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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson

THE NUDE: AMBIVALENCE AND CENSORSHIP FROM MICHELANGELO TO MAPPLETHORPE




When my mother trained at art college in the 1940's and 50's, she spent an entire year studying anatomy and life-drawing. As a result of this rigorous training, she knew in precise detail all the bones and muscles in the human body, their names and how they worked. Several of her exceptionally lovely nude studies, which are testament to her comprehensive knowledge, still adorn my home.


My mother's upbringing was strait-laced if not puritanical; she was the daughter of a parish priest in wartime Yorkshire. Many of her life-drawings (surely a peculiarly euphemistic art-school term) however, display a notable sensuality, a delight in the exquisite planes, lines and contours of the human physique. She used to tell me of one of her favourite models at the time, a woman named Molly, whose body I believe fascinated her.




NUDE STUDY - Joan Bailey (c 1947)

From my mother I inherited a love of drawing the human body. Though I had no access to the kind of training on which she was raised as an artist, I nevertheless fostered in myself an adoration of the nude in painting and drawing. The magnificence of the human body in its sweeping lines and its gestures, whether literal or implied, offers an energy which I find readily translates into abstract forms and non-figurative mark-making. In the past I drew and painted many figurative nudes for sale; now no longer – I have settled, in my professional output, fully within the field of abstraction although I occasionally revisit 'drawing from life' for my own personal artistic enrichment.


Today I am writing about 'The Nude' because I feel that the perception of nudity in the visual arts remains as confused and inconsistent as it has ever been.


Between 1536 and 1541, Michelangelo painted the stupendous 'Last Judgement' on the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City. He depicted the majority of the male figures and Angels nude, leading to a furore and the eventual obliteration with painted drapery of much of the nudity in the magnificent fresco.




THE LAST JUDGEMENT - Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1536-41)

Would Michelangelo's nude figures have been engendered less outrage if they had been female? It appears that female nudity in art – though at times problematic - has proved more palatable to the public in the long term than male.


Robert Mapplethorpe's superlatively impactful male nude photography continues to provoke far more controversy than do his female nudes and, across the creative board, a similar inequality holds sway. The great Egon Schiele's raw expressionist nude drawings which influence so many figurative artists to this day have surely remained more controversial than, say Gustav Klimt's delicate erotic sketches, as distinct from the latter artist's more complex symbolist paintings. This state of affairs has certainly been exacerbated by the presence of a number of male nudes (including self-depictions) within Schiele's canon of work.




EGON SCHIELE - Male Nude (1912)



EGON SCHIELE - Woman in a Green Turban (1914)




GUSTAV KLIMT - Female Nude, Turned Left


During my mother's college days, life-models were almost invariably female; on the rare occasions when a male model was booked, he was obliged to don some kind of tied loincloth. One assumes then, that art students of the day were left with somewhat incomplete skills in the drawing of certain aspects of male anatomy.


Many years ago, when I used to produce nude sketches for sale, it was problematic enough to publish images of them online at all, but the greatest stigmatisation befell my work when the nudes I dared to exhibit were male.


Social media, in its tedious prudishness exercised by the bots which police it, renders the display of even the most decorous and subdued nudity by artists virtually impossible. Indeed, I was once in the bizarre position of having an abstract image taken down from Facebook on the grounds of 'nudity'. The action was ludicrous as the offending image was not even figurative; it was a large, entirely abstract canvas containing not the slightest allusion to anything human, let alone unclothed.


Such prurience does a huge disservice to art, and to artists. Posters for recent exhibitions of Schiele's work in London and Vienna were censored with a banner reading “SORRY – 110 YEARS OLD BUT STILL TOO DARING TODAY #ToArtItsFreedom”.


Pablo Picasso is famous for his often erotically-charged masterpieces as well as for an admittedly paraphrased but valid comment that “actually, all art is erotic.” On several occasions, my own 'pure abstraction' on canvas has been described thus by commentators and collectors alike.


Eroticism in creative output should be embraced; sensuality is a component of humanity and to box it up in a private room to be approached only via an infantile nudge-nudge, wink-wink mentality leads to misunderstanding, intolerance and an unbalanced perception of art.





Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023

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