Why does nude still shock?

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The nude has fascinated artists and viewers alike for centuries – even today it continues to be a subject that triggers debate and controversy. The unclothed human body is one of art’s greatest subjects. It has appeared in almost every major art movement from Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to the political art of more recent times. Why does the nude continue to fascinate us? That’s the question posed by a new exhibition, Nude, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, which opened earlier this month. It brings together 100 portrayals of the nude from the Tate’s collection, including paintings, sculptures, photographs and prints from the late 1700s through to the present day.

The nude fascinates us for a very simple and quite profound reason and that is that it’s art about us. We all have a body; we’re all fascinated bodies and bodies in the unclothed state,” curator Justin Paton tells BBC Culture. “The exhibition is a journey through the many different human feelings and emotional states, and that for me is what is most compelling about the nude as a subject.”

William Strang’s late-19th Century work The Temptation takes us back to one of the key stories about nakedness in Western culture – the story from the Book of Genesis in which Adam and Eve became aware of their unclothed bodies. “Out of that comes the modern nude and our anxieties and our excitement about what lies under clothes, which are the two key impulses that has driven the nude throughout its history,” explains Paton.

When we think of the nude, many of us may carry in our minds a classical image of the heroic, sculpted bodies that dominated 19th-Century art, but as Paton points out, “the nude is actually an ever-changing and endlessly contested form”. In many ways, contemporary portrayals of the naked body differ vastly from Victorian works, but there are also strong similarities.

“The debates about honesty and idealisation from the Victorian period reverberate right through to our own time, which I think resembles the Victorian period in quite striking ways, particularly when you look at the way nudity and body issues are discussed in the culture at large,” he says. “Even today there is this amazing mix of prudity and permissiveness. We’re so used to seeing millions of images of the naked human form, yet at the same time a single nude artwork in a gallery can still prove extraordinarily controversial at times.” Only recently in Australia, an art magazine was compelled by its publisher to conceal the nipples on a female nude painting it had chosen for its cover.

The Knight errant is an example of what scholars refer to as the ‘English nude’, which caused controversy in the late 19th Century because the subjects of these works were deemed too lifelike. “It betrayed its origins, where a painter had obviously stood in front of a real, live female body, and was not concealing that fact sufficiently.”

Can a nude really be too lifelike? Nudes of classical figures like Psyche and Venus can be appreciated purely as art, without having to consider the living, breathing human that sat before the artist. This discomfort with recognisable, everyday people as the subject of nude portraits was only accentuated in the 20th Century as the nude entered the domestic space, with paintings of bodies appearing in bedrooms or studio interiors. Philip Wilson Steer’s portrait from the turn of the century is a perfect example of how one small detail can make a work controversial. When John Rothenstein, visited Steer in 1941 and chose the painting for Tate’s collection, Steer informed him that he had chosen not to exhibit the painting during his lifetime, as his friends had felt it to be indecent. “The reason they felt this way was not because the woman was nude, but because she was nude and wearing a hat,” Paton says. “This was seen as somehow accentuating the nudity in a way that was not completely seemly.” A simple hat, seen on many women of the time, was enough to push the painting out of the world of the ideal and into the realm of the erotic.

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