Historical Perspectives: To Be Nude or Naked

Laurie says:

Sociological Images linked to  art historian John Berger in the BBC documentary Ways of Seeing.

perspective on the objectification of women in European art and advertising, starting with paintings of nude women.  “To be naked,” he argues, “is to be oneself.  To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude… they are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.”

I didn’t note until after I played it that it was from 1972, so his oracular voice and uncomplicated perspective grated a bit. I kept wanting to make the conversation more nuanced and complex. And that oracular male voice giving us truth undercuts his point a bit. But in the context of 1972, it’s groundbreaking and brilliant, and unfortunately still true enough. These images occur over and over in contemporary advertising and art and we are mostly oblivious to their long history.

Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about images of the nude in art. Before I began Women En Large I spent a lot of time looking at historical nudes.  I wanted to be clear enough, so that I was aware of the classic cliches of specific poses and postures. One of the most anatomically striking is “the nude with the broken back.”

I did the same for the male nude when I did Familiar Men.  Although, of course (unsurprisingly) there were far, far fewer images to look at.

I was always looking for pictures that were true portraits rather then objectified pictures of unreal women. Berger says that historically there are only 20 or 30 of them.  If so, I’m surprised that I had seem most of them when I was doing my research. My favorite in the video is Titian’s portrait of his young wife hugging her breasts.

For me the best thing about it is not the commentary, but the changing vision of the female nude through time. The European art that is shown from Medieval times to Impressionism really illustrates differences in beauty standards. And the images he chose illustrate it superbly.

These are very well worth watching.  As is the third part, a discussion by a panel of women on his talk. Be patient with the introduction in the first one. The painting discussion and images happen fairly quickly


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