Naked & Ugly. Previously Known As “Reclining Nudes”

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.

Exploring anti-beauty

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.


    1. It is an old post, and since I wrote it, I thought I need to finally concentrate and do a full piece on the irreverent history of the nude and naked and eroticism in art… Need to do it – and thank you for inadvertently reminding me of it!

        1. Everything is photoshopped, and everything is not what it seems ) The culture of subtle lies that – on the surface – do not harm anyone, but – in fact – cripple all. Sad, but true

  1. Art critics have made us feel uncomfortable about nudity. It seems okay if it is a Hockney or a Mapplethorpe, or if it is a Rego making a distinctly hostile pose, or a Quinn that has a disability, but anything that might cause us to feel arousal is frowned upon like a Puritan schoolmaster. I find Picasso is a good test point for nudity. His paintings of Marie Therese are simply beautiful and do not rely upon consumerist society’s penchant for an ideal.

    1. Rejection of nudity has been a common illness of the art critics community since the 18th century, more specifically since Immanuil Kant denounced images that might lead to sexual arousal as “not art” ) It is surprising how very old ideas can stick… in a very modern world, isn’t it?

  2. If you can’t hang it on your wall to love and enjoy, and endlessly discover new delights in it, definitely don’t buy it. I also really the woman as she relates to the bulky couch on which she rests.

    1. Yeah, I know… The problem is that I was not even going to buy it to put on a wall. It’s Art that only has value within gallery space. So, I was thinking about just keeping it ))

      Thank you for your help and taking time to put it so nicely! )

    2. Just to add a few things. This pastel is a good example of painting NAKED women, not nude. It is rare today, and has always been. The first artist to successfully do the nakedness (as opposite to nudity) was Degas. This pastel is a Degas – related Russian response – I won’t go into details right now, but in many ways it is a uniquely Russian piece. That’s why I though about just buying it for keeping as an investment (and I have never been wrong about investing). But, as I don’t see much of enthusiasm about this work I’ll probably skip it. Thanks again!

        1. Yes, I’ve read it a couple days back. My definition is mathematically simple.
          There are three components:
          Painter’s objective (PO): was it about arousing carnal desires in viewers (1) or not (0)
          Woman’s awareness (WA): is she aware she’s being watched (1) and or not (0)
          Woman’s objective (WO): does she care about how she is seen by the [potential] viewer (1) or not (0)
          There are 8 possible combinations that I can illustrate (may should write a post on it).

          So, NAKED is PO=0, WA=0, WO=0. Sometimes, PO=0, WA=1, WO=0 can also be classified as naked (e.g.Degas drawings of prostitutes). In all other cases 6 cases it turns out to be almost univesally NUDE.

          I think I should write a post on it, really. It only looks complicated.

          1. I think I can agree with that, except that I would switch the words “nude” and “naked.” Which makes many, if not most, nudes technically naked.
            Yes, you should definitely post about it!

            1. Thank you, I will do it soon. I am using the word nude in the traditional sense, to denote the “erotic” domain, because it has been used to define it since the 16th century and for most of the genre’s history. The combinations “0-0-0” and “0-1-0” appeared only 150 years ago, it would be unfair to force the nude concept change its meaning )

  3. This picture of an old lady is something. I’ve been returning to it again and again these days and analyzing my feelings. a) Each time I opened the page I felt uncomfortable. I definitely don’t want to see her body, I want to cover her breast at least. Not because it is ugly (I don’t think it is), think I respect this lady and don’t even need to know her in person. It’s all about her eyes and face, she seems to know the Secret. But good she is shown like this, otherwise I wouldn’t have such a feeling. b) Amazing, if you are at least more or less good looking young lady it’s hard to make someone to notice your soul – it’s shadowed by your body. If you are an old lady of this kind no one (including probably yourself) really need/want to observe your body, it is shadowed by soul and life experience. Maybe this is the secret of the middle age charm when the scales are balanced)
    As for the painting, I can’t find/feel anything resonating with me when looking at it so I guess if it was my decision I wouldn’t buy it)
    Thank you for the post, now it is one of my favorite ones)

    1. Thank you, my dear – you are the only one to suggest a course of action for me )

      The secret of the Auntie portrait is that you start appreciating her personality only in contrast with the body. Without this CONFLICT it would be just a very good portrait, not a great painting it is )

    2. And one more thing. All the thinking process that has been happening in your head was happening because the body was there. Even though you consciously don’t want to see it )

      1. Yep, I came to the same conclusion though didn’t use the ‘conflict’ terminology. But this is right what it is – the conflict that actually gives me food for thought. Thank you again, that’s amazing!)

  4. thanks for posting

    your interesting perspective


    the subjective

    term art

    always seems to follow

    and challenge various




    most eras

    art was almost always

    the display of status


    (envy me)


    your examples

    clearly show

    the “fashionable”

    conceptual challenges

    of our latest contemporary art


    our art’s past

    1. A poem in the commments is unusual in itself, but yours is simply beautiful. – thank you!

      I don’t think that I am showing exactly the fashionable challenges to the contemporary art. The fashionable part is more or less at Saatchi’s or under the Turner prize. Jeff Koonz, Damien Hirst – that’s fashion. What I was showing – in my opinion – is art in the vast sea of contemporary bullshit )

      Thank you, once again, for the poem I keep re-reading!

        1. Thank you for the link! Quite interesting, actually, I’ve checked out the figures series but will go further. THe quote is very smart, that’s the first time I hear it.

  5. is the aunt grimacing? or does she smile with the knowing that whatever life has tossed at her in terms of experience, cannot touch her true nature, that, which never changes or is affected by any thing external to the Self. never mind the scars. not even noticable compared to the sparkle in her eyes and that impish grin–all in the eyes of the beholder

    1. I can seriously bet on the assumption that she is smiling ) And thank you for the awesome comment. I like what you’ve written about not noticing the scars because of the sparkle. In fact, most people do not notice them, exactly for the reason you mentioned.

  6. I enjoyed reading this very much. However, I think you did not explore one important area. It is the actual process of painting. I am attracted to the Freud most of all because of the time implications of the piece. I am not talking about aging. I am talking about the process. That person is lying down asleep because Freud notoriously took months (and years) to finish paintings. That is not a professional model and I’m sure to find a comfortable position to hold session after session was extremely difficult. I think that Freud was obsessed with painting flesh and making a huge statement (pun intended). And I love how the lumpy figure relates to the lumpy furniture and it feels the most “truthful” to me of all the works above.

    1. Thank you – that’s an amazing insight you offered )
      The process is known to have taken about 9 months and multiple sessions, most of which were happening during daytime. She is known both to nap and stay alert during those sessions, so I think Freud made a very conscious decision from the start about how to paint her. Asleep. It’s a great work, no argument about that. Pity it is currently in the hands of someone who – most likely – doesn’t understand anything about it )

      1. Well, I just know from painting the model how uncomfortable some positions can be for them to hold for long periods. So thanks for your explanation about the actual process. Best, Anita.

        1. Well, Freud’s model was not only put in uncomfortable positions, he was asking her to wash dirty dishes and do a bit of house cleaning as well! )

            1. Or no. It was pure psychology. Freud could convince his sitters that he really cared about them, was interested in them, loved them. That would stop after the portrait was done. Sue was enchanted by the attention she was getting. She’d do anything and everything to make it last. I admire Freud as an artist. Perhaps, as a philosopher of art. But not as a person.

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