Just as paintings are the canvas of the society, the society is a canvas of paintings. What has been painted so far has repelled through time and space. From the notions of history, lifestyles, beauty, body images, to code of conducts, paintings not only tell us what happened in the world, but what should happen in the world. Hence, adorned in places all throughout the history, the nude and naked bodies of women offering free pleasures of being surveyed narrates tales of a war of oppression and empowerment. Objectification or freedom? Let’s understand the stories behind the nude and the naked.

What is nude and what is naked?

As John Berger stated in his book, to be naked is to be ‘oneself’. Whereas, “To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself”. It’s simple, to be naked is to be without disguise, it’s being you. But  “A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude” hence, ‘you’ become an object when you are seen to be naked, that makes you nude.

Adam and Eve – The first depiction of nude paintings

Viewing it through the first depictions of nude paintings, the portrayals of Adam and Eve’s story, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit…

“And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves aprons ….

And the Lord God called unto the man and said unto him, ’Where are thou?’ And he said, ’I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself ….

Unto the woman God said, ’ I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee’. “

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Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Adam and Eve (1507) by Albrecht Düre

 

During the Renaissance this single moment depicted in paintings became ‘the moment of shame’ and was painted in considerable numbers in the 16th Century. As the story goes, apart from the striking fact is that the woman is blamed and is punished by being made subservient to the man, nakedness is carefully created in the mind of the beholder as something to be ashamed of as both the genders try to hide their nakedness. 

Susanna and the Elder

These moments of shame later became more and more gender centric, as seen in Suzzane’s version, the women’s private parts are vividly visible to the viewers, people other than Adam. Whereas, Adam still stands covered. In this way, this moment of shame for both the genders becomes moment of shame only for the woman. She’s been painted nude for the male gazers, with her body inclined for a proper view for the eyes other than Adam’s. 

Later in the period, women were purposely painted in the context of how the viewer will see her, she was painted to be seen, almost giving herself away, powerlessly to the viewer. As Berger said “Men ‘acted’ and women ‘appeared’.” She appeared to be an object, looking away almost as she unaware that she was being looked at which was something that made the viewers gain more power over her. This powerless pose of women, looking away from the viewer is still widely used in today’s photographs for ads and magazines.

Three versions of Sussana and the Elders
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Susanna and the Elders- Giovani
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Susanna and the Elders by Thomas H Benton
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Susanna and the elders by Cavaliere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the story goes, Susanna was secretly observed by two elders who later threatened her to claim that she was meeting a young man in the garden unless she agrees to have sex with them, but she doesn’t succumb to their threats and challenges them under examination. This story played a huge role in understanding and portraying nudity. As she is being watched ‘secretly’, without consent, something that has become instrumental in painting and looking at a nude. Most of the time, we view her as she’s not even aware of our gaze. In some way, we become the elders. But as one can see in Giovani’s version, where the elders grab her (something not mentioned in the story), the gentle net of her body being at least far away from touch of hands is lifted.

Owning her body back

Portrayal like those mentioned above didn’t only satisfy the male gazers, who were chiefly the elite class with the power to own art, but also strengthened certain perceptions about women, like their social status, skin tones, body standards, beauty standards etc. Even today, visual arts like posters, magazines teach us to perceive women in certain ways. Fortunately, these negative standards have been always criticized and fought against.

Some painters gave the power of being naked to the one who was naked. Women began to be painted in control of their bodies. They gazed the viewers as the viewers gazed them, almost become a viewer herself, taunting us. When she hold the entitlement of the observant, she stops being subservient to her own sexuality. They own it.. They became human. Naked rather than nude.

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The Venus of Urbino by Titian

As you can see in the painting, the woman is gazing right into the eyes of the person looking at her. She owns her nudity. The placement of her hand on her privates also shows that she’s not offering anything to anyone for free. She has an active choice.

Guerrilla girls, a group of feminist artists activist speaks the same through their take on The Grand Odalisque in one of their campaign posters, replacing her emotionless face with a Gorilla mask, her feather fan with a dildo and the obvious factual captions.

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Guerrila Girls take on Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres – The Grand Odalisque- A famous nude painting

Painting female nudes do not grant females power, specially if they are painted to serve the male gaze. Undoubtedly, there’s power in painting a body and there’s power in owning a body. But there’s a reckless power in painting a body that doesn’t look like a body that is owned by the owner of the painting and it outshines all.

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