Back to the nude. Sort of. After the classic honeymoon period of art history, came the quarrels and separation. Somehow, it can never quite be patched up and made new like the good ole’ days.
Face it, after several millennia of supremacy as the artist’s image of delight, the female nude took a terrible drubbing in the first half of the twentieth century, eventually being locked out of the studios completely by the avant-garde during the 1950′s. Since then, there has been waves of tentative efforts to patch things up, play nice and fix things up between artists and models. Nudes are still popping up all over the place, but its not quite the same, but is identical in some respects. The most fascinating period of reconciliation was probably the 1960′s, the second marriage phase where the neo-nude showed curious mixtures of enthusiasm, puzzlement, frustration, strain, and nostalgic yearning ill-disguised as a forward look.
But in a way its a rearguard action;correctly, as Kafka knew ” to be modern is to know that some things can no longer be done.” That is, classical figurative painting, based on structure, a dramatic incident, certainty, and a sense of narrative coherence and direction that binds together the whole makes no sense any more; in modernism these are the exact things now absent in daily lives, now as mixed up, fluid and messy as they are. It may be the defining distinction of modernism, to admit honestly to ourselves that the stories we tell ourselves, the little fibs of disavowal, even as we try to back-load them with coherence, a waterproof logic, and truthful truths of meaning, are deeply flawed, beyond repair, filled with voids leading nowhere and ultimately contradictory and self-defeating. So, what was left was an engagement that draws self consciously on this vast inventory of tradition while breaking with it, metaphorically murdering it, at the same time.
…With the nude, it was a revival understandable on two premises: first, that by abusing the nude as an academic formula the Salon painters of the nineteenth century reduced to sterility a motif that had always been infinitely fertile; and second that the psychic outpourings, the drops and splatters of the soul that defined abstract art, especially in its derivative phase, turned up with a big zilch to take its place.
The depth of the void left by the disappearance of the nude was understandable when you remember the three great appeals that the nude has always held for both artist and observer. In ascending order of importance they are: a well proportioned body is always mighty fine to look at, that is look at not gawk or gaze; the body as a structure is the most fascinating of all natural objects; and its beauty and structure offer a vocabulary for expression limited only by the artist’s power to create a work of art and our power to respond to it.
Until modern art got in its licks, you could pretty well depend on it that 99% of artists who painted nudes began with the idea that a well-formed young woman with no clothes on is not only an aesthetically pleasing object worth perpetuating in reasonable facsimile but is also, and inevitably, remindful of sex as an enjoyable physical pastime at the very least or, at its divine most, a mystical experience in which the body becomes the intermediary between what man is and what he aspires to be.
Greek sculpture explained this fully for the first time. Since then the idea that the flesh at its most opulent can be an expression of the spirit at ts most noble has been debased, as in Rome, rejected, as in the Middle Ages, re-examined as in the Renaissance, inflated, as in the Baroque, sugared, as in Rococo, plagiarized, as in classical revival, prostituted, as in the Salon, and abandoned and discarded as in Abstraction.
The great nudes of the latter nineteenth century are outside this list because they rejected the ideal for undisguised sensuousness or, more important, for the objective realism with side comment of Manet, Degas, and Eakins. They concentrated on an aspect of the nude common to the art of all painters of any consequence or with any knowledge of their craft, valuing it as an exercise in structure and design preferable to formal arrangements of pots, pans, and vases because it is more elastic, complicated and variable.