Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Nude in Art: A Complicated History

     During the iCloud hacking scandal a couple weeks back, comedian Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, made fun of conservative pundits who blamed female celebrities for allowing themselves to be photographed nude, even though these photos were intended to be completely private. As one conservative pundit said, “If you don’t want nude pictures of yourself to appear to the world, don’t take the nude pictures in the first place.” Another pundit said, “Why? Why take nude pictures?”
     Stewart in his incredulous mocking tone asked, “Yes, why? Why would a human being want to look at another human being’s naked body!? It makes no sense!”
Model and actress, Chandra Wells poses for a painting of her in B.C.
     For thousands of years the naked body has been painted and sculpted, and at various times either accepted as quite normal, as in Greek times, or shameful as in the Victorian Age or 1950s America. Nudity in art, magazines, television, movies, etc. has waxed and waned in its acceptance regularly. But rarely has nudity’s recurrence with vastly different treatments from one generation to the next ever been explained with any great depth. It turns out that even for the art world, it’s a difficult subject to conquer.  
     The treatment of the nude figure, especially of women in a male dominated society, is a great way to learn of political, economic, religious and social changes throughout history. One country’s treatment of the nude can be completely different from another. A wonderful book on the subject that studies the American use of the nude in art and popular culture from the 1700s to the present day is art historian Bram Dijkstra’s book, Naked: The Nude in America.
     The book is brilliant. And likely any artist who reads it will be influenced by it, as I have. When it comes to any desire an artist might have to paint or draw the nude, either out of lustful urges or to celebrate the human body in all its beauty, strength and/or with all its fragility as a celebration of life or as representative of a realistic understanding of our limits, there’s few other images that stirs us or shocks us.
     Bram Dijkstra begins the book revealing how much trouble he had getting well known artists to allow him to use their work for his study. He’s surprised by the response, but he understands why. He writes, “Artists who refuse to assault the body with stylishly perverse psychological or physical deformations are usually dismissed as hopelessly out of tune with today's art world. In fact the rampant imagery of paranoia and obsession rife in the contemporary art world can be traced back to the Puritanism that continues to rankle the American mind. It is not the product of artists who celebrate life by celebrating the body.”
     There are a few opportunities for artists to draw the nude at the university and at the Baggage Building on Tuesday. However, there are very few shows in Thunder Bay where an artist has displayed nude imagery. Foster Gauley, Damien Gilbert and a handful of photographers have had nude subjects and shows, albeit with models who often insist on modesty, as understandable, this is a small city.

     However, Ruth Tye-Mckenzie did a series of unforgettable paintings where the nude figure was worked beautifully into landscapes. Currently, Anna Waciokowski’s stunning drawings are up at Calicos on Bay St. And just to let you know, her prices are too low. Buy now, because I’m writing to her and asking, or rather, demanding that she put her prices up. They are worth three times what she’s asking, which relates to a theme I covered a while ago; artists and the public in Thunder Bay undervaluing artist’s work. When done well, the human figure as interpreted by an artist with good intentions are worth looking at.

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