The word nude is derived from the Latin nudus, which means “naked” or “bare,” as in a state of undress or primaeval nakedness. However, in the West, the phrase in the nude or the nude has come to mean works of art, cultural traditions, and socioreligious views. As a result, the term “naked” connotes a Western cultural idea, but “nakedness” is a universal human state of being without clothing or covering. Because sex is a biological concept, art depicting sex is based on the reality of physical traits ranging from broad shoulders to genitalia. Gender, on the other hand, is a historically determined social and cultural classification of masculinity and femininity; thus, artistic depictions of gender are a result of cultural processes establishing sexual and social identity. The decision to depict the nudity and the associated traits of gender is more than an aesthetic conviction to exhibit an item of art, beauty, or anatomy; rather, it is based on a moral dilemma simply defined as: What is the character and meaning of nudity?
THE NUDE’S CRITICAL DISCUSSIONS
While earlier critics, historians, and cultural commentators discussed the artistic or religious values reflected by works of art in which the figures were described as naked, it was British artist Walter Sickert who wrote the first formal critical discussion of the nude as a convention of academic art (in 1910). The art historian Kenneth Clark (1903–1983) presented the 1953 Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, which outlined the categories of analysis for both the meaning and theme of the nude in Western art and cultural history. Clark’s lectures and his 1956 book were both named “A Study in Ideal Form,” implying that this motif was more than an iconographic or visual theme, but also a concept supported or refuted by specific cultural, philosophic, religious, and sociological attitudes regarding the human body and sexuality. Nudity was more than just a state of undress; it represented the classical Greek philosophic, theological, and social understandings of the human person, human dignity, human anatomy, and creative creation. To be naked meant to be stripped of one’s clothing, implying a state of human frailty and guilt based on what Clark called the Christian attitude toward the human person, the human body, and hence sexuality.
Artists of the Renaissance
In light of humanist considerations of the nature of woman and the position of the female in the greater culture, Renaissance painters (and writers) expressed an interest in gender issues, particularly the evolving societal role of the feminine. The rise, or rather, the reemergence, of the Aristotelian conception of women as defective and inferior to males impeded this new perspective. Men are identifiable by the symbols of their professional or social position, whereas women’s portrayals, particularly portraits, connote classic standards of beauty and social propriety. The lack of female figures in dominant postures and positions in Renaissance art is interpreted by feminist commentators as a continuation of the traditional Christian view of woman as either virgin (ideal) or whore (misogyny), but there are other criteria to consider, particularly when it comes to the artistic depiction of the nude.