The Naked Truth


No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow – and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals.

Kenneth Clark

A nude by Degas is chaste. But his women wash in tubs!

Paul Gaugin

‘But is it Art?’ is the question gallery visitors demand of any image so near the knuckle that they’re already imagining that knuckle gripping a turgid prick or slipped between slick labia. It is a matter of anxiety and fine judgement because, as we all know, Art has no truck with fuckery; even if only the finest line separates the permissibly explicit from the obscene. Two fine lines, strictly speaking: the two that make up the letter ‘y’; arty customarily being the excusing adjective with which we describe erotica – material that has been unambiguously designed for private, intimate view.

Some art is created erotic, some achieves eroticism and some has erotic meaning thrust upon it. Reactions to Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa show that it doesn’t require splayed knees or Technicolor nakedness for a work to be seen as profoundly alluring. The fully-clad white marble nun swoons before her boy-angel with such exquisite languor that to Jacques Lacan, more than four hundred years after its 1652 completion, the statue was still perceived as unmistakably sexual: “she’s coming, there is no doubt about it.”1 Whether its sculptor would have agreed with this interpretation of Theresa’s rapture may be another story. The question of intent is inevitably vexed and complicated when several centuries and changing cultural norms and fashions separate us from an artist. We cannot definitively answer whether we were meant to see what we think we see: if a nymph is cupping her breasts to display them or surprised in the act of covering them chastely, if her smile is secretive or seductive. I’d venture though that when provenance informs us that certain salacious canvases were intended to be hung in noblemen’s private chambers or the bathrooms of cardinals, we might allow ourselves to suspect that they performed the same services as the Pirelli Calendar today.

It could be argued, as Kenneth Clark does in his book The Nude, that all depiction of the unclothed human form is and ought to be (at least latently) sexual. Whatever your personal inclination, any naked body will serve to make us mindful of birth, death and the brevity of existence, and little stimulates our ‘seize the day’ libido like a good memento mori.2 A nude, moreover, in being framed and posed to be viewed, simultaneously frames and poses its viewers as voyeurs: immune from punishment, free to stare as long and as lustfully as they like. I also wonder if the erotic is inherently raised by and present in female nakedness. Leaving aside works that show a woman engaged in straightforward congress, like Coreggio’s Jupiter and Io (1530) or Jeff Koons’s Manet Soft (1991), even a solitary female nude seems to throb with sexual potency – including those by twentieth-century artists challenging or rejecting the clichés of cheesecake cuteness, like Tamara de Lempicka’s blocky Cubist babes, or Jenny Saville, or Lucien Freud’s hyper-real women, bloated and slack. Perhaps, of course, it is only me who thinks so. Or I could blame cultural conditioning and a milieu that has been for the most part dominated and shaped by the male gaze. I suspect, however, that it also owes something to the covert nature of female desire. A female nude is ambiguous: Schrödinger’s pussy, if you like. Boucher’s odalisques may have all the outward signs – flushed cheeks, naked arses and their legs spread wide – but only they know if they were really thinking ‘Take me roughly from behind, chéri, I’m wet and ready’, and they will never tell. A brief downward glance is sufficient to answer the question of any male nude. It is almost always in the negative, and is one of the deciding factors separating art from porn.

That we cannot reply with anything like such certainty of female subjects is what enabled early ‘boudoir paintings’ such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino to be brought out of men’s bedrooms, where 16th century contemporaries had advised that they be kept; viewed by married women only in their husbands’ company and covered at all other times.3 Three hundred years later Venus was adorning a public gallery and causing no little bemusement to Mark Twain, who said:

It isn’t that she is naked and stretched out on a bed – no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl – but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to – and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest.4

Twain’s indignation is real – though, satirist that he is, not for the reason he avers. ‘Venus’ had caused plenty of genuine shock in her time. The model poses with her left hand in her lap, idly masturbating, her gaze coolly appraising the viewer. Though Titian called her ‘Venus’ she lacks the iconographic elements with which nudes were traditionally depicted, providing a context (and pretext) of allegorical, metaphorical or mythological themes. She is no goddess in a landscape filled with frolicking putti, but a woman of her time in a private room; self-assured and unafraid to look you in the eye. In 1880 when Twain was writing, such subjects had hardly been outlawed or fallen out of favour – plenty of his contemporaries, including Ingres, David, Toulmouche, Debat-Ponson, Manet, Delacroix, Cézanne, Bouguereau, etc. produced unabashedly sexy, disheveled nudes depicted (like Titian’s Venus) in boudoirs and bedrooms with (again like Venus) their arms raised in abandon and their bodies angled toward the viewer. What infuriated Mark Twain was that while the picture could safely be viewed by both sexes of all ages, any attempt he made to describe what he saw on the canvas would stir up ‘holy indignation’ and accusations of ‘grossness and coarseness.’ The ambiguity of female eroticism from which images benefited and with which they were nominally safeguarded, even though anyone post-puberty could sense their sexual charge, could not easily be sustained in words. Perhaps not at all.

The only artist I can think of who turns repeatedly and with unusual neutrality to the female body, stripping it of feminizing mystery, is Edgar Degas. In series showing dancers, prostitutes, and ‘Women That Bathe, Dry Themselves, Comb Their Hair or Have It Combed,’ he depicts working bodies, cleaning and preening bodies, without prejudice or passion; nor does he attempt to awake either in the viewer. You need only compare his small monotype Siesta in the Salon (showing two sex-workers, one of whom masturbates) with Titian’s Venus to see how banal and ordinary the gesture can become. Venus’s self-pleasuring is alluring, a come-on; the first act of a two-act show, in which the phallus is shortly to play a starring role. In Degas the masturbation is not titillating, because it does not belong to us, the viewer, but to the girl. When Picasso made studies based on Degas’ monotypes, he re-fetishised them; exaggerating their bodies into a bulging-breasted loo-wall scrawl. Even when we might legitimately eroticise his subjects, when for example we catch them washing unawares – a subject earlier artists often showed under the guise of the Biblical story of Bathsheba, or the goddess Diana bathing – they are not sensual.

This is not a failure of Degas’ skills as an artist: the flesh of his women glows, it is warm and sensuous. It is entirely likely that many of them were, indeed, prostitutes – that they ‘wash in tubs!’ certainly excited Gauguin into supposing as much – but Degas does not fear, debase or disdain them. He seems to see them with a clear-sighted, humane eye; as fellow-beings first, women second. His contemporary J-K. Huysmans believed that Degas was righting a false historical idealization of women: “if ever there were works that were not obscene; if ever there were works without second intentions and without malice, works decidedly chaste, they are precisely these. They even glorify a disdain for the flesh as no artist has dared to do it since the Middle Ages.”5 Although he praised Degas for what he saw as humiliating and degrading his female subjects, I cannot agree with him. There is nothing sadistic about his attentions. In showing women whose labours ironing, washing or dancing sometimes cause them weariness or pain, but who strive for rare moments of private exaltation and delight; who do not only exist to seduce but who first treat themselves tenderly and with self-respect, he may just have shown the first ‘real’ women in art.

1Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge Book XX, Encore 1972-1973, trans. Bruce Fink (1998)

2‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither’ (Job 1: 21).

3Giulio Mancini, Considerazioni sulla Pittura (1619-21)

4Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (1880)

5J-K. Huysmans, Certains (1889). Jean Renoir agreed: ‘When one paints a bordello, it’s often pornographic, but always hopelessly sad. Only Degas could give an air of rejoicing to such a subject along with the look of an Egyptian bas-relief. This quasi-religious and chaste aspect of his work, which makes it so great, becomes still more pronounced when he treats the prostitute.’

Illustration by Orlux.

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