The approach to nudity and its artistic interpretation was rather rhapsodical during history. Prehistoric conventional human figures, Venus figures are all naked. The main point in Venus of Willendorf is fertility magic coming from the emphasized primary sexual characteristics. Nudity was part of everyday life during the antiquity as well, and depicting that was also made in a natural way. They found a naked body beautiful, and admired it – and this admiration is reflected in antique statues. Ancient Greek sportsmen did not cover their bodies, but some city-states did not approve of that and introduced restrictions, for example against female competitors.
It was the faith in God that defined the life of medieval people. Central topics of fine art were Biblical stories, for example, richly illustrated Biblia pauperum alias Paupers’ Bible meant the knowledge of the Holy Writ to people who could not read or understand Latin. This kind of books served the transcendental aspect, but they were detailed and close translations – and was not afraid of showing nudity sometimes, slightly paradoxically, because prudery was not far from the Christian Middle Ages.
During Renaissance, the human body was represented in the name of science: an artwork is a biological study at the same time. Just think about Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, in which he measured and analysed the scale relations of the body. It was the age of ‘revival’, when the ideology of religious dogmas was not enough anymore, when people opened towards sciences and focused on the Greek and Roman cultures. The Vatican did not always tolerate it. Michelangelo Buonarroti’s The Last Judgement, painted as a mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, depicted nude men originally. But the elements unpleasing the Pope’s eyes were corrected posteriorly with shyly fluttering overdrapes.
One of the main outlooks of classicism, the historicism turned to the antiquity, too. It based on the searching of past, Greek and Roman memories and cultivating ideals and the rebirth of mythological topics. The disappointment of romanticism that developed as a counter-style went against all that: reacting to regulations with outbursts of emotions. The current aspects also left trails – often backward – in art. One of the most significant painters of the era, the unconventional rebel Francisco Goya’s most famous painting the Nude Maja received a pair due to the prudery of the Inquisition. Goya was forced to make the Clothed Maja, as he was not willing to repaint the original one.
Profane professionalism or provocation?
Édouard Manet’s two nudes – that stirred minor scandals – The Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia are early masterworks of Impressionism and keystones of modern painting. Their compositions are similar to those of renaissance and mannerist foregoers, but the redefinition of their form language with innovative use of colours. Olympia is a reconsideration of Titian’s Venus of Urbino. In The Luncheon on the Grass, the naked woman sitting among men dressed in suits caused a public outcry. Nudity was not a novelty anymore, but the context was. The situation is not biblical or mythological, but a completely ordinary scene and this profane picnic provoked repugnance in many people.
There are several artworks in our selection from the art group ‘Nyolcak’ (the Eight), including Róbert Berény, Dezső Czigány, Ödön Márffy and Lajos Tihanyi. The nudes of artists who mixed avant-garde trends were received negatively by the conservative public opinion
From nude studies to obscene photos
Nude photography goes back to the 1840s. Painter Eugène Delacroix and photographer Eugène Durieu made their famous album containing early nude studies in 1854. Based on these photos, Delacroix created several drawings and paintings later on. Erotic photos of women – illegal and contradicting norms – were popular in France during that time. Photographers searched for let-outs to be able to trade their not necessarily artistic photos. They sent their photos to the French National Library as deposit copies, in order to get the art study status for them. Félix-Jacques Antoine Moulin was among the first ones to be prison sentenced for taking photos of nude girls. After his release, models arrived at his home secretly.
Although there were some ancient nude photos that can be considered as artistic products due to their settings, but often they are not unique. At the exhibition of Paris in 1859, nudes already received their own section. Due to associations, the naked body photos taken for business profits separated from the artistic topics as of the beginning, because the alienating – biblical and mythological – aspect that consecrated the nudes of fine art during centuries did not exist anymore.
Translated by Zita Aknai
- Imre Györgyi, szerk.: A modell, Női akt a 19. századi magyar művészetben (A Magyar Nemzeti Galéria kiadványai 2004/2). Hungaricana
- Lyka Károly, szerk.: Az aktról. In: Művészet. Szerk. Lyka Károly 14. (1915) 3. Magyar Képzőművészeti Egyetem