It’s 2014, more than a century and a half since Courbet painted his “Origine du Monde” and all the while, because of its Puritan roots, the nude has consistently been a controversial subject in the States. Lord Kenneth Clark, in his 1956 “The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form” makes the often quoted distinction between the naked body and the nude.
Nudity has been intimately linked to art in the modern era. Goya’s 1797“The Nude Maja” is considered the first “nude” and it managed to raise a few eyebrows – and the attention of the Inquisition – when first seen. Gone was the chaste beauty of Goddesses of centuries past: here was a contemporary woman (with exposed pubic hair!) staring unabashedly back at the viewer. Manet’s “Olympia” was a portrait of an actual prostitute – and since, the distinction between the naked and the nude has been blurred. Art critic Frances Borzello, in “The Naked Nude” (2012) offers that contemporary artists purposely eschew the traditions of the past and seek to confront the viewer with all the eros, and discomfort, … and anxiety that the naked body may express. Performance art has peeled the last layer by often presenting real naked bodies as art.
US Attorney General John Ashcroft – who exclusively chose to fly by private jet, in the months preceding 9/11 – famously took time off from his “War on Terror,” in the months following 911, to spend $8000 of taxpayer money to cover up the naked figures of the Caryatids in his Washington offices.
We write this meditation on the Nude because over the past months there’s been a slew of incidents which have made news in the art world… the nude still manages to provoke, even in Paris… even, as you can see below, in the presence of Courbet’s “Origine du Monde.”
We’ve uncovered a few of these incidents, and lay them bare for you, dear reader. We will dutifully mention at this stage that the images we post … well, contain nudity… – and so we use, for American audiences, the acronym “NSFW,” one of the more commonly-used acronyms on the web. NSFW stands for Not Safe For Work… meaning that whatever material, and it’s usually nudity, will get one in trouble if viewed at work, in the company of co-workers. Graphic violence is seldom, if ever labelled NSFW. Facebook has made a few headlines, censoring anything that shows off even so much as the woman’s nipple. And that includes pretty staid art photography from the last century, on the museums’ fb pages.
So we start with the incident pictured above: the artwork under the full-body black veil is Damien Hirst’s “Mother Virgin” a 33-foot tall bronze figure – calling it a nude may not be totally appropriate, as the sculpture depicts a pregnant woman with her skin partially … peeled back to reveal bones, tissue, and the fetus. In the opinion of many – and now apparently in the opinion of the Aby Rosen’s, (the statue’s owner’s) neighbors – it’s really just an eyesore, too awful to be displayed publicly. The neighbors, in the upscale Old-Westbury burg in New York state, have mobilized and involved the City Council, which is debating banning ALL public artwork over 8 feet. These same neighbors first pinned a fig leaf on the poor thing, the owner has since promised to “sink” the statue in a hill, not illuminate it at night, and have evergreen hedges surround the work. The statue is, in the meantime, covered by a figure-length black veil. (The photo is by 1010 WINS, and was printed in the NY Daily Mail). Robert Hughes, in “The Mona Lisa Curse,” one of his last films stated bluntly, when confronted by the piece: “isn’t it a miracle how much money and so little ability can produce?”
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The Guardian reports on the news of London’s The Society of Women Artists, and their censoring one painting from its annual group show.
The artist is Leena McCall, her portrait of a woman, smoking a pipe, partially undressed, has been deemed pornographic – it appears that it’s the subject’s pubic hair which got the Institution’s “panties all bunched up.”
The work is, by our reckoning, far from vulgar, yet it has apparently been taken down from the exhibition wall, the reason given being that children often frequent the center… the artist is contesting the Institution’s decision; she asks -and we paraphrase – what are we then to do about the thousands of nudes that crowd the halls of the British Museum, or the Tate?
McCall has started a protest campaign on twitter: #eroticcensorshop.
In an UPDATE to the article, the Guardian reports that the Society of Women Artists places the responsibility for the painting’s removal on the Mall Galleries, who did so without seeking the SWA’s approval.
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In another gallery, the Uffizi, this time, a 25-year old Spanish man recently caused a stir by stripping naked in front of Botticelli’s painting of the Birth of Venus.
The man’s “performance” included his first re-creating the painted Goddess’ stance – modestly placing his hands over his privates, then he knelt in prayer in front of the Renaissance icon, and then he sprinkled rose petals on the floor around him.
A museum visitor snapped a cell-phone picture, and posted it on Facebook; it quickly spread online, accompanied by ironic and bemused comments. Museum staff tried to cover the man with a black cloth, and finally the Carabinieri – Italy’s boldest – arrested him and charged him with “obscene acts in a public place.” The Uffizi director Antonio Natali told the La Repubblica daily that out of a million 900,000 visitors there are bound to be “disturbed, unsettled, passionate” people. He then joked that the nudist must have been hit by “Adam’s Syndrome,” underlining that no damages to the work were sustained and that the custodians intervened quickly and efficiently. In the States public nudity is treated more soberly… even urinating in an alley at night can get one arrested and labelled a “sex offender.”
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And getting back to the origin… the “Origine du Monde” that is: one Deborah DeRobertis, a Bruxelles-based performance artist “recreated” Courbet’s famous painting, by displaying her vagina in front of the … original. The artist insisted that the performance was not a provocation, (the emphasis is ours) but rather a reclaiming of the piece – a “mirroring” of the famous depiction of the female sex – and that she gave the painting a face, and eyes, that look back at the viewer.
In the name of modesty we won’t embed the video of the performance in this post but rather only link to a youtube video, set to Strauss’ “Ave Maria,” of the … incident. Guess that in 2014, a painted vagina in a gold frame is ok – but the real thing is just not acceptable.
We repeat here that this post is not a provocation, but rather a meditation on the enduring power of the Nude. The subject of nudity in the arts might be controversial, but it generates traffic online and gets “page-views;” the Guardian recently published an article – with an accompanying gallery of works – on the subject of the Nude in photography, and we, in the name of arts education, link to that here.
Previously on Art is Life:
“Sculpture Shock” Michelangelo’s David is too naked for Shimane Prefecture
“Sculpture Shock” Redux Michelangelo’s “other” David gets pixel bikini on Chinese television
Not Safe For American Eyes – Facebook censors French Museum page over 1940 art nude
“The Naked Truth and More Besides. Nude Photography around 1900″
“Sculpture Shock” … (a dollar-bill-bikini-solution for the nude) Statue in the Piazza
(Art)Pop will eat itself, con’t: Lady Gaga shills for Marina Abramovic Institute “Kickstarter” Fundraiser – … in the nude