Mary Beard takes on the nude.
Chapter 1: The Body Beautiful
From the Ancient Greeks to the taboo-busting painters and sculptors of today, Mary gives a deeply personal take on naked bodies in art. Just why are artists so interested in nudity? What can art reveal about our own attitudes to the body? For Mary, the nude stands on some of the deepest fault lines running through society, speaking to issues of men, women, gender and sex gender, sex and moral transgression.
Art critics over the centuries have made lofty claims about the nude and the ennobling effects of art – playing down the erotic, even sometimes pornographic, nature of some great works of art. Mary argues we mustn’t forget the edgy and dangerous nature of the nude – which is why it remains such a magnetic subject for artists and viewers alike – exploring in her words ‘how for so long men got away with it’.
Mary starts by exploring the very first full-size nude sculpture in Western art – an Aphrodite by Praxiteles, depicting the goddess as if she has been accidentally interrupted as she bathed. Mary argues it is a clever ‘alibi’ to avoid accusations of lewdness from viewers, which set the tone for nude female artworks, from the ancient world to the Renaissance and beyond.
At Florence’s Uffizi gallery, the Venus de Medici became a ‘must see’ artwork during the 18th century ‘Grand Tour’. Young men flocked to see this statue of a beautiful woman, but was this because it was ‘art’ or did it also appeal to baser instincts? Mary also looks at one of the very first reclining nudes in Western art, Titian’s Venus of Urbino. One of the most revered artworks ever, it is no coincidence it is an illustration of a male sexual fantasy. Mary asks how a woman like her should respond to the artwork.
Mary then considers the challenge of depicting the female nude for a woman artist, looking at one of the greatest 17th-century painters, Artemisia Gentileschi. In the Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, the virtuous Susanna is blackmailed by two lecherous old men who surprise her as she bathes, threatening to accuse her of adultery if she doesn’t have sex with them. Mary reveals it is a fascinating work that takes on a whole deeper resonance when you know Gentileschi had herself been raped. She also looks at Gentileschi’s choice of subject as an artist having to earn her living.
In a life-drawing class, Mary joins a hen party as they draw a naked male. It is a lot of fun, but for centuries would have been impossible, as women were forbidden to study a naked man in this way. Of course, the most famous nude male sculpture in Western art is Michelangelo’s David. Mary reveals how, for centuries, his private parts were covered with a fig leaf. It was one way prudish censors have dealt with the ‘shock of the nude’, but these days that is changing. Mary finds out at Cork’s Crawford Art Gallery as she rolls up her sleeve to remove a plaster fig leaf, and discovers what lies beneath.
The nude in art can often have a deep sexual allure – even when the subject is highly religious. The Christian martyr Sebastian was tortured with arrows – but depictions of this horrific scene has seen the figure transformed into an erotic gay icon. Mary looks at how the nude has always brushed up against eroticism and asks what is the line between the alluring and the pornographic? This is especially true of one painting Mary sees at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World is still shocking, a stark image of a woman’s genitalia and pubic hair, devoid of any identifying features.
Our cultural attachment to the nude is deep-rooted. At Manchester Art Gallery Mary meets artist Sonia Boyce who, in an art intervention, removed (temporarily) J Waterhouse’s much-loved painting Hylas and the Nymphs. It caused a national furore amidst accusations of censorship, extreme political correctness, even links to book-burning. Why did feelings run so high? The Western nude, Mary argues, is a peculiar creation, and this is exposed even further if you take a global perspective. Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, an expert in African art, shows Mary the centrepiece of a vast Yoruba headdress – a naked woman, but one which meant something very different to the culture she came from, and it was all about community, not sex.
Finally, Mary talks to artist Jemima Stelhi about her photographic work Strip, in which a woman takes her clothes off in front of a succession of men, challenges viewers to think again about the relationship between the naked body and the artist. It is a deeply modern take on an age-old subject – one which continues to make us ask tricky questions about ourselves and how the naked images of others makes us feel.
Chapter 2: Under the Skin
Mary gives a deeply personal take on how artists have depicted the naked body, from the ancient Greeks to the taboo-busting painters and sculptors of today. Just why are artists so interested in nudity? And what can art reveal about our own attitudes to the body? Art critics over the centuries have often made lofty claims about the nude – playing down or refusing to acknowledge the erotic and even pornographic nature of some of the great works of western art. Mary argues we must not forget the edgy and dangerous nature of the nude – ultimately the reason it remains a magnetic subject for artists and viewers alike.
In this episode, Mary looks at how artists have challenged the idea of the body beautiful, artistic nudes that provoke viewers to think about the most fundamental questions about being human.
Mary begins with the sculpture Alison Lapper Pregnant. When this figure of a disabled artist by Marc Quinn was installed in Trafalgar Square, it caused a sensation – challenging public expectations about what a nude sculpture in a classical style should be. Mary then examines a nude she argues is rarely seen for what it is – the naked (or nearly naked) body of Jesus Christ, in the company of former British Museum director Neil MacGregor. Together, they look at one of the most surprising images of Jesus you have probably ever seen.
In the Royal Academy, Mary discusses a disturbing trio of work and tells the dark and chilling tale behind their execution. These are casts of flayed bodies of criminals designed as study aids for artists in the 18th century, but to 21st-century eyes they are morbidly gruesome – and Mary discusses how for her they stand somewhere between art, science and sadism.
In Bologna, Italy, Mary sees a female counterpart to these flayed men – an Anatomical Venus. This was a wax model of a young woman, posed to look like a Sleeping Beauty, but whose middle section could be opened up to reveal her exquisitely detailed innards. Mary argues we should see this Venus as anticipating contemporary works by artists such as Damien Hirst and Marc Quinn, who challenge us to think about the relationship between the body’s interior and its exterior.
Nudes in the western canon are traditionally white and living – but not all of them: Theodore Gericault’s masterpiece Raft of the Medusa is an image of torment and misery, with its sweep of dead and dying figures – and it also contains the figure of a black man, very much alive, waving heroically to a distant ship. With the help of Dr Denise Murrell, Mary reveals the importance of this image in the context of so many racially stereotyped images of the black body and discusses how the black nude was reimagined in the 20th century.
The naked body can also represent the inner state of mind – as seen in the works of the extraordinary early 20th-century Viennese artist Egon Schiele. Mary also looks at Lucian Freud, who reinvented the nude in the mid-20th century with his intimate, fleshy portraits of men and women. He has been described by one former model as predatory, and Mary speaks with another, Cozette McCreery, on how she felt about being the subject of his legendary scrutiny.
Mary then enters unsettling territory considering the issues that surround the depiction of the naked bodies of children. She explores the profoundly disturbing work of Eric Gill, who made engravings of his teenage daughter Petra at the same time he was sexually abusing her. Together with artist Cathie Pilkington, who recently co-curated a show of Gill’s work, Mary ponders whether these works can or should still be appreciated, when you know the history behind them.
Finally, Mary looks at what society’s increased awareness that gender is not a binary matter of male or female but a much more fluid concept means for the nude in art. She looks back to classical times, to the ancient hermaphrodite, reminding us that this is by no means a new discovery, before talking with a trans life-model about the potential of art to affirm a positive body image. Finally, Mary speaks to the artist Ajamu, whose work features in the groundbreaking Kiss My Genders exhibition – a glorious celebration of sexual and gender diversity in which the naked body proved without doubt that it still has a central role to play in art.