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|Offbeat and Naked
by Linda Nochlin
|I like any nude that isn't classical, any naked body that doesn't look like Michelangelo's David or the Apollo Belvedere. For me, as for the poet-critic, Baudelaire in the 19th century, the classical nude is dead, and deathly. What is alive? The offbeat, the ugly, the other, the excessive. Everyone should read Sir Kenneth Clark's classic study The Nude to see what the paradigms are, so one can see how transgressive today's New Newds are in terms of tradition.
I like that word "newd" because it brings together the idea of nude and lewd in an entirely satisfactory way. Not that a naked body has to be lewd to be offbeat and anti-classical. One of the greatest and most moving naked images of all times, as far as I am concerned, is one of the figures, seen from the back, being pulled down to Hell by her hair in the left-hand foreground of The Last Judgement in the Beaune Diptych by Roger van der Weyden. She is beautiful and damned and you don't have to see her face or even her front to know it.
The eloquence of the naked back is extraordinary and rarely titillating, unless the naked buttocks are in question, and then the sky is the limit! Modern technology made it possible to foreground the buttocks -- let's call it the ass for short -- in a big way. The porno nudes of the stereoscope feature in-your face asses. The tired businessman could come home in the mid-19th century, pick up his stereopticon, push aside all those 3D views of the Holy Land and pop in his luscious 3D sex pictures for a real close-up newd experience, often featuring an actual if somewhat frozen 3D sex act.
Today we are seeing a major revival of the nude, or rather the naked. But many of the best pictures of the naked body today depend on that ideal prototype lingering in the back of the mind of the public. That's why we need Kenneth Clark to remind us what transgression is all about when it comes to representing the human body. And there is no question that the offbeat nude of today can be shocking. I'm teaching a class on typologies of the nude so I should be used to seeing all that flesh, all that seductiveness, but every so often something flashes on the screen that takes my breath away literally -- Bellmer, porn, a Gericault bouquet of chopped off arms and legs -- and only the naked human body will do that, not a landscape, not an apple. The nude remains a highly charged subject.
Fat is in and it is sensational. Maybe it's because of the emphasis on thinness in our social practice and the predominance of the superwaif model in Vogue, but transgression often means FLESH in contemporary sculpture, painting and photography. Both Laura Aguilar in her Nature Self-Portrait No.4, 1996 (reproduced in that excellent, not fat, pocket sized catalogue, a must for new nude-lovers, The Nude in Contemporary Art, published by the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in conjunction with a show that closed in Sept.) and Ariane Lopez-Huici make much of fat -- fat women -- in their photographs.
Aguilar's Self Portrait is elegantly deployed in formal terms, playing the rotundity of the outstretched body against the irregular roundness of the reflecting pond beneath it. One doesn't even have to work out the connection between the conformation of body and that of the earth she lies on; it is made by the visual data of the image itself. The arm stretches out like a rock-stratum, the belly sags downward like a fleshy waterfall, the legs are like angular hills. The boundaries between conventional notions of beauty and ugliness are always stretched if not outright contravened by such images in which bodies we would find unpleasant in real life are transmuted into something else by the eye of the artist -- we see the body differently because of her. And it's her body, to add to the paradoxical nature of the image.
The series of photographs of the fat model Aviva by Ariane Lopez-Huici are something else again. Arthur Danto makes clear the metaphysical as well as the more obvious physical dimensions of Lopez-Huici's project in his catalogue introduction, "Le 'Soi' fait chair" (the 'I' made flesh), which ranges provocatively from Descartes to Monica Lewinsky. But the philosopher-critic makes clear that at one time in our history fat was equated with power and authority, including sexual authority -- loss of weight means loss of power, and we don't have to drag Rubens in to make the point.
Supersize model Aviva is a participant in the performance rather than a mere object of the photographic gaze. She deploys her burgeoning flab in a variety of startling poses. In one, she lifts her leg behind in a kind of mock or desperate arabesque, one hand on her ample breasts, her head turned into the shadow, her flaccid belly hanging down like a fleshy tunic. In another pose she stares out at us provocatively from the model's couch, her enormous limbs, breasts and belly forming a series of falling folds that for formal eloquence no skinny woman could equal.
In painting, when it comes to the Big Nude today, one thinks first of Jenny Saville, of whose work in the "Sensation" show I recently wrote, "With exquisite delicacy, Saville mockingly probes the texture of female flesh, leaving not one acre unplowed by her shameless brush. In one case, the vastly foreshortened nude is overlaid by a kind of contour map, as though the image of landscape and that of a woman's body had converged…". (Review of "Sensation" in Art in America, forthcoming.)
Saville's nudes are big, and they swell to fill the entirety of her huge canvases. Obviously a "statement" -- about women, sex, gender, nudity, and above all, the status of painting itself -- they clearly mark themselves as important by their sheer scale and ambition. It's sort of interesting to compare the status of the male nude in the same show -- the hacked up three-dimensional Goya take off, or even more poignant, Ron Mueck's floor-sculpture Dead Dad -- stark naked, hold-your-breath naturalistic -- and tiny.
And speaking of tiny, what about child nudes? Our sex-obsessed censors, who equate the representation of the naked bodies of children with pedophilia and hence make it punishable by law should turn to their Freud. After all, it was he who "discovered" childhood sexuality. But you don't have to read Freud to see all the amors and putti in traditional art, the dimpled backsides, the exposed sex organs, the rosy flesh. Not to speak of the naked and sexually specific infant Jesus; not to speak of Mary Cassatt's lusciously nude children. What kind of incestuous fantasy (totally disavowed, needless to say) lurks behind the condemnation of Sally Mann's equivocal photos of her children as always already sexual, and sometimes trying on more adult possibilities for size? Or the garden of Eden populated by Jock Sturges' pubescent figures? Children are sexual beings, albeit in a very different way from grown-ups, endlessly curious about their own and other people bodies. And they are innocent too: it was just this combination that the Reverend Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) caught in his representations of nude or almost nude children in the High Victorian period.
I realize there are not too many naked males featured in this roundup of offbeat nudes. Obviously Damien Hirst's cows are female; we don't know about the shark. But hey, there's a cute pic of Damien himself in the "Sensation" catalogue, revealing his naked little knees for all the world to see. Wonder what the rest of him looks like; I mean without all the super grungy clothes. And how would his body look sliced up in a nice glass vitrine? Maybe that would be a little too offbeat.
I speculate about Damien disrobed because one of the main strands of the offbeat nudity of our time is the revival of the male nude as a major category. I say revival because at one time the male nude lay at the center of esthetic production, the female being merely peripheral, for private production and delectation than for the grand public constructions featuring scenes from Antiquity or the Bible, which were the painter's stock-in-trade before modern times. But that would be the subject of another piece. Meanwhile, think of John Coplans' hairy naked self-imagery -- lovingly close-up cameos of every inch of the guy -- as a kind of courageous forerunner of today's naked male revival.
LINDA NOCHLIN is Lila Acheson Wallace professor of modern art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and contributing editor at Art in America.
Selected Books by Linda Nochlin available in the artnet.com online bookstore: