Giorgione did a fine Venus in 1510 (believed to be the first prominent work of the reclining nudes kind), but it was painted not because he wanted the viewer to enjoy the controversial personality of the goddess. It was about her body. A nude woman has always been painted to appeal to men standing in front of the picture. Kings would boast of their lovers to their friends. Noble gentlemen would catch up by exhibiting their hunting trophies: girls they’d bedded and deer they’d killed. If you’ve visited medieval castles, did you notice that “reclining nudes” are often exhibited alongside the stuffed heads of animals?
If the 15th century saw the rise of allegory as justification for painting nude women (of which we remember Botticelli’s Venus and Spring best of all), the 16th century witnessed a tidal wave of Venuses, Dianas, and Paris Judgements. I’ll skip the rest of the nude history for now.
Today, when Playboy is positioned as a “life-style magazine”, and “50 shades of grey” is being read at holiday destinations across the globe, the demand for eroticism in a painting is limited to decorating the walls of the more seedy brothels in Amsterdam (and some bachelor bedrooms, not so much different from their publicly available brothel counterparts).
So, what does interest artists in a female body today?
I’ve taken three examples to illustrate the trend.
Lucien Freud. The portrait of a sleeping benefits supervisor. Roman Abramovich bought it for $34m, which clearly positions him as the most sophisticated person living today. For I can’t imagine him paying that much money, unless he fully understands and appreciates its message.
I assume Mr Abramovich is captivated by the changes that’d happened to a body that was carrying the weight of 130 kg for years. Perhaps, Mr Abramovich looks up at the painting and cries out, “Look at this huge body without a single muscle! Look at the skin, the skin! Look at how the outer shell of this body – living the simple life a benefits supervisor – had changed over the years of neglect! The artist must be a true genius to PAINT all this. And a true philosopher, for he painted her asleep. Why? Because we are only interested in the effects that life had on her body, not on her soul or thoughts, that’s why. The painter showed us that she didn’t live in this body, she carried it with her (look at her hand holding her breast as if it were a piece of meat!”
It is known that Roman Abramovich finds it difficult to link two words together, but I assume (again) he’s thinking all these thoughts. Otherwise, what was the point in spending the money?
You see, Freud – known to be very much attracted by young women – was not interested in the eroticism of a female body when he painted. When he wanted to penetrate the soul of his sitters, he could. But not in this case.
Exploring the end/death of beauty
This is the winner of the British Portrait Award (2010), Daphne Todd with the portrait of her mother, just expired.
The artist used two panels to symbolise the thin border between life and death. Clever. Though I find it very difficult to image how she could get to drawing and painting immediately after her mother left this world for a better one. We can’t suspect Ms Todd in being emotionally stunted, which means she’s just a very courageous and powerful person.
I find this image arresting, but shallow. Life and death. Last breath. Soul departing. Thank you very much. I don’t think this painting adds anything new to the subject. People who just died have been painted in more clever ways before.
Beautiful soul in a body that lost its beauty
The winner of the same award two years later: Aleah Chapin with the portrait of her aunt. This 25-year old artist paints people she knows all her life.
What is good about this painting of a (thank God) alive woman?
A lot is good about it. This woman had a difficult life. This life got imprinted on her body: zoom in to see the scars, deformities, and the asymmetrical bones. Despite this difficult life – the woman looks at us without shame, for there can be no shame for her – not in her life, nor her body or her grey hair. She might not be as happy as she’d dreamed, but she’s happy and content nonetheless.
We don’t know this woman. But we learn the most important thing about her from this portrait. This image stays in the mind as a motivating beacon. I’ve spoken to people to whom I showed this portrait a year ago – and they all said they not only remembered it, they remembered it quite often throughout the year in situations when this recollection helped.
My biggest personal question today is whether I want to buy a large-format oil pastel from an artist I love that shows two women bathing in a Russian steam bath.
In terms of composition, colour and everything, it is a great work. Look at the red overheated bodies against the black walls of the steam house! The women are not concerned about a man looking at them, they are not posing to appear attractive before a possible observer. In terms of action, purpose and motivation – that’s a great piece. But I can’t really hang it on the wall in my house. Shall I buy it just to stack it? What would you do?
Sorry, as it is a pastel, it is covered by glass.