In this essay, I intend to explore the what the inclusion of a female in the nude means to the artist (or intended audience), as well as what is means to me personally from my work. I am particularly interested in this genre as I often find overlaps in between the exposure of body parts and exposure of mental illness within my work. I have found that there is a direct correlation within my final mock exam piece. For my different art pieces, I have decided to discuss Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ (1534), Manet’s ‘Olympia’ painted in 1863, as well as ‘Reclining Nude in front of a mirror’ by Kirchner. I find these works fascinating because they’re all intended to convey very different messages. In fact, Manet’s piece was created in response to Titian’s Venus of Urbino to spark controversy and a polar opposite way of looking at female nudity. I hope to highlight why and how these artworks artists have chosen very separate views.
Female nudity has always been a taboo subject in modern day. However, throughout time the way it has been depicted has changed. While absent in early eras of art, such as the prehistoric cave drawings and Egyptian art, it certainly was not when the Greek Era arrived in the 8th century BC. Religion was a prominent part of Greece during that time. They depicted women (and men) in an idealised way. Part of the reason for this was to suggest that the Ancient Greeks themselves had idealised bodies, athletic physiques as well as intellectual minds, making them appear more superior to other races. They suggested this through their art. Goddess’ were placed on a pedestal in their nudity, as it developed connotations of being divine and pure. Aphrodite, being the Goddess of love and beauty was mostly depicted in the nude. This established the early tradition of the representation of the nude female form showing divinity and procreation.
After the end of the Classical era, Early Christian and then the Medieval period arrived. During the middle ages, life was dominated by Catholicism. Nude women were rarely depicted, and those that are shown as usually ‘sinners’ from Christianity such as Eve, Mary Magdalene or sinners in depictions of the Last Judgement. Eve is usually shown ashamed of her nudity. The story of ‘Adam and Eve’ that narrates the wrong doing and gluttony of Eve, casting a sinful idea of the nudity of women. The nude female body was treated as shameful. I also believe this was an early stage of the oppression of women in general which still, to this day is being battled. ‘Feminism’ is a modern day force that drives for the equality of both genders and fights the idea of women being less powerful, which I think originated from the bible. This is also interesting when exploring the ‘free the nipple’ movement of today, and how males are able to expose their breasts, yet women cannot. This can be believed to be because of ideas that it is sinful, yet, we are accepting of the female nipple and naked body when it is purposed for the male eroticism. It wasn’t until the Early Renaissance when artists began to look again at Classical art that the female nude was reintroduced, usually in a mythological context.
Renaissance art often depicted females in the nude as it was intended to cater to the male gaze, and was heavily influenced by classical art. They were subject to the erotic desires of not only the artist, but viewer it was created for, with artists like Titian in the High Renaissance, who along with other artists is painting female nudes for a male clientele, sometimes the works have a moral undertone but mostly they are celebrations of the female figure- which we’d now consider objectification of the female nude. Curves were constantly present within depictions of the female nude to express their voluptuous bodies, showing fuller breasts and stomachs. This attitude more or less continued from the Renaissance until the 19th century when artists like Manet and Courbet started painting ‘real’ women.
Modern era artists use the female figure simply to experiment with new styles in painting and now in contemporary art the female figure has become politicised with artists using this theme to address issues relating to gender, identity, body image etc.
Titian, although no one knows his exact birth date, was believed to have been born around 1490 in a small town in the Alps. His father was a military man, while his brother was also a painter- this could have been one of the earliest influences for titian being brought up around an artist. At age 10 he arrived in Venice, and from then joined artistic workshops of Gentile and Giovani Bellini. In 1511, Titian launched his independent career as a portraitist, while also being known as a painter for profane subjects. It was in 1532 that he began producing work for the duke of Urbino.
Venus of Urbino was an oil painting of the Roman goddess Venus, identifying with love and beauty. Roman era art was influenced also by Greek art, with the classical ideas of women being idealistic, with symmetrical features and strong bodies, while Venus’s face in Titians painting is symmetrical and stylised. Typical of Renaissance standards of beauty. You could compare Venus with Aphrodite as they both represent love and beauty (although Aphrodite was worshiped in the Greek religion). The figure is nude, typical of Renaissance art when artists such as Titian showed off their skills at trying to depict the human anatomy as realistically as possible.
The Goddess makes eye contact with the viewer, her head tilted coyly to one side while her hand cups her genitals. Her pose is relaxed and passive, one hand covering her modesty, the other supports her reclining pose while She holds a bouquet of roses in her right hand, attributes of the goddess Venus and also a common motif for femininity, creating a strong diagonal across the composition. A dog can be observed in the near background (symbol of fidelity) while two maids rummage through cupboards, distracted, as to not involve with the situation behind them. This is an invitation to the viewer in and encourages them that no one will question or interrupt their presence while Venus is nude. The curves of her figure contrast with the hard edges of the architecture within the room, while Her hair hangs loose, mimicking the curves of her body; Her feet and head have been reduced in size, this places more emphasis on her torso to emphasize her feminine physique. Titian does this to create an appeal to a rich male audience with intentions to purchase his work- it play on eroticism of the female nude.
The dark green curtain behind her and the red fabric of the chaise-longue contrast intensely with the paleness of her skin symbolic of fragility and vulnerability. Titian has lit Venus from the front, allowing us to see all of her figure, however light shadows soften her form making her appear idealized in similarity to classical era works. Her nudity is further emphasized by the jewelry she wears, earrings, bracelet and a signet ring which could represent a wedding ring. These props show her to be a possession of her husband rather than an individual in her own right, again appearing attractive to a male audience. The overall brush work of Titians painting is polished, with little evidence to suggest this is even a painting due to lack of visible brushstrokes in attempt to make it as realistic as possible.
To conclude, ‘Venus of Urbino’ numerous elements which emphases the figure’s gender and meet the requirements for a work which Titian included to appeal to the ‘male gaze’. This was what including female nudity in his work was intended for.
Edouard Manet, born in 1832 in Paris, was brought up into a highly recognized family of judges and royal ancestors. From an early age, Manet recognized his ambition to become an artist and was supported by his uncle bringing him to exhibitions and encouraging him to sign up for drawing classes. On the other hand, his father wished for him to follow his footsteps and join the Navy, however he proved unsuccessful in his examinations, leading his father to realize Manet’s aspirations, paving the way for his future success. To further his knowledge and artistic skills, Edouard traveled to many different places including Italy and Germany where he gained inspiration from artists such as Caravaggio, Goya and Titian. His adventures also lead him to see ‘Venus of Urbino’ by Titian, where his ideas sparked conflicting views, ultimately pushing him to respond to this oil on canvas work, resulting in the creation of ‘Olympia’ in 1863.
Manet’s Olympia is based directly on Titian’s composition- Olympia was a name frequently applied to high class prostitutes of the period and we might be therefore looking at a depiction of one such woman. The figure is nude and reclines but in a more upright and alert position as she faces the viewer in a confrontational assertive way, different to Titians Venus as she lays coyly and invitingly. Her left hand is pressed firmly over her genitalia and Manet has used dark shadows on her hand as well as the gold coloured edge of the curtain to draw our attention to this area of Olympia’s body; Her right hand has also been coloured in a way making it appear dirty rather than pure and clean, much like her heavily black outlined figure to emphasize her form. She is strongly lit from the front. This gives a harsh appearance to the figure and further emphases the outline of her figure.
The paleness of Olympia’s complexion is contrasted by the black maid in the background who brings her a bouquet of flowers, which we can assume are from a client of hers. This situation leads us to believe we have just interrupted her after a prostitution arrangement as she holds our gaze in confrontation along with her messy bed sheets. Her hair is styled tightly and this mirrors the firm positioning of her left hand over her modesty. Jewelry, slippers and a flower behind her ear emphasize her otherwise nude figure.
Her face is realistic and unsymmetrical, this challenges the conventions of traditional female beauty in art, much like Titian’s Venus of Urbino as it followed the traditional ideas of classical art and symmetry in the human form. Brushstrokes are loose and gestural, this gives the figure’s skin a more realistic appearance. The interior setting is more compact with very little depth, forcing the figure of Olympia towards the viewer and making us aware of her nudity. Manet has applied paint thickly and freely, as a result the figure seem more visceral and real and this painting technique doesn’t idealize her appearance. The proportions of her body are accurate making her seem a realistic female who has not been idealized. A black cat at her feet appears startled, perhaps by our presence and acts as a metaphor for promiscuity, possibly implying the character of Olympia. Overall this young woman appears assertive and in control and displays an expression that she may be unhappy with us viewing her in this state of nudity.
Overall, Manet chooses to paint this female nude, as he intended to challenge Renaissance and classical perceptions of the femininity and female nakedness. What it means to him, is greatly contrasts with the intentions of Titian.
Kirchner was a German painter and one of the founders of the artists group Die Brücke who were a group forming the beginning of Expressionism in 20th-century art. He volunteered to join the army in world war one, however then suffered a breakdown and was discharged. This trauma from serving in the army affected his artwork and he often translated the mental stresses into physical wounds. I find this extremely interesting as I often find I unintentionally symbolize mental struggles of my own, into physical attributes. Over 600 of his works were sold or destroyed as the Nazi’s who ruled Germany at the time, deemed his work as ‘degenerate’. In 1938, tragically he committed suicide out of paranoia that the Nazis were out to destroy him and his work.
Reclining Nude in Front of a Mirror, oil on canvas, 1909-10 was typical to the style of the expressionist movement of ‘die Brucke’ that he co-formed in 1905. Though the gender of the subject isn’t specified in the title, Kirchner has suggested the figure to be female as the act of reclining in a nude state is a common subject in depictions of the female figure- much like the previous works I have looked at (Venus Of Urbino and Olympia) which both depicts a female in reclining on a bed in the nude.
Here, she reclines on a vibrantly coloured bed, one arm draped over a cushion while the other holds a smoking pipe to her mouth. The assumed female is is depicted in bright green shades with blues used for shadows, and a solid red outline. The red outline of the woman, reminds me of the use of black to trace the prostitute of Olympia (painted by Manet). Although in Olympia, Manet uses black to represent dirtiness, it can be argued Kirchner’s use of red symbolises his love or lust for the woman, or merely just poses as a compliment to the colour green of which she is coloured. This sickly colour of her skin is reminiscent of Renaissance artist Grünewald. The female’s hair is bright red, while her cheeks and lips are painted in the same tone, resulting in a heavily made up, feminine appearance.
The intentionally naive aprons Kircher takes to painting the female nude is inspired by primative art including tribal artefacts such as the African statuettes that he collected. Opposite the viewer, hangs a mirror reflecting her upper half, particularly her torso and buttocks. This use of a mirror allows Kirchner to objectify the female form and give view from more than one angle, tapping into the erotic desires of the male gaze, yet I would say that the primary purpose of this painting is not to cater to that of men. The reflection in the mirror seems unrealistic and contrived, making the figure natural looking. In general, the woman figure appears simplified- little attention has been given to anatomical correctness and the exaggerated curves of her lower body greatly contrast with the striped linear pattern of the sheet she lays on.
Overall, I believe Kirchner’s intentions were to represent the nudity in a new way which looks beyond western ideals of feminine beauty in art.
While the artists I have chosen to look at collectively depict the female subject in the reclining and nude, all three have taken very different approaches towards how they are represented. Titian, while taking inspiration from classical era artists, has chosen to paint female nude to appeal to his male clienteles’ erotic desires and the male gaze, and not necessarily his own, as he wishes to profit off of the objectification of women. Where as Manet appears to challenge views of female nudity and erotic desires by portraying his female as a prostitute and using the style of realism to convey female objectification at the time. He also used Titians composition of Venus of Urbino to directly challenge views of that particular painting. On the other hand, Kirchner intended to create new ways ion thinking about female nudity and objectification of women through style and formal features of his painting. I personally choose to portray female nudity often as a rebellion to modern ideas of femininity and taboo of female nakedness. Not only this, but I often consider the compulsion of covering the female breasts to be a personification for feelings and vulnerability, but also a way to show a mental struggle of keeping away that part of me, into a physical correlation. Revealing your naked body to someone is opening up to someone. We are born naked. With our soft wrinkly flesh, straight from the womb, we are in our most vulnerable state. As we grow, we develop a harder skin and learn to wear clothing, that we are initially helped by our parents (much like society teaching us to cover our true emotions), until, eventually we learn by ourselves to put on our armour. Perhaps one day we will be able to rid of this, and learn that we can be free and nude. Physically and metaphorically.