The Naked Truth About Art

12 Apr

The Naked Truth About Art

By Lorette C. Luzajic

“Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither…”
(Job 1:21)

In a world where bombs and beheadings and shooting sprees and starvation are daily events, it’s hard to believe that anyone could find a naked woman offensive. But the nude, arguably the earliest and most essential theme in the history of art, continues to shock and offend.

In the 19th century, artist Paul Gauguin scandalized society by leaving Europe to paint in tropical Tahiti. It was cruel of him to abandon his wife and children, but that’s not what raised eyebrows and raised tongues. It was the island women who posed nude for the paintings that were to become Gauguin’s masterpieces.

Two Tahitian Women – Paul Gauguin

Over a century later, the artist’s bare breasted beauties still have the power to shock. Last week, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, a woman attacked an $80 million dollar Gauguin painting, pummeling it with her fist and trying to wrench it loose from the wall. “I feel that Gauguin is evil. He has nudity and is bad for the children. He has two women in the painting and it’s very homosexual. I was trying to remove it. I think it should be burned,” Susan Burns said.

The perpetrator in this case was likely mentally ill, as she told officials she was from the CIA and had a radio in her head. But the hostile attempt to ransack censor, or protest art for the slightest display of nudity is widespread.

Its long history begins in antiquity, and carries through to the modern day and  includes the imprisonment of Austrian artist Egon Schiele in the early 1900s. Schiele painted graphic, unflattering portraits of nudes, frequently posed in a splayed fashion with detailed genital anatomy. He was charged with pedophilia after his drawings were discovered and confiscated by the cops. The baseless charges were dropped later.

Venus at Her Mirror – Diego Velazquez

In the 1600s, the “painter of painters,” Diego Velazquez, painted the nude Venus at Her Mirror. It is the only one of his nude works that survived the Spanish Inquisition. His admirer, Edouard Manet, also painted a nude Venus, in 1865. It caused outrage in Parisian salons for being “vulgar” and “immoral.”  Historian Mulk Raj Anand has pointed out that the ancient art of India- think Kama Sutra- was not just nude but vividly, joyously expressive sexually, with themes of coital acrobatics in solitude, duos, and group scenarios. These heritage works are not as comfortable among modern day Indian museums as they were in their original palaces and temples, due to Christian and Muslim influence in the culture.

The issue of nudity and censorship in the United States was highly publicized in the post-mortem trials of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1988. Outraged Christian conservatives howled over the obscenity of Mapplethorpe’s nudes, set for a big show he himself would not make it to, since he died tragically that year of AIDS. Regardless what anyone thinks of his lifestyle, subject matter, or censorship issues, few deny that Mapplethorpe was a brilliant photographer and that his work was stunning. He almost exclusively photographed the human body in various states of undress. Some of the pictures were quite explicit, and some were quite artistic. The brouhaha at the time centred largely on the fact that many of his models were male, and that the male body was shown as beautiful and glorious. Religious groups were infuriated.

The debates took years to die down, and propelled Mapplethorpe to become one of the most famous photographers all time. In some respects, I think the debacle was a valuable initiator of dialogue that led many to consider questions of nudity, obscenity, art, merit, and talent. Since the artist’s work ranged from tasteful classic female form to gay male sadomasochism, it provided an interesting scope for discussion on where to draw the lines and what constituted “real” art.

We’ve come a long way, and yet the nude is still powerfully provocative, revealing how much shame still infests societies all over the globe.

An example of how deeply seated this shame is comes from Australia in 2008, when an art magazine depicting a six year old girl naked on its front cover caused a major controversy. The Art Monthly’s cover was snapped by the girl’s own mother, photographer Polixeni Papapetrou, and there were more pictures inside of the child trying on jewelry. The magazine editor said the photography was meant to “validate nudity and childhood as subjects for art.”

Olympia as Lewis Carroll-s Beatrice Hatch Before White Cliffs – Art Monthly July 2008

But that’s not how Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd saw things. He threatened to pull funding from the monthly, and called the picture “revolting.” A police investigation into the cover and content was called on.

In my humble opinion, assuming every naked toddler picture is obscene validates pedophiles instead of protecting children. If we say that a sexualized interpretation of children is the true one, we grant criminals perversity and violate a child’s natural beauty and innocence. Most loving people, including children themselves, take great delight in the antics of little ones, naked or clothed.

In this case, the outspoken young model, Olympia Nelson, agrees. “I think that the picture my mum took of me has nothing to do with being abused,” she said.

I’m really, really offended by what Kevin Rudd said about this picture.” Olympia was six when the pic was taken but eleven when the furor arose. She said it didn’t feel good as a human being to be called revolting.

The so-called protection of children was also called into account a few years prior, when  artist Robert Ferguson came under fire in his California hometown for featuring a male nude painting in his gallery window. The tasteful depiction reflected Impressionist style, reminiscent of Renoir. The model was reclining, not engaged in any sexual activity. But he was, yes, naked. Locals were outraged. “Maybe not every parent in Escondido wants their children to be seeing this,” said one resident.

Oh, think of the children!

Luzajic’s David – Lorette C. Luzajic

I’ve always been puzzled by this line of thought. Parents happily stuff their kids full of diabetes and cancer-causing sugar; they smoke indoors where infants live; they buy them gory games of graphic violence. But when it comes to a naked body, which the child himself possesses, then it’s “think of the children.” It is clear that the shame, guilt, lies, obsession, repression, and loathing of the human body results in crimes from rape to domestic violence to the burning of witches. Which atrocities are caused by exposure to Rodin’s masterful crafting of human anatomy?

Also in 2006, Sydney McGee, who had been a favourite teacher for nearly thirty years, was fired after taking children on a class trip to the Dallas Museum of Art. A student mentioned some nude art to their parents, and uproar ensued. Some of the offending art? A 2000 year old marble torso of a Greek boy from funerary relief, with an inscription reading, “his nude body has the radiant purity of an athlete in his prime;” a sculpture by aforementioned Auguste Rodin; and a modern statue called Star in a Dream by Jean Arp, unrecognizable as a nude.

Jean Arp – Star in a Dream

It’s sad that some extreme-Christian citizens or groups declare themselves the guardians of universal morality, determined to decide for others what constitutes art and culture and what doesn’t. This fear of art is particularly unnerving given the sublime contribution of Christianity to art. Indeed, art is one of Christianity’s greatest gifts to civilization, with everything from Handel’s Messiah to the vast works of Biblically inspired oil paintings in Europe. It is interesting to note that nudity is common in sacred art. The nursing breasts of the Madonna were frequently on full display; Christ was naked in the torment of crucifixion scenes; sculpture like Michelangelo’s David was nude.

Hindu Temple Art

Many Christians yesterday and today (including some inside the Catholic church, which commissioned nude work from Caravaggio and Michelangelo) maintained that the human body was God’s most sublime and magnificent creation. This contrasted with the more pervasive attitudes of disgust that drove others to see the body as a cesspool of sin and shame.

It’s not just Christians who react vehemently to nudity in art, however.

Last year,  a seventeen-metre high statue of three women outside of Jakarta, Indonesia was ordered removed. Nyoman Nuarta, a famous artist from Bali, was accused of obscenity and blasphemy. The statue was not remotely suggestive of sex. The artist said the women were depicted the way they dressed in Indonesia historically.

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery censored an image by Bangladeshi-British photographer Syra Miah in 2006. The picture was of a mentally ill woman who lived in a bus shelter. The local Muslim community helped feed and care for the woman, and the image was about the compassion of that community. However, other members of the Muslim community were outraged because the semi-clad homeless woman was obscene. The museum removed the image from the show, afraid of an outbreak of violence.

Many European museums aren’t even waiting for complaints before censoring imagery they fear might offend Muslims. London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery removed some works by Hans Bellmer the day before his exhibition even opened, simply because there were many Muslims in their neighbourhood.  Bellmer’s creepy work shows surreal, ghoulish depictions of human anatomy. Yes, they are disturbing: that’s the whole point.

Hans Bellmer – La Poupee

The human body is the essence of the mystery of our identity. Its power to instill fear or to stop us in our tracks for its beauty is overwhelming. Much of our physical and spiritual lives are concentrated around the body- caring for it, denying it, coming to terms with it. The body is the most natural thing in the world and yet nothing, no violence, no invention, no act of history or deed of neighbour, has more power to offend us.

The irony of this is astonishing: the nude body and its requirements of food, water, health, shelter, and yes, sometimes sex, may be the only universal commonality among all people. We are all naked under our clothes.

Lorette C. Luzajic is an independent artist and writer from Canada. She is a champion of freedom of expression, the most fundamental of human rights, and tithes ten percent of what she earns from art and book sales to advocacy. Visit her at

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