The Naked and the NudeThe female nude has been a subject matter for the almost exclusively male army of artists marching forward all the way from the cave paintings of the Stone Age. Though eventually, the Greeks, during what has been termed the "Hellenic" period, let the male nude take his place along side these Aphrodites and Venuses there has never been any doubt which of the two sexes was the most popular subject matter in the male-dominated world of art sweeping up through the centuries and encompassing even our world today. When we talk about a Madonna in the context of art today, we don't bring to mind a religious work but a book of photography depicting a singer/sex symbol.
For centuries any sexual overtones surrounding the nude female figure were usually deeply subdued and sanitised. However, in 1863, a French artist by the name of Edouard Manet struck a blow to break this tradition. His painting entitled Olympia very closely imitated the pose and subject matter of Titian's Venus of Urbino painted some three hundred years earlier. The difference was, wherein Titian painted his figure "nude" reclining graciously on a couch, Manet's model was very clearly "naked", and not only that, but very obviously a prostitute as well, receiving a bouquet of flowers from a would-be client, and awaiting his imminent arrival. The image was blatantly flat, and harshly lit. There was direct eye contact with the model, and the effect was graphic, stopping little short of the pornographic. Even for France, it was outrageous. The public and critics alike scorned it.
Today, one would have to look to the homoerotic photographic work of Robert Mapplethorpe for anything approaching its controversial impact.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
20 November 1997