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18th September 2014

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NUDES INTERNATIONAL: Historian shows how feminism has changed how we look at naked bodies

Neel’s Rhoda Myers with Blue Hat, painted in 1930

Neel’s Rhoda Myers with Blue Hat, painted in 1930

Published: 1 November, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON

THE perfect human form has been an irresistible subject for artists from the earliest days of civilisation.

In the past 60 or so years, however, something has changed. Gone are the perfect Herculean pecs or beautiful Venusian curves that Michaelangelo or Botticelli, or the unknown ancients did so well.

Instead we have the explicit self-love of Tracey Emin, the honesty of Lucian Freud’s naked self-portraits, or his fleshy “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping”, or the arresting transsexuality of Jenny Saville’s mid-op subjects.

The nude in art is no longer beautiful and perfect. It’s real and imperfect – and sometimes disturbing and hard to look at.
Especially if it’s a child.

It’s the response, says Frances Borzello, to the magazine air-brushing and Page 3 girls that are the modern-day equivalent of the classic nude.

Ms Borzello, who lives in Noel Road, Islington, has just published The Naked Nude, which tracks – surprisingly for the first time – the changing and still-evolving attitude to the human body in art.

“I know the whole theory that the nude in art has its own special meaning,” she says.
“It’s not like getting out of the bath and your fingers are wrinkled and your legs are scarlet."

"The nude is almost like being dressed up with no clothes on.

“[Renowned art historian] Kenneth Clarke wrote in the 1950s that the nude was something refined for art.
"He said that the nude was something everybody could look at with a minimum of embarrassment. It’s like a landscape or a seascape."

But not any more. The Naked Nude charts the progression of the nude from its classic reclining status during the Renaissance, where beauty triumphed over sexuality, to the explicit or uncomfortable art of Gilbert and George or Jenny Saville we see in galleries today.
It is much more complicated than that, however.

Her book also includes a “challenging” nude of a child painted in the 1930s by Alice Neal; a photograph by Ana Mendieta of a woman holding her day old baby as blood trickles down her leg – a very different type of Madonna and child – and Jeff Koons in a clinch with his Italian porn star wife.

It’s all modern art. And it’s not just a reaction, says Borzello, to the been-there-done-that feeling which led artists to practically abandon the nude in the early 20th century, but it aims to make its audience face up to reality.

“Some are hard to look at,” she admits.
“It does make me look very perverted.

"When I first saw the page proofs I was quite shocked actually. But I don’t think it’s a question of pornography. That argument is a blind alley.

"This is the work of artists today, in galleries, that critics write about.
"If they choose to paint or sculpt what they think of as the nude then why they do it is because this is a response to the society we live in at the moment.

“If Lucien Freud, who everybody genuflects before, decides he’s going to paint himself naked – completely honestly, an old man naked – then that’s incredible.”

Not that every modern work is ugly, though, as the male nudes of someone like Sylvia Sleigh attest. They are just less idealised.

Borzello, an art historian, started adult life as a journalist aged 18 writing for women’s magazines, before going to university in her 30s to study English and art history.

The idea for the book first germinated at an exhibition of Jenny Saville paintings at the old Saatchi Gallery in St John’s Wood in the 1990s.
“It was of these great big, huge women,” she recalls.

“Here was this wonderful painter who was very young and these larger than life nude women who were bulging, and some of them were marked up with lines as if they were going to be cut by a plastic surgeon.

"It was fantastic. Not the kind of nudity you expect to see in an art gallery.

"After that I began to see more and more nudes that were really rather odd and I didn’t know what to do with them.”

The classic reclining nude, such as Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus of 1510, created an acceptable way for men and women to look at nakedness, she argues.
It could hang in a drawing room, asexual but also beautiful, the curves blending into the background – “airbrushed”.

“Those nudes never have pubic hair, nothing too embarrassing or sexual,” she explains. “But underneath is the sexual subtext.
“That’s the genius of the ‘nude’ in fine art.

"It took this nakedness that we’re all ashamed of and it found a way to present it to us that was cleaned up.”

Feminism, however, changed art history, and how we look at naked bodies.
“They said of the reclining nude ‘look at her, she’s got her eyes shut, any man can look at her.

"She’s laid out for you on a plate’. So they took their clothes off, particularly the performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s, and said we are going to show you what women look like. And that made a huge difference.

“What’s happened in the last 50 years is that this art is not very acceptable to many people.
But a good artist is not afraid to look at anything in the face. That’s what makes them so wonderful.”

The Naked Nude. By Frances Borzello. Thames and Hudson, £28.
 

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