Loading the Canon #16 by Helena-Anne Hittel
I See Naked People
If you were to take all of your clothes off, it shouldn’t really surprise you what you’d see. You know by now what a naked man or woman looks like. Given this, why do people freak out over seeing another naked human being in a work of art?
To me, it’s all about presentation. This is where reading the labels at a museum is so important. I’ve seen lots of naked people. Granted, I knew none of them personally. Some of them might not have even been actual people, some of them were really nude models (fun fact! The woman featured in Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe and Olympia is named Victorine! She most likely was a prostitute, but try not to hold it against her.) Yet, there they are, without clothes on. Depending on the subject of the piece, some make conscious efforts to cover themselves (for example, the Aphrodite of Knidos), while others really couldn’t care less. What’s considered as a classic naked male athlete to one person might be pornographic to another. As I’ve stated before, everything is subjective.
Let’s revisit Polykleitos’s High Classical creation, Doryphoros. As you might remember, this is a figure of a nude male athlete or soldier, and a canonical study of the human figure.
Now, let’s introduce a Hellenistic work, The Sleeping Satyr or Barberini Faun. With this work, we’ve left our nude male athlete type behind. This is a follower of Dionysus (Bacchus, to the Romans, the god of wine). He’s all partied out, as it were, and we see him reclining on what looks to be a panther skin (also associated with Dionysus), asleep. He’s even got a tail! From one angle, it doesn’t look too racy.
From another angle, though—
As stated before, many, many times now: Doryphoros is a canonical study of—in unison, now—THE NUDE MALE ATHLETE. He would have been holding a spear. He’s kind of like the stereotypical “sexy firemen” in calendars. Still (partially) in his “uniform”, but doing a job. The Barberini Faun, however, uncovers a more sensual side of things. Here, the figure is asleep, maybe even dreaming. The conscious mind is suspended, and the unconscious runs amok. He really doesn’t care that you’re looking at him, but you feel uncomfortable nonetheless. His sleeping/dreaming state leaves him vulnerable, and the position of his body is teasingly erotic. What if he was wide awake? His being asleep, therefore, turns you into a voyeur.
Now, let’s look at a completely awake, conscious nude—Edouard Manet’s Olympia.
What do you see? Yes, it’s reminiscent of Titian’s Venus of Urbino.
I could go into all the ways that they’re different or similar. Instead, look around. Here’s a naked woman, clearly a prostitute, reclining on top of her robe, on a bed. She wears a necklace, a bracelet, a flower in her hair, and one mule. The black cat at the foot of her bed, with its arched back, is symbolic—brothels were “cat houses.” A dark-skinned woman holds a bouquet of flowers, maybe from an admirer. The most important part, though, is Victorine’s face. She’s staring straight at you. She’s challenging you. She looks almost bored, but she knows you’re staring. Somehow, this acknowledgement of the viewer makes it less risqué, to me, anyway. By staring out of the picture plane at the audience, she defies you. Look at the placement of her hand. She covers herself, but it’s not as demurely as the aforementioned Aphrodite of Knidos (note hand placement).
Manet’s Olympia is no longer about a nude female. With the look on her face and the placement of her hand, the woman with flowers and the cat on the bed, this becomes social commentary. This is Manet’s France, not merely a nude woman.
Context is absolutely everything. You might not love reading labels on a museum trip as much as I do, but what you’ll learn will keep you from immediately limiting what you’re looking at. The way nudes are presented will give you clues. Art is open to interpretation, and art can see into us, as well.
So please, stop with the fig leaves.
Helena-Anne Hittel (Episode 35, essay) earned a B.A. in Art History at the University of Central Florida.