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

5 thoughts on “Historical Perspectives: To Be Nude or Naked

  1. Thanks– very interesting, especially the bit about the idealized body eliminating any actual person from the ideal and the discussion between the women.

    Is the Venus of Willendorf (which looks to me as though it was sculpted from a observation of a particular person) naked? Nude? Something else?

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I was not familiar with Berger’s work, though I had heard the title “Ways of Seeing” — lots of food for thought here. Oh, but I love Berger’s English “never met a ‘W’ I could ever pronouce” accent. Just a personal taste–for some odd reason I find it such fun to listen to!

  3. Nancy,

    His use of the words “nude” and “naked” are for me specific to his conversation. They’re not the definitions I would use myself. And I don’t think she fits either of them, as she predates the European art tradition he’s discussing.

  4. I totally recommend watching part 3 and 4. To start with, it feels like, yeah, get some women in to agree with his grand pronouncements, but towards the end, I feel they really take over. And his oracular voice and uncomplicated perspective is undercut by the women, and I think he realises that because he lets them have the last word. I almost want to hug him, because as you say even in the present day there aren’t many men with that degree of awareness about this.

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