The Art Nude and Sexuality in Western Art

O Nu Artístico e a Sexualidade na Arte Ocidental

Titian's Venus of Urbinus, 1538

Questions about the body and sexuality

Our body and sexuality are linked to the reproduction of the species, that is, to the history of humanity itself. However, the issues around this theme are extremely complex, although it is a reality that cuts across all human beings. This year, in fashion, sexuality is again in vogue, as can be seen in the spring 2021 collection campaigns, L'Amour by Jacquemus and When Together by Diesel. In contrast, in recent decades, plastic artists have been persistently working on identity, body, gender and sexuality, with their work being central to the development of critical thinking among spectators. This is a theme that follows us, as individuals and social groups, ending up portraying ideas, values, beliefs, religion and culture. Starting from iconic representations from different historical periods, we will understand how the naked body and sexuality is shaped and defined by these different factors.

Venus of Willendorf | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Platform of Art

Venus of Willendorf

The origin of the artistic nude 

One of the earliest representations of the sexualized body is the small sculpture of Venus by Willendorf , worshiped as a fertility goddess. Thus, it is clear that sexuality was linked to motherhood from an early age. However, with the Greeks and Romans this idea is developed in a broader way, due to the social and religious aspect of this culture. These give wings to human desires, dreams and concerns, transmitting their ideals without taboos in their artistic representations.

Based on mythology, the erotic liberation of their culture is publicly displayed through sculptures of the gods. Several artists depicted Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, naked or removing her clothes, as we can see in the sculpture of Aphrodite by Cnidos or in the Venus de Milo . The artistic nude is a constant, even in representations of fear, suffering, pain or death, as is the case of the Greek sculpture Laocoon and his children , which portrays a legend of the Trojan War, in which Laocoon and his children, Antiphants and Timbreu , are strangled by two sea serpents.

Laocoon and his children | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Platform of Art laocoon and his children

The ideals of the body from the Middle Ages to the Modern

During the following centuries, Europe is immersed in the Church of Rome and the pagan religions disappear, being imposed a strict morality that condemns moral deviations, with public punishment, torture or even death sentence. Thus, the representation of the ideal of beauty and harmony of the naked body is abandoned by iconographic contents. The few naked figures from the medieval period are depicted deformed, conceiving the idea of contempt for the body and the immorality of sexuality, as can be seen in the mosaics dated 1250-1970, Coppo di Marcovaldo's Inferno , on the dome of the Baptistery of Saint John.

In Gothic and later in pre-Renaissance Italy, the artistic nude is reborn in a rather timid way, as can be seen in Giotto's Baptism of Christ , in which Jesus is depicted naked while being baptized by John the Baptist.

Giotto | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Platform of Art Baptism of Christ by Giotto, 1305

With the political, social and cultural transformations of the modern age, religion loses the preponderance it had in the Middle Ages. Representations of religious themes continue to exist, with the naked body reaching a divine character, with works such as The Creation of Adam and the Final Judgment by Michelangelo. However, this epoch is marked by the humanist idea of Man at the center of the universe; in this way, in art the portrait of the human and his environment acquire greater relevance. Using perspective, Renaissance artists were inspired by the art of classical antiquity, portraying the naked body with an aesthetic character, as can be seen in the following paintings: Titian's Venus of Urbino , Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus , Apollo and Marsyas by Pietro Perugino, The Three Graces and La Fornarina by Raphael.


Raphael's La Fornarina, 1518–1520

In the Baroque era, the female nude still predominates representations, with the artist Peter Paul Rubens marking this era with his paintings of robust female figures that embody the sensuality of historical and mythological episodes: The Judgment of Paris , The Three Graces and Venus , Cupid, Bacchus and Ceres. At the end of the modern age with the rococo, the heroic classicist idealization was abandoned and a subtle and refined eroticism was assumed. Examples of this are the paintings by François Boucher, The Odalisca and The Toilette of Venus .

Peter Paul Rubens | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Platform of Art

The Three Graces of Peter Paul Rubens, 1630–1635

Nudity in contemporary times

At the beginning of the contemporary period, after the French Revolution, neoclassicism was born, which again recovers the forms of classical antiquity, but in a pure, severe and cold way, in order to transmit a moral and patriotic content to the spectator. Human sensuality continues to be transmitted, but hidden in these values, as can be seen in the works Cupid and Psyche by François Gérard and Morpheus and Iris by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

From the 19th century to the present, the female nude in art is increasingly abundant in all artistic movements, in romanticism, in the avant-gardes of the 1920s and even in post-war art. It is essential to mention some of the fundamental works of this period, which, due to the audacity of the exposed human body, caused great controversies: Freedom guiding the People by Eugène Delacroix, La baigneuse blonde by Renoir, Lunch on the grass and Olympia by Édouard Manet, Les demoiselles d' Avignon by Pablo Picasso and Nu Rose by Matisse.

Olympia by Édouard Manet | P55 Magazine | P55 - The Platform of Art

Édouard Manet's Olympia, 1863

In the 1960s, with the performance of artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Value Export and Marina Abramovic, nudity became a weapon against male dominance, sexual representations and social inequalities. At present, artists such as Julião Sarmento , Mária Sánchez , Paula Rego , Júlio Pomar , Salomé Lamas, João Gabriel, João Pedro Vale and Nuno Alexandre Ferreira, Duarte Vitória , Patrícia Magalhães , Arlindo Arez , José A. Nunes , among others, have been essential for the development of critical thinking about the society we inhabit because they raise imposing questions about the body, identity and sexuality. An example is the series of paintings created by Paula Rego about abortion that helped in the depenalization of the voluntary interruption of pregnancy. Thus, we understand that in Western art the nude body began to be linked to motherhood and the sacred, however in contemporary times this theme has become a manifestation of identity and problems present in society and current culture.

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