Art into Nudity

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Art unclothed

daya dissanayake

For me, the naked and the nude

(By lexicographers construed

As synonyms that should express

The same deficiency of dress

Or shelter) stand as wide apart

As love from lies, or truth from art. (Robert Graves, 'The Naked And the Nude)

Nude means unclothed, nakedness refers to the 'innocent' state of simply being uncovered. "The nude is condemned to never being naked.... Nudity is a form of dress", said John Berger.

Nakedness represents the raw, nudity is the idea which happens in art. Art Critic John Berger writes "to be naked is to be oneself, to be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become nude."

It is the nudity that interests the artist and the poet. But it is only among human beings that we have this distinction. Because perhaps man is ashamed of his nudity, unlike all other animals. It is only the human being who tries to cover his nudity, and thus become naked inside all his fashionable and glittering dress.

"The word 'nude' was forced into our vocabulary by critics of the early eighteenth century to persuade the artless islanders [of the UK] that, in countries where painting and sculpture were practiced and valued as they should be, the naked human body was the central subject of art." says Kenneth Clark, in 'The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form'. The nude, he adds, "is not the subject of art, but a form of art"

It was Michelangelo who asked "What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?"

Nude art also contradicts the human social norms of trying to cover their bodies. The only reason why most people cover their bodies, and are also ashamed to see others without clothes, is probably because they are ashamed of their bodies, of their bare skin. Yet the artist loves to paint the bare skin, the bare bodies, and people love to see such paintings and photographs. One reason that artists prefer undraped bodies is that he can show the person in his or her natural look, without diverting the attention to the clothes and ornaments. The clothes also would date the painting, by the style and the material.

No one considers our Sihigiri frescos as obscene and we are not ashamed to look at them and even to publish these images everywhere and try to attract visitors from all over the world to look at them. Yet the women who visit Sihigiriya are expected to cover their upper bodies. The poets who scribbled their thoughts and feelings on seeing the Sihigiri beauties, described their breasts, in the same manner as their lips and eyes and hands. During the Kandiyan period the Rodiya women were prohibited from covering their upper body.

Naked art is a term used by art exhibitors for paintings which 'need to be clothed', to be framed, polished and 'finished', in a display-ready form.

When Michel Comte's photo of unclothed Carla Bruni, which had been taken in 1993 entered the Christie's auction, it was estimated at $ 3,000 and 4,000. However in April 2008, it was sold for $ 91,000. Three months before that Bruni had married Nicholas Sarkozy, who was then the president of France. Art critic, Lennie Bennet cites this incident to raise the naked/nude question leading to 'what is Art?'. Bennet points out that the value of the photograph appears to be based on who the model has become, a personage rather than a person, and not on the merits of the photograph or who she was. Bennet says "If we believe she is naked, we agree with her that she has been victimized and exploited; if she is nude, we view her as the fortunate subject of a work of art whose physical form is celebrated and glorified."

Western art critics claim that the nude figure is mainly a tradition in western art, basing it on the nude Greek figures and paintings of males. Yet female nudity goes back to pre-history, because man worshipped women then, as Mother Earth and Mother Goddess, and anyway early human beings did not cover their bodies, or their nudity or nakedness. They were not even ashamed of their genitalia, because some of the pre-historic images had them displayed very prominently. Sometimes the genitalia only, as in a few of the artefacts discovered at Hunugalgala by Prof. Raj Somadeva.

It was also in the west that nude art began to be covered up, beginning with the draping of a fig leaf skirt around Michelangelo's David. When Goya's painting 'La Maja Desnuda' was used on a postage stamp in Spain in 1930, the US postal service refused to deliver letters with this stamp affixed. Rick Steves described "European nudes and American Prudes'. When Mahatma Gandhi wanted to coverup or demolish Kajuraho with all the carvings of men and women in different postures of love, Rabindranath Tagore had been able to save Kajuraho by persuading Gandhi to give up the campaign. And then Mahatma Gandhi himself was called a 'half-naked fakir' by the overdressed Winston Churchill. We also have Hans Christian Anderson's story about the emperor's new clothes. Henry Parker in 'The Village Folk Tales of Ceylon' has the story of the 'Invisible Silk Robe', which runs on the same lines.

Such tales only show us that even when we believe we are fully clothed, we could still be really naked before the rest of the world.

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