and women submissive, dependant, emotional and private (and
so forth). It has already been said here that for Saunders the nude is a passive
and vulnerable state of being, necessarily related to the feminine. Clark also
admits that it is very hard to express movement and energy; "[the human body]
can never attain the uninhibited physical flow of the animal" (1956: 162).
Although he implies that the nude is essentially a fairly static subject, he does
not relate this to gender. In his chapter entitled "Pathos" there are more
references to male nudes than to the female and these examples are similar to
those Saunders describes.

- Active versus Passive

Although their influence on the nude is contradictory, Saunders points out that
Greek misogyny and Christian theology are similar in their treatment of the male
and female stereotypes; she maintains that the active man/passive woman
dichotomy to be the essential thesis of these stereotypes. Saunders quotes
Aristotle: "Man is active, full of movement, creative in politics, business and
culture. The male shapes and moulds society and the world. Woman, on the
other hand, is passive, she stays at home as is her nature.
Plate 11:

Ken Kiff,

Man Greeting Woman.

Saunders describes this
image as being blatantly
sexist relegating the reading of the picture into a
political power dynamic
this is not necessarily
consistent with the 'nave'
style of the work.
(Cf. 1989:54)


Saunders considers the four possibilities of using the dichotomies male/female

and active/passive:

Passive - Female
It is in this section that Saunders' thesis of the nude is most apparent; i.e. the
control of female sexuality by the masculine or patriarchal culture. She starts off
with an interpretation of patriarchy and then shows how these attitudes are
prevalent in the female nude.

Passivity as an attribute of women was an imposition of Western

Christian society which sought to control women's sexuality, and by
such means maintain and extend patriarchy. To this end passivity in
women was characterised as 'good', activity or autonomy as 'bad'
The first category Saunders uses as an illustration of the passive female nude is
revealed in the relationship between artist and model. In this the male artist is
active, analytical and independent. He controls the situation while the female
model is subject to his critical gaze, and passively holding the same pose for
(possibly) hours. Saunders selects a clever example to support this thesis:

In the original myth of Pygmalion and the statue, it is Aphrodite who

animates the figure. In the course of time, Pygmalion became a
symbol of the romantic lover who could create his ideal beauty
through the intensity of his desire. Here, perfect female beauty is
offered as man's creation, a statue as the ultimate passive, obedient
woman, modelled to conform to male desires (39; emphasis added).
Her conviction, or point of departure, is that "the female nude is an object of
desire, a focus of male sexuality ... As a genre the female nude (there is no male
equivalent) has no purpose beyond the more or less erotic depiction of
nakedness for male consumption" (23) 1 . This statement is representative of first
generation oppositional thinking in that it limits the possible meaning(s) and

relationship(s) between men and women to a one-dimensional stereotypical view
of masculine consumption.

Saunders discusses three further subjects which are often used in the female
nude; these are Modesty, Vanity and the reclining or sleeping nude. In images
of Modesty, the pose exaggerates and emphasises, rather than conceals, the
woman's sex (this being her breasts and genitalia). Being modest subscribes to
the passive thesis, as she does not actively express her sexuality. It is also seen
as an appropriate attitude for women to have. Voyeurism is apparent in images
expressing Vanity, except that here her "nakedness is regarded as a culpable
incitement to male lust" (Saunders: 1989: 23). Now she is condemned for either
finding her own image appealing, or for being aware that this might be the case
for the male - how then can men be blamed for their desire? Reclining and
sleeping nudes offer a similar adherence to these values: she is available,
passive, exhibitionist and narcissistic. But somewhere she is always, according
to Saunders, aware of her sex.

It is perhaps difficult to understand how seemingly opposite concepts can

express the same attitudes for Saunders. "What all these images - the inviting or
unaware - have in common is that their bodies are displayed to the gaze of the
viewer, the pose carefully contrived so as not to interfere with his 2 visual access"

Active - Male

According to Saunders, when men paint the male nude he is almost always
active or dynamic - either fighting, labouring or gesturing. In other words, he is
the binary opposite of the passive female; he is the aggressor, while she is
submissive to any form of power. "In images of the male nude the emphasis is
on how the body works rather than how it appears" (26). This expression of
I will return to these issues in Chapter IV, as these are more complicated to allow for a brief
2 Saunders's assumed spectator is the same as that in Clark (1956); both are based on the
historical context of the images in question.

energy is not a site of sexual pleasure (as Saunders's describes that of the
female nude), but is often "symbolic of phallic power" (26).

It is not immediately apparent what Saunders means by this concept, but does
encourage a brief look at how Jacques Lacan uses the concept phallus (signifier)
in relation to penis (signified). The signified denotes the object, and its structure
(biological, appearance), whereas the signifier connotes the social valorisation of
need, demand and desire and is thus symbolic of 'masculine' power.
Accordingly, neither male nor female possess the phallus, but can express
phallic status. "As signifier, the phallus is not an object to be acquired or an
identity to be achieved. It is only through the desire of the other that one's
position - as either being or having - that the phallus is possible" (Grosz, 1990:

The active male expresses phallic power not only because the whole body is
muscular and potent, and so a celebration of physical power, but also because
"we are alerted to the undercurrents of sexual dominance and harassment
lurking in all (sic.) social interaction between men and women" (Saunders: 1989:

Passive - Male
Plate 12: Benedetto Luti,
Male nude huddled on ground.
This category of nudes is
"essentially the invention of
Christianity .. The central image
of the Christian religion is a
1; tortured male nude, a feminised
man who has passively, even
masochistically accepted
humiliation, punishment and

death" (27). The passive connotations of vulnerability and weakness are
valorised to be self-sacrificial or imposed, and heroic - not innate. Other than the
pieta and crucifixion, themes in this category might be fallen warriors and
martyred saints.

There is a recent example (see Plate 23) that justifies Saunders' approach to the
passive male nude as not conventionally expressing an available sexuality. The
Mail & Guardian (1997: 7-13 March) carries an article on two controversial
advertisements for denim jeans. The one of interest here is the reclining male
nude version of the stereotypical Olympia, with the caption "Well, two can play at
that game". Interestingly the picture is called "Naked Man". Although it is an
appropriate sales line, and clever advertising, many outlets were refusing to sell
the magazines in which he appeared. Yet there is no controversy concerning the
myriad of images depicting female sexuality. "What makes a naked female model
more socially acceptable than her naked male counterpart? Who are the
gatekeepers of supermarkets and chainstores protecting here - women, children
or male vulnerabilities?" (Bagley as quoted by McCloy, 1997: 26).

Active - Female
Plate 13: Robert Mapplethorpe,
Lisa Lyon.
According to Saunders there are only
two particular and limiting categories
for the active female nude in this
tradition. One is the "embodiment, the
allegorical personification, of purely
male qualities, of attributes and
functions permitted only to men in the
social order of the time: Revolution,
Victory, Virtue, Justice" (Saunders:
1989: 28). This is not representative

of phallic power, because she herself is already a symbol.

The `official'

motivation for these images to be female is that they represent beautiful

concepts, and beauty is attributed to the 'ladies'.

The other category of active femininity is the woman as temptress. Here "active
female sexuality indicates voracious sexuality ... These predatory nudes embody
the dangerous `otherness' of women's sexuality unleashed. They menace and
engulf their male 'victim' with their unbridled, and by implication, `unnatural' lusts"
(29). Examples of such mythic archetypes are Eve, the Sphinx, Salome, the
femme fatale of the fin de siecle and Symbolist art. However, these images carry

in their immediate nature the moral condemnation of society; after all Eve was
responsible for the Fall of mankind. Temptress is equated with Harlotry in its
meanest sense.

Fetishized Female

Plate 14: Tom Wesselmann,

The Great American Nude.

The potential critical value of this

letishized nature' is not considered in Saunders's thesis.

There is one more important icon of patriarchy that Saunders determines from
the tradition of the nude. According to Saunders only the female is "fetishized,
mutilated, fragmented, rendered anonymous" (71). She argues that the purpose
behind such representations of the female body is to erotisize by creating an
object of sexual desire. In this field, the female is completely objectified.
Although any work of art drawn from nature can necessarily be interpreted as a
process of objectification (i.e. an object is created from studying a subject), it is
the extremity of this situation that makes these images derogatory and offensive
of the feminine. The chosen examples she uses here are images of women

missing heads, arms, legs, being tied up or constricted, and those paintings
which either only portray one aspect of her sex (e.g. a breast) or focus the detail
of the work completely on the sexual aspect of the female - e.g. "whatever
violence done to her image, breasts, belly and sex are always identifiable,
marking out her use and status" (74).

The fetishized nude is an extreme example of the female body

distorted for male fantasy and gratification (both of which depend to
some degree on control) ... This is a manufactured artificial femininity
bearing no relation to the bodies of real women and thus imposing
upon them a false and impossible ideal. Such super-femaleness
(celebrated in advertising and pornography) subjugates women by
creating in them feelings of inadequacy (72).
This is a central thesis in the operations of a patriarchal culture; that although
women are degraded, there is a feeling of inadequacy because we cannot
achieve the status of (supposed) idealisation. This is where the relationship
between the passive and active female nude is most uncomfortable because the
"disabling or distorting of the female nude in certain images indicates a fear of
women's autonomous uncontrolled sexuality" (73). The theme of anonymity
further celebrates fantasy - the face that is hidden or absent can be the image of
any women the spectator desires. These images "relate female nakedness
directly to the status of a victim, or powerless object" (86).

A recent solo exhibition by Caroline van der Merwe (Johannesburg: 1993)

contained only male nude sculptures of bronze and marble, and all of these were
either decapitated, impaled, missing limbs or bound (see Plate 24). My
impression at the time was that the power relations between the male and
female still represented patriarchal notions, because the power of the male had
to be contained. It was not an overtly erotic display of bodies, although there
were definite sexual overtones especially in the titles, such as "Fallen and
Rising", "Growing Youth", which hint at phallic power. Regardless of their
fetishized nature, the sculptures of the bodies remain vital, active and potent.

In all the examples so far, we have seen that the male and female bodies are
treated differently. To what degree is this an institutionalisation of patriarchy?
Are the bodies of women and men not sufficiently different enough from each
other to justify the distinct rendering of nudity?

Saunders states that "one of the most pervasive stereotypes in our social
philosophy is the woman/nature, man/culture dichotomy" (1989: 91), which is the
next type in her revised gendered typology.

Nature versus Culture

The essence of the feminist critique (first generation) of the way in which women
are oppressed, entails the confusion of the two, for them, distinct categories of
sex and gender. Qualities pertaining to biological functions (particularly such as
child-bearing) are confused with social roles (translated to child-rearing). In other
words, sex becomes an excuse for gender roles, and these in turn generally
relegate woman to an inferior position in society. If the nude emphasises the
correlation of women with nature and men with culture, it propagates this
patriarchal structure.

Culture, however, devalues nature, and thus the patriarchal condition

has risen of man controlling woman and woman's sexuality, a control
which continues to the present with male domination of gynaecology
and the punitive laws against prostitution which criminalize the woman
but not her client ... With women creating naturally and apparently
independently through childbirth, men needed to devise for
themselves an alternative function and purpose in the world (91).
Saunders gives five examples of this dichotomy: (i) women have often been
painted in a natural setting or landscape; (ii) in this setting they often represents
some mythological figure who embodies "ideas of fertility or acquiescent
sexuality, ... they represent women before the Fall: pure, unselfconscious, a
creature of animal instincts" (93); (iii) pictures of naked women with clothed men
in a landscape, which Saunders interprets as woman being instinctual while man
remains rational (Cf. 94); (iv) the artist/model situation; and (v) "a further category

of pictures featuring clothed man and naked woman show rescuer and rescued,
hero and victim, again a gendered division" (95).

This dichotomy also supports Saunders' thesis that the female nude's primary
function is to titillate the male spectator's fantasy. If nakedness implies
vulnerability, then this situation encourages a definite power imbalance - where
women are powerless, and men powerful. He also represents 'civilisation' and
'rationality', while she is 'barbaric' and 'irrational'. But, I am not convinced of how
this category encourages women's role in child-bearing - the women in
Saunders' illustrations are never pregnant, or overtly fertile. Although this might
seem to be the most obvious natural state or role of women, when she does
appear in paintings she is disguised by mythological figures. 'Natural', instead of
universal (e.g. mother nature or La Source), motherhood is never valorised in
these paintings.

(iii) New Directions

Throughout the book, Saunders has tried to show that "the representation of the
female nude has long been the prerogative of men" (116), and that women were
expected to portray the modesty proper to the female sex. Where women might
stray from this, they are condemned as being capable only of expressing their
biological function as a receptacle of male sexuality, which is then often
portrayed as voracious and dangerous.

Throughout its history the image of the female nude has been emptied
of women's experience, to be used by men as the expression of their
own sexuality. Of course, male artists and critics have always justified
their enjoyment of the nude and its validity as a genre by appealing to
abstract conceptions of ideal form, beauty and aesthetic value. ...
Kenneth Clark, who typifies the connoisseur's approach to the nude,
revealed the underlying attitude of the male to images of the naked
female when he said that "no nude, however abstract, should fail to
arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling" (1956: 6). ...
Essentially women have been alienated from their own image since it
is presented to them in a form which allows them only two options; a
narcissistic appreciation or a heightened sense of vulnerability and
discomfort (Saunders, 1989: 117).


In order to arrive at the new directions which the tradition might take, and has
already started to establish, Saunders looks at how women artists' in the eighties
are "attempting to retrieve the nude and infuse it with specifically personal and
feminist meanings" (117). She says that "women artists are working with the
nude to extend its expressive and symbolic possibilities, and to invest it with an
idea of women's experience of sexuality" (120), whereas "men have no need to
explore their own body image because their relation to the world is not mediated
through the body in the same way" (130).

After having reconstructed the book, it seems justified that Saunders now reveals
a prejudice toward male artists' depiction of the nude. Why should their opinion
be given credence now, after they have had complete dominance in a very long
tradition? However, it must be remembered that the boundaries Saunders sets
for her study is to reveal the stereotypical content of the nude. She has chosen
the more extreme portrayals of patriarchal dichotomies. In looking for "new
directions" she does give a few examples of male artists' work, but is more
critical of these. One cannot help thinking that her knowledge of the artists' sex
informs her perception of the work 4 .

There are obvious difficulties which may or may not be overcome in reclaiming
female sexuality from masculine fantasy, to find "the 'lost' aspects of female body
experience authenticated and re-integrated in opposition to its more familiar and
seductive artistic role as raw material for the men" ([Saunders], 1989: 117).

In celebrating what is essentially female we may simply be re-inforcing

oppressive definitions of women, e.g. women as always in their
separate sphere, or women as defining their identities exclusively, and
narcissistically, through their bodies ([Saunders], 1989: 118).

3 The particular problem in feminist aesthetics has been to determine when a work can be
classified as feminist; for example, should all critical art by women be classified political or

It would be unreasonable to expect to change the connotations of such a vast
collection of works', but, with this "new" knowledge from a feminist perspective, I
think, we can go back and find redeeming qualities in the tradition of the nude.

Saunders provides a list of strategies to overcome the stereotypes; re-working

myths, the deconstruction of the dominant visual codes by, for example, deeroticizing the body, parody, role-reversal, a re-presentation of the female body
experience and imagery (117-8). This does seem to be quite a challenge to
artists and spectators alike: for example, "the role-reversal of women gazing at a
man, which seems automatically to render him passive, is not comfortable or
convincing for an audience of either sex and demonstrates the impossibility of
changing entrenched social relations by force" (119). One of the more
successful directions has been to celebrate specific experiences women have,
especially the cycles of fertility, i.e. menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth.

Women artists are working with the nude to show that display need
not equal availability, that the experience of the female body is not
invalidated by imperfection and are exploring ways of reinvesting the
nude with a sense of women's experience of sex and the body that is
censored or expunged in men's images of the female nude... The
male nude continues to be conspicuous by its absence - even in
photography where it makes its most frequent appearance, its
purpose is largely formal, offering no real challenge to existing
readings of the male body (with the exception of some attempts to represent it as an object of contemplation or appreciation in the tradition
of the female nude). The female nude thus remains the site of
discourse about the body (132).
In Saunders's reading of the tradition of the nude, the male and female body are
seen to represent the opposing poles of the active/passive and culture/nature
binary sets. The first binary opposition does not radically alter Clark's typology,
but rather applies a gender sensitive (albeit female biased) reading to his two
types of expressive states of the mind (Energy and Pathos). In Clark these are

What these difficulties reveal is that once gender or sex becomes the focus of attention, matters
are noticeably more complex, than when the human subject is in itself a generalised concept.
5 Cf. Berger, "What is true is that the nude is always conventionalised - and that authority for its
conventions derives from a certain tradition of art" (1972: 53).

male dominated - the Passive Female nude appears in Clark's two chapters on
Venus. Saunders does not include Clark's category of the Ecstatic nude
(predominantly female) in the Active Female, and to continue in her vein, these
nudes could be interpreted not as representing the controlled and admirable
Energy of the male nudes, but a drunken frenzied loss of self control aimed at
pleasing her male companions, and further the male spectator. Perhaps this
nude also indicates an overlap with the second binary opposition. The unselfconscious dancing, in Saunders's vein, could be interpreted as instinctual or
uncultured in comparison to the austere, sober and controlled gaze of a cultured
(male) audience.

The analysis based on the discourse that women are passive and connected
with nature (Clark's Vegetable Venus), while men are active and the creators of
culture is characteristic of first generation feminist thinking, where the aim is to
achieve the equal treatment between the sexes. Women, according to this tier,
should "demand equal access to the symbolic order" (Moi, 1985: 12). In other
words, Saunders promotes the notion that female artists should play an active
role in the making of culture, and that this is where an interest in the nude can be
rekindled - the starting point for second generation thinking.

The three-tiered framework for the feminist struggle which Kristeva endorses
allows that there is still space and need for this more modernist approach to
gender. In the light of this, Saunders offers an important, albeit basic,
contribution in exposing the typical patriarchal operations of the male gaze on
the female body. Lynda Nead, according to Kristeva's framework, is
representative of the second generation of feminist thought where she is
exclusively concerned with the female nude, in order to arrive at a better
understanding of how the female body is conceived. Part of her analysis entails
deconstructing how the female body has been representative of the male
symbolic order as an icon of Western rationality. Unlike Saunders and Clark,
Nead is more argumentative than (art) historical in her approach. In the following
section, I concentrate on reconstructing her arguments drawn from the various

articles and the book, The Female Nude; art, obscenity and sexuality, she has

There are three parts in this section: The first entails Nead's critique of the
`official' aesthetic of the nude; secondly, I concentrate on how she expounds on
the meaning(s) of femininity through an analysis of the female body; the third
concern correlates with the final chapter in her book where she concentrates on
how "women [artists] reject the male symbolic order in the name of difference"
(Moi, 1985: 12).

3: Lynda Nead

frames and framing

Nead is exclusively concerned with the representation of the unclothed female

body in art. She writes that "[she] will argue that one of the principle goals 6 of the
female nude has been the containment and regulation of the female sexual body
(6)". In this section, I will firstly look at how she interprets the "aesthetic that has
structured the representation of the female body in western (sic.) art since
antiquity" (5). To this end, she looks closely at the implications of Clark's
distinction between the naked and the nude, which describes a transformation of
`raw material' into art. The body, and more specifically for Nead the female body
(since this sex dominates the tradition), undergoes a framing process in order to
qualify as a subject of art. The second concern in this section is a reconstruction
of Nead's interpretation of the dominant oppositions which attempt to maintain
the female nude as a genre of art, although it is also representations of the
female body that lie "on the edge of this category, pushing against the limit,
brushing against obscenity" (25). The third and final concern here, is with
Nead's presentation of a feminist history of the nude. She looks at two particular
phases in which women have tried to re-claim the representation of their bodies.

It is interesting to note that Nead describes the control of female sexuality as the goal of the
tradition, while Saunders's position is that this is the purpose of the nude. Purpose indicates the
sole motivation for painting female nudes, while goal describes an ongoing attempt which might or
might not, be successful.

(i) the 'official' aesthetic of the female nude
Plate 15: Prehistoric figurines
(i) The Willendorf Venus

(ii) Cycladic marble doll

According to Nead, Clark adopts a typically Western approach to aesthetics and

applies this to his study on the nude: "although loosely based on a Kantian
aesthetic of 'pure' form and disinterested appreciation, this critical framework
appears inadequate when considering the visual representation of the body"
(13). Nead identifies two reasons for this. On the one hand, there is a paradox
in Clark's attempt to retain some "vestige of erotic feeling" (Clark, 1956: 6) while
this element of the (female) nude is precisely what risks upsetting the unity of
balance between abstraction and figuration (cf. Nead, 1983: 230); "throughout
this narrative Clark wrestles with the competing drives of sensory and
contemplative pleasures, trying to hold them together in a balanced combination,
without allowing either impulse to dominate judgement" (12). On the other hand,
his thesis centres around the transformation of matter to form, and not only on
the classical ideal of perfected form or beauty. In her critique, Nead
concentrates on what this transforming process entails for the female body.

Nead points out that in order for Clark to present the ideal form of the male and
female, the naked body must be transformed into a nude artwork which entails
an act of regulation in the construction of a rational, coherent subject. Nead
shows that female and male nudes are treated in terms of two distinct sets of
criteria in Clark's thesis. She uses the example of the armour-like torso, cuirasse
esthetique, representative of the male heroic body as mathematic, proportional
and harmonious, which "signifies the construction of masculine identity in terms
of self-denial, destruction and fear" (17) as these are here the only
characteristics that are represented in this form of the male body. The female on
the other hand is soft, fluid and undifferentiated. "Although there is an absolute
contrast between the hardness of male form and the female body (a contrast
between the hardness of male form and the deliquescence of female matter),
there is a striking identity between the idealized forms of the male and female
body, in both the threat of the flesh' must be remorselessly disciplined" (18).

[However], if art is defined as the conversion of matter into form,

imagine how much greater the triumph for art if it is the female body
that is thus transformed - pure nature transmuted, through the forms
of art, into pure culture. The female nude, then, is not simply one
subject among others, one form among many, it is the subject, the
form (18).
For Nead, the distinction Clark draws between the sensual and spiritual Venus
illustrates that his thesis is really aimed at justifying the female nude by framing
both her form and expression. Nead uses Clark's analysis of two early examples
of the Vegetable and Crystalline Venus to show that his thesis is concerned with
controlling and containing the female body rather than presenting a general
conception of the nude. The Willendorf Venus is lumpy and bulging "which
emphasises the female attributes till they are little more than symbols of fertility,
[while in the Cycladic figure] the unruly human body has undergone a geometric
discipline" (Clark, 1956: 64). Nead concludes that Clark's "entire assessment of

The 'threat of the flesh', for Nead, indicates our own bodies which alter in states of, say
relaxation or tension - fatness and thinness.

the Western tradition is based on the assumption that artists have made vulgar
objects celestial through the controlling discipline of artistic form" (1992a: 202).

(ii) utopia - a holding in and keeping out

If one draws attention to processes of containment - social, artistic,
philosophical - it is possible to see the ways in which the female body
is given meaning, and how its containment within the protocols of the
high-art tradition is then linked to definitions of correct aesthetic
experience and socially valid forms of cultural consumption (31).
Nead's analysis of the art/obscenity and beautiful/sublime oppositions in
aesthetics is based on the Derridian concept that "the frame is the site of
meaning, where vital distinctions between inside and outside, between proper
and improper concerns, are made" (6). The metaphor of Utopia further assists
Nead in describing the way in which the female body provides the artist with
difficulties in staying within the 'aesthetically' correct boundaries.

Utopia is a 'fictional' island which is specially constructed (i.e. separated from the
main land) to afford peace and happiness to its inhabitants.

It is crescent-shaped, like a new moon, and between the two horns of

the crescent, which are some miles apart, the sea enters and spreads
into a broad bay. In the bay itself, the water is calm, smooth and
sheltered and the whole inner coast is one great harbour... The
entrance to the bay of Utopia is very dangerous, for the waters are
littered with natural and man-made obstacles (Nead, 1992b: 12).
Nead does not intend this as a literal analogy of female genitalia, but rather as
an indication of the construction and attitudes surrounding the representation of
the unclothed female body. The most important shared characteristic is the
element of containment: "the integrity of the female figure is guaranteed by the
impenetrability of its framing contours; the boundaries of the female form have to
seem inviolate for the image to offer the possibility of an undisturbing aesthetic
experience" (Nead, 1992b: 13). In other words, both the figure and the
responses to it must be contained - a keeping in and holding out.

In her discussion of the popular theme of painting sirens and mermaids during
the nineteenth century, Nead illustrates how the sexual content of these female
nudes express danger. Sirens seductively lure sailors onto rocky shores,
originally through the beauty of their song and music. Yet when she is translated
into visual art she is 'automatically' unclothed or lightly draped, in order to denote
her seductiveness. As with the attempt to enter Utopia, the perils are high:

The term 'siren' was a useful short-hand for it connoted one dominant
view of the prostitute. The prostitute was seen as a temptress,
corrupted and corrupting, luring young men to their destruction and
able to wreak terrible havoc on society ... [through] the sweetsounding but fatal song and the destructive force of aggressive female
sexuality... The image of the siren-mermaid challenged the bourgeois
construction of the ideal woman, she was a dangerous temptress, and
her threat lay in her active sexuality. Yet at the same time, through its
classical guise, the image offered the female body for the male
viewer's enjoyment. This contradiction between the simultaneous
threat of the image and the pleasure it offered should not be obscured
for it is always present (Nead, 1982: 11, 13).
In other words, female sexuality is treated, at best, as marginal, and at worst, as
destructively dangerous and threatening to the social order. The spectators'
response is dictated by controlling the boundaries of the figure. Nead argues
that the transformation of the body into the nude entails regulation and
containment through forms, conventions and poses in order to "seal orifices and
to prevent marginal matter from transgressing the boundary dividing the inside of
the body and the outside" (6).

According to Nead there are primarily two sets of binary oppositions within
Western aesthetics which attempt to contain the female nude within the
appropriate form. The first is the distinction between art and obscenity:

The female nude not only proposes particular definitions of the female
body, but also sets in place specific norms of viewing and viewers.
The Enlightenment ideal of the contemplative viewing of an art object
works to reinforce the unity and integrity of the viewing subject and
sets up an opposition between the perfection of art and the disruption
and incompletion of non-art, or obscenity. The obscene body is the

body without borders or containment and obscenity is representation
that moves and arouses the viewer rather than bringing about stillness
and wholeness (2).
For Nead, there are thus two forms in which the female nude can be obscene 8 :
one is when her form does not subscribe to the classical ideal - in Clark this
Other is the Gothic nude; the second would be when the erotic or expressive
content exceeds its possible boundary - in Clark, the nudes of Ecstasy. The
second opposition, which is closely linked to the first, entails the mutually
exclusive relationship between the beautiful and the sublime.

Kant's distinction between the beautiful and the sublime breaks with the
form/matter duality. The sublime is the representation of limitlessness, excess,
the infinite, it cannot be framed as it is almost beyond representation as it deals
largely with an overwhelming emotion of awe. The beautiful, on the other hand,
contains the finitude of formal contours where unity allows and promotes a
contemplative attitude, in comparison to the kinetic energy of the sublime.

Nead associates the beautiful with the masculine, and the sublime with the
feminine. The reinvention of the sublime as a female mode has been pursued in
feminist literary criticism, as part of a 'new vocabulary of ecstasy and
empowerment' (cf. Moi, 1986a: 42). This together with postmodernity offers
uncertainty where categories of judgement and experience can be questioned.
The unmediated sexuality of women is connected to their hidden sex, and the
literature surrounding the female orgasm which again entails that which cannot
be contained.

A third would be pornographic nudes. In her book, Nead devotes a whole chapter to this
discussion but this does not alter her argument concerning the representation of the female body
in art. In the light of my study, one distinctive feature between nudes and pornographic figures is
that the latter does not intend to incite or encourage contemplation concerning the possible
meaning(s) of the images or the gendered nature, as these images are stereotypical and onedimensional. However, space does not permit me to enter this extremely broad debate.

In the following section the two phases of a feminist history of the female nude is
considered which entails, firstly, the breaking open of the boundaries and,
secondly, a re-drawing of the lines that have framed the female body.

(iii) breaking the boundaries and re-drawing the lines

For Nead, "the image is the very site of the production of meaning. It is an active
process, not a passive reflection of given meanings produced elsewhere in
society" (1982: 20). In other words, according to Nead, artists do not merely
present the existing attitudes and socio-cultural norms of the female nude in their
work, but actively assist in the construction of these. A similar dynamic
interaction also characterises the relationship between aesthetics and art: "It is
therefore not just a matter of looking to aesthetics to illuminate the history of
attitudes towards the female nude, but also of grasping the ways in which the
concern with the female body conditions the nature and possibility of aesthetic
thought itself" (22-23). This reiterates that, for Nead the female nude is a central
icon of Western thought.

The role that women have played in the tradition of the nude is that of the model
who, according to Nead, submits to the will of the artist and his creative
inspiration. For example, the do-it-yourself instruction manuals of how to draw
the nude is packaged for a broader market while alluding to the fantasy of the life
class, which attempts to reproduce the sexual myth of the artist as lover. The
general message of these manuals, for Nead, entails pointing out where the
female body exceeds that of the male and that the model chosen should
preferably be natural.

The female nude is a very powerful cultural tradition and the life class
plays a central role in its formation; students who are aware of this
tradition and the values that it propagates are enabled to work with
images in an informed and critical way.... It will take a lot of work to
erase the traces of this mythology [of virile masculinity] at all levels of
cultural production (55).

This suggests a kind of 'political' concern which, in general, has not
characterised art criticism. According to Nead, the que -stions critics should also
be asking entail: Who writes? For whom is the writing being done? In what
circumstances? What kind of writing is it? How are language and images being
used and for what purposes? (Cf. 55) These questions inform Nead's
presentation of feminist encounters with the female nude.

Feminist art is necessarily deconstructive in that it works to question

the basis of existing aesthetic norms and values whilst also extending
the possibilities of those codes and offering alternative and
progressive representations of female identity (62).
The feminist history with the female nude has been a fairly aggressive and
militant one. The first expression of this uncomfortable relationship occurred in
1914 when a suffragette, Mary Richardson, damaged

The Rokeby Venus

(Velasquez) with a chopper while it was hanging in the National Gallery in

London. During her trial, Richardson stated that
"I have tried to
destroy the picture of the most
beautiful woman
in mythological
history as a protest against the ..
destroying Mrs
Pankhurst9 , who
is the most
beautiful character in modern
history" (quoted
Nead, 1992: 35).
Plate 16: Mary Richardson, The Damaged Venus (damage indicated).
This 'incident' provides a stereotypical example of the expected feminist attitudes
towards the female nude, and also demonstrates the public perception of these
attitudes by the outraged reaction from the Court and newspapers. Richardson

Emily Pankhurst was one of the initial leading figures in the suffrage moment in England.

later admitted in her autobiography that she had chosen this particular picture
because she found it irritating that men would gape at it for hours when she
visited the Gallery.

What is at stake here, according to Nead, is the conflict between two opposed
forms of femininity.

The Rokeby Venus represents the patriarchal ideal of

femininity. She is necessarily contained in the static pose and frame. She is
white and delicate and her proportional form corresponds to the Western
standard of beauty. Critics seem to agree that "the face in the mirror and the
perception of a bounded and yet expansive female form [are] the sources of the
painting's power" (41). The other image of femininity is that of the deviant and
delinquent Richardson, who was described as being 'demonically possessed' in
expressing desocialised and violent female drives. The damaged Venus was
described in newspapers at the time as the victim of a brutal attack venturing on
murder; her passivity in suffering furthers the patriarchal image of femininity
whereas the attempt to express this suffering (in this case, the right to vote) is
completely unacceptable even through subtle and peaceful ways.

No longer a fantasy object for visual pleasure and speculation, the

photograph [of the damaged Venus] exposed smashed glass and a
torn canvas - a testimony to an image and a viewer who would no
longer play the game [in which patriarchy prescribes two exclusive
and limiting types of femininity] (41).
Nead writes that "it is hoped that [the following] discussion will offer a more
sensitive understanding of feminist approaches to the power of the image" (43).
Feminists' responses have become much more sophisticated. Although no
longer literally breaking what they don't like, metaphorically the seventies' activity
and art are informed by this background history.

The seventies is characterised by breaking open the boundaries, and can be

seen in the "ways in which feminist artists worked through the sexual and body

politics of the contemporary women's movement to challenge the images of

women propagated through the tradition of the female nude" (63). The examples

Nead considers border on the obscene in that they are deliberate attempts to
express the hidden (inside) element of female sexuality: these entail blatant
vaginal imagery, a performance work where the artist pulls a scroll out of her
vagina and reads from it; the removal of a bloody tampon. In other words, these
feminists deliberately present what was previously avoided. However, "asserting
the body as pure matter does not deconstruct the gendered terms of the
mind/body dichotomy; it simply inverts them" (69-70).

Plate 17: Carolee Schneemann,

Plate 18: Jo Spence

Interior Scroll


The crucial point, for Nead, is that feminist confrontations with the female nude
necessarily entails issues of identity and self-representation. Women's bodies
which do not conform to the standard ideal have no platform in this tradition (see
Plate 18). Therefore, the prevalent discourses here are breaking down artistic
and bodily protocols, in order to expose omissions and explore the possibilities of

new female subjectivities. The feminist attempts of the nineties are less
essentialist than the examples discussed so far, where the so-called essence of
female sexuality (i.e. her vagina) is the source of expression, and are concerned
more with redrawing the lines that frame the female nude.

Nead implies throughout the book that women cannot identify with the classical
representation of the female nude. This is partly because they played a passive
role in the construction of this tradition, but also because of the stigma that in art
"we do not wish to imitate; we wish to perfect" (Clark, 1956: 4) implying that no
individual woman's body subscribes to classical proportions as these are arrived
at by taking bits and pieces from many exemplars. Feminists have
deconstructed this fragmentary aspect of the tradition, by emphasising the
diversity of both women's bodies and their experiences.

One of the main examples that Nead considers is the disabled body, which
deconstructs the fetishized fragmentation of the female body (cf. Saunders
above), revises the automatic connection between health and beauty, and offers
an alternative viewing of self-expression without relying on a biological
essentialism (male bodies can also be disabled). Her other examples entail
black women's experiences, and how these artists have confronted certain
traditions within different cultures to that of the dominant Western one.

To write, or more generally to represent, is to take power; it is to tell

your own stories and to draw your own lines, rather than succumb to
the tales and images of others. Of course, there is a risk involved; you
might not end up telling a fairy-tale with a happy ending, but at least
you are the narrator and are in control of the means of narration (82).
Nead wishes to endorse female empowerment by encouraging the process
whereby women explore their own lusts, desires, interests, preferences,
experiences, views ... the list is limited only by our own imagination and need not
subscribe to the rules of retaining or containing the female body.


4: evaluation

The trap that a feminist approach can fall into is a "similar lack of discrimination
[as with censorious pressure groups], condemning all as exploiting and
degrading women" (Saunders, 1989: 7). Part of not going through history only
with a black felt-tip marker, is pointing out what the images entail, relating this
with the position women and men find themselves in, and show how this has
been, or can be, subverted. This is what Nead achieves in her study of the

The female nude, according to Nead, lies on the edge of high art and the
obscene. Where has room been left for the possibility that (male) artists find the
female body beautiful? The process of containment which is the basis of Nead's
argument, describes the general artistic process. Images are necessarily
contained within the boundary of its shape - how is this particular to the female
nude? Nead's thesis is a critique of how Clark's endeavour describes the way in
which "vulgar objects are made celestial" through the refining process of Art.
According to Nead, art historians and academics alike attempt to retain the limits
of the female body within accepted standards of proportion. Yet, Clark venerates
the nudes of Rubens - those fleshy ladies whose bodies display 'excess' weight.
In Nead's analysis, Lisa Lyon (see Plate 12) represents the traditional portrayal
of controlling the female body - which denies the positive aspects for women to
make their bodies healthy and strong. It seems that, according to Nead, it is
wrong for women to enjoy their own bodies, or that women can have
stereotypically beautiful bodies.

It is not clear that the control of the female nude, an image, translates into the
control of female sexuality. The complaint might be that what is appreciated and
desirable is the body and that this is derogatory and a denigration of what it is to
be human, and more particularly female. There are examples that negate
Nead's overall framework - for example, the abundant fleshy nudes of Rubens
do not easily translate as 'obscene', and yet are not contained either. I think that

Nead's thesis could be better applied to the one-dimensional media images of
women, rather than to the vast collection of works in the tradition of the nude.
This last limitation is necessarily the consequence of imposing one perspective
on a whole history of expression, and need not undermine Nead's central
argument. My main complaint against Nead is the restriction of her topic to the
female nude only. This does not allow the opportunity of discussing the nude in
general (if this is at all possible), but does allow that she avoids the binary
oppositional way of gender analysis. Nead makes a very valuable contribution to
the further understanding of the consistent patriarchal abuse of the female
image. Both Saunders and Nead (although to a lesser extent) interpret the
tradition of the nude from the perspective of their historical contexts, which can
be summarised as the "crucial issue [being] that it is the representation of the
female nude for the pleasure of the male viewer with which [the tradition of the
nude] is dealing" (Nead, 1983: 230). In Saunders's alternative typology, this
conviction guides her presentation on the nude entirely, which makes her
analysis very one-sided and highly debatable. Nead does not force such a
restrictive perspective on the tradition of the nude, but does consider it historical
fact. That female nudes were painted for the male spectator is the (highly
probable) context in which the so-called traditional nude was created. However,
this does not prescribe that we are, or should be, limited in our interpretations by
the initial artistic situation - there are further options available in the reception of
the nude, such as the feminist-informed male or female, hetero- or homosexual

It seems that there is something valuable contained within the tradition of the
nude that is significant. An obvious reason is that the nude is one of few
subjects which has a long history of gender relations, and the politics of the
body. In the next, and final, chapter of my study, I will consider ways in which
the celebration of the body (or humanity) can be extrapolated from the tradition
of the nude, by focusing on the contemporary audience which has the benefit of
two and a half generations of feminism.

Chapter W
A femeneutics of the nude

Plate 27: William Blake, Glad Day

shine on you crazy diamond - Pink Floyd


1: introduction
The three authors discussed in the body of this dissertation reflect the shifting
concerns which have occurred in the academic discourse on the nude. All three
acknowledge, directly or indirectly, that there are issues which pertain specifically
to the nude as a genre of art, and do not necessarily apply to the category of art
in general. There are two main concerns or themes that can be identified within
this discourse. The first entails the question: what are nudes? The second
theme is concerned with the content of these works by establishing an inclusive
typology in order to categorise the vast quantity of works in this genre. What is
apparent in each author is that the definition of the topic necessarily informs the
selection of nudes discussed and categorised or typified.

Clark argues that nudes are justified as serious works worthy of contemplation,
thus acquiring the status of aesthetic meaning. His argument is structured on
the strict distinction he draws between "the naked and the nude", in which he
attempts to dislodge the associations of titillation with, and voyeurism of, the
naked body in favour of a viewing process; based on a typology of forms. He
does not, however, whole heartedly dismiss the role that these associations (or
even actions) play in the artistic process, he merely implies that these are not the
primary concern of aesthetics. The typology Clark establishes is based on the
two types of proportion (classical and Gothic) he identifies as the tradition of the

Saunders does not enter the debate of whether nudes are artworks or not. Her
conception of the nude is that this is a genre which has provided men, or more
broadly patriarchal culture, with a means of controlling female sexuality by
establishing an erotic content of the (mainly) female body from the male
perspective, thus subordinating nudes to a context of titillation. Instead of
constructing a typology of forms, Saunders's focus is on the types of power
relations between male and female representation.

Nead concentrates on the boundaries between art and non-art in her analysis of
this tradition. She defines nudes as being on the edge between art and
obscenity, and shows how the boundaries are kept intact by controlling the
female sexual body. In other words, Nead identifies the 'rules' that retain female
nudes as art. She identifies three types: the standard nude which is contained
within the boundary of aesthetics; the initial feminist attempts to represent that
which is hidden or contained; and, a re-defining of the role and representation of
the female body in art.

The consequence of such a vast tradition is that there will necessarily be a

collection of works which, at best, do not fulfil the requirements an artificial
categorising imposes, or at worst, negate the arguments suggested by the
typology. Rather than representing the linear progression from pre-feminist to
first generation feminism to second generation feminism, in this chapter I wish to
consider how the academic tradition on the nude hovers around an
uncomfortability concerning its subject matter, and how best to approach it. To
this end, I wish to apply the third generation of feminist thinking suggested by
Kristeva's framework in which the dichotomy between the feminine and the
masculine is rejected as being 'metaphysical'. This characteristic alludes to
modernist, or Cartesian, thinking where the mind and body are divorced from
each other with the mind taking complete precedence. The french focus on
embodied selves, and so concentrate on the physical (as opposed to meta-).

Why the continuing interest in the naked human body? The possibility opened
by Clark's thesis, that images of unclothed figures incite contemplation, hints at
the general assumption, further elaborated by the critique Saunders and Nead
level against his thesis, that nudes were seen as products and objects of a
sexual gratification. The main source of discomfort, and disagreement, within
academic debates on nude art concerns the role of sexuality within aesthetics and yet this is never expressly stated. In both Saunders's and Nead's
interpretation of the tradition of the nude there is a reversion to the erotic content
of the nude, thus pointing out that Clark attempts to silence or avoid the obvious

association of sexuality with nakedness in the realm of appropriate aesthetic
responses. The overwhelming impression is that these authors attempt to limit
the role of sexuality to a framework which controls or negates any positive
connotations - such as the joy in, or attractiveness of, both the female and male

The point of departure for this study is our contemporary situation. I am more
concerned here with the visual world we inhabit, rather than with understanding
the historical basis of the nude. The works in this genre date back to the initial
existence of humanity's expression of itself, and we have the benefit of being
able to access the whole spectrum. Part of this visual culture is the
predominance of images of women. Presently the pervasive cultural image of
the streamlined, athletic, well-groomed stereotype is dominant - comparatively
the varied tradition of nudes offer various forms and options which potentially
liberate women from this one-dimensional image, and furthermore potentially
provides a range of positive attitudes if the interpretative strategies used shift
away from pointing to the objectified status of (naked) bodies.

There are two main concerns in this chapter: an evaluation of the central
problematic of the nude as a form or genre of art, and my conclusions to this
study. In evaluating the three representative academic texts that I have
discussed in this thesis, I wish to show that what they share in the variety of their
perspectives, approaches and arguments is some kind of hesitation or dismay.
The celebration of the nude is buried beneath explanations, justifications and
politics. The multitude of associations and contexts with the human body,
together with the vast tradition of the representation of the nude in art, provides
the possibility of differing interpretations - it is impossible to accurately generalise
the meaning of nudity.

There are three sections in this chapter. In the first section, I initially integrate
the arguments of these authors in order to identify the issues concerning the
nude as a genre of art. There are benefits for understanding the nude as being

included in an institution which takes seriously the necessarily metaphorical
language of images, which have not been expressly acknowledged. In order to
retain at least an indication of the limitations of aesthetic theory, I appropriate
some ideas contained in the notion that art somehow magically transforms the
visual reality we are confronted with. Clark and Nead both make assertions
concerning the "alchemic powers of art" (Nead, 1992: 14) which is an appropriate
metaphor and deserves attention. The Western 'origin' and nature of this
tradition contextualises many of the `negative' concerns, and although African
and Eastern perceptions of the body deserve extensive attention, space does
not allow me to use these further than as a brief critique of the limitations of `our'
academic conceptions of the nude. The central issue of my dismay is that it
seems that nowhere is space created for the celebration of the body. Although
each author assumes the role that love, or at least attraction, plays in the
creation and appreciation of the nude, none seem to consider this as part of an
academic discourse.

I do not, however, intend to claim that all nudes are necessarily or primarily a
celebration. My position is that each image is subject to interpretation, and in the
second section I demonstrate what I deem to be a more enlightening approach
to the question of gender by looking at, firstly, the separate aesthetic of the male
and female, and secondly, at the dialectic relationship between the two sexes. It
is in a heterosexual context that my thesis concerning the discourse of gender
can be best explored, as the significance here is the relatedness between the
two sexes. This selection is not at all intended as an alternative typology, but
rather as an expression of various issues at stake in a few examples. The third
and final section concludes my study on the nude.

2: the aesthetic meaning of nudity

The general agreement within the debates on the nude is that this genre of
images can be given the label art; what differs in their approaches is what the
implications are to the appreciation of these works. (Visual) Art has generally

enjoyed the benefit of the doubt that these works are worthy of earnest
contemplation. Within the context of art the possible meanings that could be
applied to the image are considered, thus extending beyond the surface and time
of the work itself - this is an assumption which underlies each authors' thesis, but
has not been systematically presented as such.

(i) the "alchemic" powers of art

Plate 19: Vitruvian Man
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Clark uses a metaphor from the medieval practice of alchemy to describe the
effect the Vitruvian principle had on Renaissance painters. Nead extends this
metaphor to explain the mysterious transmutation of matter to form, which is the
main concern of her critique against Clark's views concerning the relationship
between images of unclothed figures and nakedness. Clark writes that

man's body is a model of proportion because with the arms and legs
extended it fits into those 'perfect' geometrical forms, the square and
the circle. It is impossible to exaggerate what this simple looking
proposition meant to the men of the Renaissance. To them it was far
more than a convenient rule: it was the foundation of a whole
philosophy. Taken together with the musical scale of Pythagoras, it
seemed to offer exactly that link between sensation and order,
between an organic and a geometric basis of beauty which was (and
perhaps remains) the philosopher's stone of aesthetics (1956: 13,
emphasis added).

That there is a mysterious element in the tradition of the nude is mentioned in
other contexts in Clark's book. For example, he feels that there was a spiritual
connection for the Greeks which allowed them to produce the perfect harmony of
the classical form of male beauty, and that it is this connection which is lacking in
work produced since'. Another fairly esoteric explanation is given for the perfect
proportions of the female nude - artists claim to appropriate bits and pieces from
various models in order to achieve the ideal form. The proposition that Clark
emphasises is that although it seems as though there are formulae to ensure
perfect shape, these are not wholly discernible. Unfortunately, he neglects to
elaborate on the role that the elements of 'sensation' can play and how this is
related to the representation of an 'organic' image, other than his brief mention of
the erotic feeling nudes should evoke and that these ideal forms are derived from
the naked.

Nead argues that "although Clark discusses both the male and the female nude,
their cultural and symbolic meanings are crucially different and it is the
representation of the female body that articulates fully the alchemic powers of
art" (1992: 14). She restricts the alchemic metaphor to her criticism of Clark's
artificial distinction between the naked and the nude, and shows how this is more
directed at the 'changes' that art (also historians and academics) constructs in
the presentation of the female body. The female body is readily associated with
nature - Clark devotes a whole chapter on the Vegetable or Natural Venus, and
Saunders analyses this perception in her second binary type where the male is
represented as cultured and rational while the female is natural and instinctual,
bound by her reproductive and subsequent domestic roles. This is why Nead
claims that the transmutation of the female body into the female nude is seen as
a great achievement of art:

If the male signifies culture, order, geometry (given the visual form in
Vitruvian Man), then the female stands for nature and physicality.

1 Although he allows that some artists almost reach a similar profundity and then, as with his
discussion on Michaelangelo, the subject is one that the artist desires intensely.

Woman is both mater (mother) and materia (matter), biologically
determined and potentially wayward (1992: 18).
Nead's use of the metaphor of 'the alchemic powers of art' emphasises the
ability art might, or might not have, to alter the actual appearance of the body,
while Clark calls the Vitruvian formula (already based on alchemy - i.e. squaring
the circle), and by extension, the nude (a form of ideal art), a philosopher's stone
of aesthetics. It is worth considering the metaphor in more detail than what
either Clark or Nead have allowed.

The alchemists were believed to have found a substance which could turn the
baser metals into gold, which they called the philosopher's stone. Alchemy was
of the earliest forms of study concerned with chemistry and was practised by socalled philosophers - or learned men with a deep curiosity about the world, the
things that inhabit it, and God (or spirituality). Presently, there is still much
interest in these medieval practises and their writings, mainly for its value in
symbolism but also in the chemical substances. Probably the most famous
contemporary figure to have done extensive research on alchemy was Carl Jung
(1902: Psychology and Alchemy), who supplemented his psychoanalysis with
symbols and metaphors from his findings. Jung insisted that there was no
philosopher's stone as such, and that what should be learnt lies in the
interpretations of the often contradictory hermetic imagery and symbols in order
to arrive at a further understanding of the collective unconscious.

The point that I wish to make here, is that the philosopher's stone is not only
about how to transform the 'baser into the valuable', but also the value contained
in interpretation and symbols or images. If philosophy, in its present practise, is
to turn anything into 'gold', this ability would be in the way in which we think, and
by extension interpret, in order to include a further range of significant (and
positive) meanings. Bodies are often beautiful in themselves (Clark
unsuccessfully tries to evade this with his comment on naked models) and do not
depend on a single type or proportion of expression to be appreciated. The
academic tradition of the nude has been more focused on the geometric and

ordered, and has neglected the sensational and organic. Clark writes this off as
mysterious, and does not try to explore these aspects any further. To
extrapolate for a current context: philosophical curiosity around the topic of
nudity is called for in order to arrive at the aesthetic meaning of nudity. The
focus of this study, it is not so much what art is or does, but rather what the
spectator can achieve through interpreting the available images.

One of the greater obstacles for a more liberating or positive interpretation of the
nude is contained in the culture of Western thinking itself - in the next section I
consider the Judeo-Christian influence on the three authors I have chosen as
representative of the academic treatment of the nude.

(ii) Western guilt and shame

What is the relationship between body and image? Why is it important? In this
section, I concentrate on the (now perhaps dated) aesthetic debates concerning
mimesis and association which play a crucial, if not central, role in contemplating
the nude.

The first gender sensitive essay on the nude appeared in 1972 based on the
television series by John Berger entitled Ways of Seeing. This is a short essay
mainly concerned with criticising and reversing Clark's concepts of the naked
and the nude using a generalised view of the relationship between the female
model/nude and the male artist/spectator. Berger acknowledges the limits of the
text by saying that "none of the essays pretends to deal with more than certain
aspects of each subject: particularly those aspects thrown into relief by modern
historical consciousness. Our principle aim has been to start a process of
questioning" (1972: 5).

I want to briefly consider Berger's thesis concerning the surveying process as

this points to certain prevalent issues concerning the relationship between the
figure(s) in the work and the spectator. My purpose is to adapt Berger's
conception of male and female identity - his position is that women and men

have differing assumptions of their social presence based on the simple
generalisation that women are constantly and consistently aware of how they
appear (Cf. Berger, 1972: 45). I think that his description of women's conscious
perception of how they appear in public can be extended to include men as well it is surely part of our social character to be aware of being watched. Berger
writes that "she [or he] comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within
her [or him] as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her [or his]
identity as a woman [or man]" (1972: 46). What can be extrapolated from this
statement is that although we identify with the body on show, we are reassured
in the notion that it is not our bodies that are on display - the surveyor and the
surveyed can remain independent.

Clark calls the nude a form of art, rather than a subject of art. Although in Clark's
thesis he intends to analyse the concept of form literally (for example, the
classical proportions of ideal forms), I think that it is useful and appropriate to
understand this position as isolating works containing naked figures, not because
nudes are unrelated to other forms or genres of art, but rather due to the specific
issues concerning the associations spectators have with public images of nudity;
the conception of nudes as a form of art is beneficial because it allows that there
are issues at hand which are peculiar to images of unclothed figures which are
not necessarily prominent in other genres. Nudes are representative and
mimetic, rather than conceptual.

The focus of Saunders's study on the nude is the conviction that the purpose of
nudes is the erotic display of bodies. She does not question that these works
are art, but rather looks at what is particular to this genre. Her position describes
the initial awkwardness of the topic - our association with shared nudity (i.e.
other people seeing one's own nakedness) is most common within a sexual or
erotic frame or context. However, this is an association from the spectator's
position, perhaps expected or incited by the artist, but not necessarily contained
in the work itself. A large proportion of nudes do not explicitly contain sexual
imagery; the erotic content that is assumed is derived primarily because the

figures are unclothed. The irony of this artform is that there is a vast collection of
works in which the figures are confident and content in their own nakedness, yet
outside the work there remains a sense of uncomfortability; the discretion we
maintain in our own lives is mocked. The label 'art' which Clark deliberately
attaches to nudes does not guarantee the exclusion of the discourse of sexuality
- but neither does this insist that nudes are predominantly sexual.

It is the contention of both Saunders and Nead that the tradition of the female
nude in some way controls or defines the way in which female sexuality is
presented and perceived. For Saunders, the typology of the female nude is
largely limited to images where she is passive, or constrained. The female nude
is, according to Saunders, always presented as an available object of desire in
the attempt to fulfil male fantasy. Nead explains how images of the female nude
depend on the precarious balance between what lies inside the body and what is
revealed outside of it; the female nude is regulated and contained within the
boundaries and frameworks of the institution of art. All three authors thus reveal
an uncomfortability concerning the role of sexuality within aesthetics. That
nakedness is associated with sex, and sex with guilt and shame, is derived from
the Judeo-Christian tradition of the genesis of humanity and the world.

[After they had eaten the forbidden fruit] the eyes of both were
opened, and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves
together and made themselves aprons. And they heard the sound of
the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the
man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God
among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man,
and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard the sound of
thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and hid
myself (Genesis 3: 7-10). (My emphasis)
It seems that nakedness is originally associated with innocence, but since we
live in an age of lost innocence and have knowledge, nakedness has come to be
associated with guilt and shame. Why? The body of the other becomes a
source of sexual arousal which, together with the possibility of procreation and
the consequent responsibilities burdens the otherwise purely recreational aspect

of sex. Metaphorically, nakedness connotes being undisguised not only in body
but in thought and action as well - this notion might only be possible in Plato's
realm of ideas, it certainly is not part of the 'real' world. 2

Although, it is extremely unlikely that we can be naked in thought (we are

constantly exposed to old memories and new ideas), it is perfectly possible to be
naked in body. The two are not necessarily connected, as is shown in (tribal)
African attitudes towards the body where public nudity or partial nudity (usually
the torso) is a way of life. Although this is obviously a topic that deserves more
attention than what it is used for here, I am illustrating the possible
independence of nudity and sexuality. For example, in bushmen paintings, the
figures are naked without any hint of shame, vulnerability or exposure.

Plate 20: Leni Riefenstahl

and Nuba Man.

A very telling photograph of the difference

in attitude toward the body between
Western and African cultures appears in
Desmond Morris's (1985) Bodywatching; a
field guide to the human species of Leni

Riefenstahl being steadied by a Nuba man.

While she is fully clothed, he is merely
wearing a strip of fur around his waist.
However, there does not appear to be any
uncomfortability for either at the other's
different 'state'.
from Eastern, or more specifically Indian culture or art, criticise the
immediate association of the sexual content of nudity with guilt in Western

As Leonard Cohen (1976) has suggested, "everybody knows that the naked man and woman
are just the shining artefacts of the past" (from the album I'm you Man).

thinking. The obvious example which demonstrates the open public display of
sex is the Marandesvara Temple (tenth century). Possibly hundreds of figures
can be seen in complex 'embraces' adorning the outside of the building.

These expressions of nudity demonstrate alternative attitudes towards the

association of sexuality in terms of guilt and shame with nudity than that of the
Western academic tradition of the nude. More recent anthologies incorporate
examples from different cultures (cf. Michael Gill 1989), yet the tradition of the
genre of images of the body has been most extensive in Western culture, and it
is here that the debates concerning the aesthetic meaning of nudity occur. Is it
possible to reconcile the nude with the celebration of humanity within the context
of (fine) art?

(iii) celebration
That feminists have been hesitant to consider the joy and pleasure of the body is
understandable because the sexual abuse of women in our culture has been,
and remains, extreme - incest, rape and pornography being the more immediate
examples. However, the tradition of the nude does not necessarily correspond
with this violation. There are two issues that I would like to point out in response
to images of the female nude controlling female sexuality. Firstly, the nude does
not prescribe the proportions or attitudes women should have - the tradition is
too vast and variant to support the generalisations promoted by Clark, Saunders
and Nead. Secondly, how is it that images of naked women control individual,
and personal experiences women have within their own sexuality? Surely, it is
more credible that this generalisation controls heterosexual men's experience in
the prescriptions of what they should find desirable?

Woman's sex is hidden and discreet. However, the penis, although external, is
hidden or obscured in most male nudes 3 . In other words, I contest that women's
sexuality is more controlled than men's, if either at all. Surely, somewhere in the

academic contemplation of the nude space should be created to allow that these
images are, on the one hand, the reflections of individual artist's ideas and do
not represent the entirety of humanity, and on the other, expressions of an
ongoing curiosity about the attraction (in a broader sense than merely sexual) or
attractiveness of the body - male or female. I concede that this is a particularly
challenging genre to work in, but in interpreting these works, the generalisations
concerning what it is to be male or female (in terms of the audience and artist)
have been taken too far. 'Real' people, unlike images, are not limited to the
external appearance (the only directly visible account of sexual difference) of
their bodies.

The formalist conception of the nude has a beneficial characteristic which the
concentration on the content of the work misses. In this approach every shape
or form of body has been represented. As this occurs within the context or label
of art, according to formalism, there is a certain veneration of the body
regardless the proportion, size, sex, disability and so forth. There is a possibility
of liberation, rather than control, in shifting the conception of the tradition of the
nude from the spectator's point of view. As a spectator, there is no obligation to
submit to a standard interpretation of the politics of the representation of female
and male bodies. Regardless the sex of the figure, as a spectator one has the
choice of whether to identify with the image or not, and in which fashion. The
celebration and pleasure contained in the aesthetic of nudity has been neglected
by each of the theories discussed here, whether by the attempt to silence the
sexual or erotic content of nudes (Clark) or by limiting the possible meaning(s) of
nudity to that aspect (Saunders and Nead), but, unwittingly, Clark's neglect is to
the advantage of a pluralist consciousness, which is hampered by Saunders's
and Nead's approach.

In other words, the genitals of both sexes have been treated as 'obscene' according to Nead's
conceptual analysis and yet she neglects to take this into account because she is solely
concerned with the female body in art.


3: the question of gender - femeneutics

Understood in the general sense, hermeneutics is the philosophical theory of
interpretation. This discourse has adopted various methodologies and strategies
in order to support the claim of validity in interpretation. Previously philosophers
were concerned with providing a theory which could substantiate an ahistorical
account of meaning - this (modernist or positivist) approach dismisses pluralism,
and insists on a monistic account of interpretation. In art, the meaning of the
'text' was sought in the historical context and intentions of the artist. According
to Georgia Warnke, the contemporary "claim is that we are always involved in
interpretations and that we can have no access to anything like 'the truth' about
justice, the self (or other), reality or the 'moral law'. Our notions of these 'truths'
are rather conditioned by the cultures to which we belong and the historical
circumstances in which we find ourselves" (1987: 1).

Feminists insist that a different account of history will be the necessary outcome
of taking account of, or interpreting, the gender discourse. The' feminist voice
(not unanimous) has been excluded from the dominant androcentric tradition,
while this 'voice' is partly a reaction to and rejection of this dominant tradition.
"Gender is not a category simply to be added to an existing body of knowledge ..
but the intervention of the category of gender radically changes discourse"
(Armstrong, 1992: 3), and (probably) provides the most severe and radical
criticism to all previous conceptions of the human subject.

So far Kristeva's three-tiered framework for the feminist struggle is the most
comprehensive structure suggested to acknowledge and propagate the plurality
inherent in the discourse of gender. The three approaches suggest three aims in
feminism, and although these are not mutually exclusive, they can be identified
separately as being appropriate to different areas of 'struggle' or debate. So, for
example, first generation feminism is the most beneficial strategy for political
issues of gender inequality - for example, equal pay for equal work. Second
generation feminism enhances the ongoing curiosity in establishing a feminine or

feminist epistemology (or aesthetics), based on interpretations of what it is to be
female in a predominantly masculine culture.

Third generation feminism encourages a broad conception of gender. The

borders of the cultural structures of meaning concerning the different
conceptions surrounding the two genders must be overcome in looking at the
significance of the gendered nature of the subject.

Femeneutics acknowledges

the source and ongoing connection with the history of feminist thought, but
insists that interpretation rather than politics is the central concern. In what
follows, I sketch alternative interpretations of, firstly, the female and male body
using the more common perceptions of the reclining female nude and the
generally accepted (or preference for) absence of full frontal male nudes, and
secondly, by looking at the relatedness between the sexes which emphasise that
it is not necessarily only in binary opposition that the male and female can be
interpreted, but that there exists a dialectic relationship of self and other through
shared lived bodily experience.

(i) interpreting gender in a few examples

Nudes are, as is humanity, either female or male. However, this duality does not
necessarily prescribe a binary oppositional politics between the sexes. The
tradition of the nude is extremely varied and complex; my purpose is not to unify
or simplify this tradition. Nudes are never one thing alone, but are subject to
interpretation. Indeed, the nude is the most available expression or source to
facilitate an interpretational framework of gender (femeneutics), as it necessarily
and blatantly, deals with the delicate concerns of this category.

The male body when re-presented in art is often defined into its anatomical parts.
The athletic musculature of the healthy trained body is the traditional shape of
these images. He is rarely pot-bellied or obese. Comparatively, the female body
has been explored in all her different shapes and sizes. Whether luxuriously
covered (Rubens) or skeletal (Schiele), classical or gothic in proportion, all kinds

of women have been venerated in art. This allows that in the genre of nude art,
women unlike men, are perhaps less restricted by a prescribed aesthetic of the
body, although this is the case for both sexes in popular contemporary media
images. It is in the light of this more positive interpretation of the tradition that I
re-consider the most obvious expression of female passivity and receptivity
which Saunders and Nead find irredeemable. New insights can be gained from
looking for an alternative interpretation to this otherwise sexist image.

(a) women versus men

1: The Reclining Female Nude: an alternative reading
The vast range of ladies of leisure, lying in open fields snoozing under trees,
lounging on a chaise longue or napping on a bed, are confident and beautiful in
their knowledge that they are admired. She is most often Venus the goddess of
love and lust, or her real-world sister, the odalisque. The men who admire her
are enraptured and possibly even controlled by their desire for her. Yet, she
controls the situation as does Venus, who can control her own desirability
through the garter which makes her irresistible. Venus chooses the men whom
she wishes to please her.

Plate 21: Goya, Maja

Plate 22: Manet, Olympia

This is a myth which has been used extensively in art. What it also indicates,
which a more conventional approach to feminism cannot include, is that there is
something unattainable and inexplicable in the mysterious throes of love and
desire. If any one artist had fulfilled all these dreams and fantasies, it would not
have been necessary to repeat the exercise. Instead, maybe each artist creates

and re-creates this image in the longing to understand what it is that draws him
to the aesthetic of the female body. The reclining female nude is more telling of
her spectators than of women themselves. All this proves is that women have
beautiful and desirable bodies, but this does not make them more attainable or
2: Fear of Full Frontal?

Plate 23: Naked Man

Very often, in day-to-day conversations, women more often than men express
the opinion that men's bodies are less attractive than those of women, and that
this is another reason for his rare (in comparison to the female nude) occurrence
in nudes. The healthy and strong male nude is an attractive and desirable
image. Is it not perhaps rather the 'threat' of the penis that has caused
hesitancy? Saunders suggests that because images of full frontal male nudes
are rare, we are unfamiliar with the public display of the penis (Cf. Saunders,
1989: 10-11). A further explanation for the uncomfortability, is contained in the
notion that men are partially guided by this organ, and that women if responsible
for its arousal, are responsible for its satisfaction - lest it burst!

The penis is more threatening and aggressive than the parts constituting female
sexuality - or at least, this is what we have been lead to believe. Obviously the
sexist bias of sex crimes and pornography promote this fear. The penis has too

often been used as an object of violation to make its translation into an aesthetic
appreciation of the male difficult.

Plate 24: Caroline van der Merwe, The Prisoner.

Caroline van der Merwe's male nudes, although aesthetically well-formed,

control or hold back the threatening urge in interpretation - literally by tying him
up. The female viewer (for example) need not feel threatened. However, these
sculptures do not do justice to a possible celebration of the male nude, which the
Naked Man (in McCloy, 1997: 26) comes closer to expressing.

I do not think that there is an overtly sexual content in the above reclining male
nude. His expression is as confrontational as the two female nudes above perhaps inviting, but at the same time quite closed. It is a shame that the
photograph crops his legs, as this emphasises his pouch more than what is
necessary. Generally, he seems at ease with his nudity - so why should the
audience not be as well?

(b) a dialectic of self/body/other

Nudes expressing love are the most immediate example of what I am calling a
dialectic relationship between self and other, through the shared sensibility of the

body. The sensation of touch, for example, is experienced by both parties there is an overlap that exceeds the individual through body.

1: Adam and Eve

The subject of Adam and Eve at the moment of their 'awakening' is a popular
theme which contains the image of both the female and male nude. The story of
Eve's temptation is also the most obvious source of Western guilt and shame
concerning nudity. However, this story can also be interpreted more broadly as
the moment of sexual awakening. The child-like innocence of the pre-pubescent
is replaced with a naive knowledge of the adolescent in recognising the
differences between their bodies.

In Tamura Lempicka's painting of Adam and Eve (1932), the original association
of guilt with nakedness is replaced with the sensual relatedness of the two
figures. Eve holds the apple which she intends to share with Adam. He, in turn,
is bent towards her holding her gently as she moulds her body against his.

What this painting demonstrates is the possibility that the female and male
subject are treated equally in technique and representation, yet retain their
specific male and female forms. This is a sensual image which is focused on the
connection between the two figures, rather than their opposition - a very recent
illustration of the Enlightenment requirement for art, viz. unity admidst variety.

It is my contention that although the shape of the male and female body
indicates a biological essentialism between the sexes, this does not necessarily
prescribe a binary opposition, but allows a dialectic plurality between
self/body/other in the shared experience of sensuality, touch, arousal and so

Plate 25: Tamura Lempicka, Adam and Eve.

2: Rembrandt's Bathsheba
Nead dismisses as unexceptional writing a statement made by Paul Valery that
"the nude is to the artist what love is to the poet" (Nead, 1992: 43). 'the Nude of
Love' is neglected in the different typologies discussed in earlier chapters - there
are paintings of nudes which express the tenderness and care characteristic of
intensely intimate emotions to another person. Love is not commonly a subject
for philosophers (Cf. Garry, 1980), probably due to the need to retain the sense
of profundity and mystery poets write about so well. The body with its covering
of sensitited skin indicates a connection between self and other which is more
direct (if less rational) than any other form of communication or understanding.




I have referred to this painting previously in this study. This is truly an

exceptional painting of love. Not only is the rendering of the female nude here
atypical for the so-called male-gaze, because there is no sense of degradation,
shame or guilt, constraint and control, but also because it is painted with a
tenderness and care that incites a feeling of (mature) love. This might be partly
due to the portrait nature of the figure (Bathsheba's face is painted from the
artist's wife), and also the subject matter contained in the title. Bathsheba and

David shared an intimate and profound love for each other which went against
the circumstances in which they found themselves. Her nakedness is

(ii) genealogies of meaning

In a feminist epistemology there are many interrelated terms, which stem from
the differentiation of the body. Male and female bodies metaphorically indicate
different ways of thinking. However, one's sex does not necessarily prescribe
the patterns of expression. The category of gender allows various genealogies
of meaning. The changing circumstances of the nineties and the benefit of two
and a half generations of feminism, has allowed, at times, a reversal of the
traditional roles of women and men. More importantly, gender prescription is
undergoing a process of being undermined within feminism. The concepts
woman, man, female, male, feminine, masculine, femininity and masculinity all
have their own subtle meanings, yet remain related to the basic sexual duality.

In this present study I merely wish to appropriate Michel Foucault's concept of

genealogy, "which he conceived as a series of infinitely proliferating branches"
(Fillingham, 1993: 102). The idea of a family tree reiterates the interrelatedness
of various concepts dealing with a central concern. For example, the central
'stem' of gender, leads or allows a multitude of different, yet related, debates or
branches, such as the political, ethical, aesthetic and so forth. Each branch can
then be further divided either to infinity (limited by our own imagination) or lead to
a dead end. This whole structure, however, negates the logical progression of a
history of ideas and is furthermore subject to whoever might be constructing the
genealogy in the first place.

To follow the complex course of descent is to identify the accidents,

the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave
birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is
to discover that truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know
and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents (Foucault quoted in
Fillingham, 1993: 102).

Although this is an extremely loose structure of meaning, it encourages the fact
that interpretations of a subject attempt to maintain some form of consistency
that does not prescribe an absolute or complete (linear thinking) understanding
or assumed 'truth' about the topic. It is within this open-ended structure in mind
that I have tried to interpret a representative academic concern with the nude,
and the works themselves in order to achieve a broader conception of the
complexes within a genre of art which contains a large variety of expressions of
the female and male body from our contemporary situation.

This is one motivation behind a more sympathetic reading of the tradition (both
academic and artistic) of the nude; another is the conviction that in order to move
beyond patterns of abuse, control, objectification, and so forth, which is often
most apparent in a history and world that has consistently attempted to silence
and undermine my sex, we must (albeit, also) re-deem more positive
interpretations of the history and the world we inhabit. Our "healing" lies in
opening up discourses of gender, and celebrating the body (rather than
circumscribing their politics) is a good starting point.

4: conclusion

Although the expression of gender necessarily informs this tradition, in 'prefeminist' texts the discourse of gender is often vaguely rather than expressly
treated. Little attempt is made to explain any significance relating to the sex of
the artist, work, and spectator and how this might reflect prevalent attitudes in
underlying assumptions in texts on the nude, and the works themselves. I think,
for example, might fairly freely assume that the titillating and voyeurist
content of the female nude was nut questioned because it was expected that this
`appeal' was shared within the male community and thus needed no comment,
let alone analysis.

The 'small iibrary' (pre- twentieth century) that exists on the nude does not
attempt to degonstruct this tradition, but merely antno!ogises the great works of

the masters. The nude is very dominant in, especially, the Western tradition of
art and it is this tradition which was first recorded by the British formalist art
historian Kenneth Clark in his book The Nude; a study in ideal art`` (1956). This
text remains a corner stone of present attitudes towards this genre, and is
accepted as the seminal 'pre-feminist' text on the nude. Clark restricts
interpretations of nudes by their shape, proportion and construction (attitude),
and permits any gender differences that might be assumed without considering
the possible significance that this suggests.

The approach to the nude as a genre of gendered art, rather than as a history of
culture-specific forms has only recently been attempted. More specifically, the
dominance of the female figure in the tradition of the nude has been subject to
feminist critique. A text such as Gill Saunders's The Nude, a new perspective
(1990) focuses on deconstructing the tradition of portraying the (mostly) female
nude as part of the uncritically accepted patriarchal strategy whereby female
sexuality is circumscribed for the benefit of the male, thus narrowing the further
gender patterns and dialogues to a basic biological essentialism. Another
feminist option is seen in Lynda Nead's The Female Nude; art, obscenity and
sexuality (1992). By concentrating on one sex the temptation of analysing
gender in terms of binary oppositions is (only seemingly) surpassed. Both these
texts can be contextualised by the major shift within feminism from the first
generation to the second generation of feminist thought.

With the feminist entry to the debates the importance of gender distinctions
within the human subject has caused the generic conception of the subject to be
replaced by one that creates an opposition between the male and female in
terms of the figures and the responses to nudity in art. It is often perceived that
the feminist analysis of patriarchy only offers one standard relationship between
However, when it came out in America in the AW Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (vol. 2) in
1972, this had changed to A Study in Ideal Form. The other differences between the two
impressions is that the second is a slightly larger version, has a more comprehensive index, and
has a reproduction of the torso of David by Michelangelo on the cover, while on the earlier version
there is a female Bather by Ingres. The texts do not differ substantially, and the illustrations are
exactly the same.

the genders which, while being informative of traditional stereotypes, does not do
justice to the complexities of the human subject. Furthermore, there is a risk of
totalitarian and circular argumentation in this strategy.

One of the aims in feminism has been the re-writing of history in order to
incorporate women's experiences and stories. In deconstructing the tradition of
human endeavours, the subject or self is seen as having a masculine identity,
while the feminine is perceived as being contained in its opposite - that is, the
other. This strategy can be applied to any text, thus creating an assumed
feminine identity which is derived from standard traditions which present the
human subject generically. This basic oppositional strategy for analysing texts
falls into the trap of totalitarianism - it is automatically assumed that the identity
of the author is male and that he is writing for a male audience. The
androcentrism of standard traditions is seen as patriarchal - subscribing to
masculine values by undermining and controlling the feminine. However, this
analysis of patriarchy is circular: it is inevitable that pre-feminist texts written in a
patriarchal society (such as Clark's) subscribe to patriarchal notions of male

Contemporary feminism (continental more than Anglo-American) has moved

beyond this reworking of the history of oppression between the sexes to a realm
that encourages a multiplicity of differences - male and female are not exclusive
binary poles. Rather, there is an ever-increasing genealogy of meanings within
the category of gender. This study attempts to demonstrate such complexity.

Clark's contribution to a study on the nude attempts to establish a particular

order of things acceptable within a modernist philosophy. It is a linear intellectual
attempt to rationalise an otherwise controversial and plural topic. However, there
are great benefits to the label 'art' which Clark has so painstakingly applied in
this genre. I think the most important of these is that the context in which nudes
are exhibited generally allows enough comfortability to contemplate possible
meanings and interpretations. Unlike Saunders and Nead, I do not think that the

history of this tradition is contaminated beyond retrieval. Human bodies need not
be docile; they present an interesting starting point of the discourses that are
possible in the dual existence of vulnerability and valorisation for further
constructions of a gendered aesthetic.

I have tried to demonstrate that there are shared responses to nudity even
though women and men have very different bodies, and subscribe to different
social prescriptions or presentations of the body. What was initially a distinction
drawn between women and men in terms of the biological differences (sex)
which had been imposed on socially accepted roles of behaviour (gender), has
moved beyond roles. For example, in each of the texts I have discussed here
the possibility that women can appreciate the female nude is silenced because it
is assumed that traditionally these images were produced with the intention of
satisfying the male gaze. In contrast to the stereotypical contemporary media
image of the 'body beautiful', the vast collection of female nudes offers a variety
of forms and shapes for the female body, thus potentially liberating how women
might think their bodies should appear. The female nude is no longer merely a
titillating image, because nudes do not necessarily have a predominant sexual
content, and when they do we need not assume the guilt and shame that is
imposed on nudity through Judeo-Christian thought.

The obvious limitations of this study is my relative neglect of pornography, the

African and Indian traditions or conceptions of nudity, and homosexuality. I hope
that I have succeeded, at worst, to merely illustrate the complexity of the human
subject in art, and at best, encouraged an opening up of the debates concerning
gender in a way which will encourage the healing between the sexes, and within
women and men as well.


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