The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form
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Ch. I: The Naked and the Nude
- It is widely supposed that the naked human body is in itself an object upon which the eye dwells with pleasure and which we are glad to see depicted. But anyone who has frequented art schools and seen the shapeless, pitiful model that the students are industriously drawing will know this is an illusion. The body is not one of those objects which can be made into art by direct transcription — like a tiger or a snowy landscape. Often in looking at the natural and animal world we joyfully identify ourselves with what we see and from this happy union create a work of art. This is the process students of aesthetics call empathy, and it is at the opposite pole of creative activity to the state of mind that has produced the nude. A mass of naked figures does not move us to empathy, but to disillusion and dismay.
- The various parts of the body cannot be perceived as simple units and have no clear relationship to one another. In almost every detail the body is not the shape that art has led us to believe it should be.
- No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow — and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.
- The nude gains its enduring value from the fact that it reconciles several contrary states. It takes the most sensual and immediately interesting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire; it takes the most purely rational concept of which mankind is capable, mathematical order, and makes it a delight to the senses; and it takes the vague fears of the unknown and sweetens them by showing that the gods are like men and may be worshiped for their life-giving beauty rather than their death-dealing powers.
Ch. II: Apollo
Ch. III: Venus I
Ch. IV: Venus II
Ch. V: Energy
- Energy is eternal delight; and from the earliest times human beings have tried to imprison it in some durable hieroglyphic. It is perhaps the first of all the subjects of art.
- Early artists considered the human body, that forked radish, that defenseless starfish, a poor vehicle for the expression of energy, compared to the muscle-rippling bull and the streamlined antelope. Once more it was the Greeks, by their idealization of man, who turned the human body into an incarnation of energy, to us the most satisfying of all, for although it can never attain the uninhibited physical flow of the animal, its movements concern us more closely. Through art we can relive them in our own bodies, and achieve thereby that enhanced vitality which all thinkers on art, from Goethe to Berenson, have recognized as one of the chief sources of aesthetic pleasure.
- It remains true that Michelangelo's intensely personal use of the nude greatly altered its character. He changed it from a means of embodying ideas to a means of expressing emotions; he transformed it from the world of living to the world of becoming. And he projected his world of the imagination with such unequaled artistic power that its shadow fell on every male nude in art for three hundred and fifty years. Painters either imitated his heroic poses and proportions or they reacted against them self-consciously and sought a new repertoire of attitudes in the art of fifth-century Greece. In the nineteenth century the ghost of Michelangelo was still posing the models in art schools.
Ch. VI: Pathos
Referring to Michelangelo, Clarke says "His long struggle with physical passion was almost over, and, as with many other great sensualists, its place had been taken by an obsession with death."
On the nude in Romanticism:
- "[The Raft of the Medusa] is a triumph for the Byronic, and gains its authenticity from the fact that Gericault was a genuinely Byronic character ... With Delacroix the romantic death-wish was under the control of a lucid intelligence.
- Antique art has come down to us in a fragmentary condition, and we have virtuously adapted our taste to this necessity. Almost all our favorite specimens of Greek sculpture, from the sixth century onward, were originally parts of compositions, and if we were faced with the complete group in which the Charioteer of Delphi was once a subsidiary figure, we might well experience a moment of revulsion. We have come to think of the fragment as more vivid, more concentrated, and more authentic.
Ch. VII: Ecstasy
Ch. VIII: The Alternative Convention
- Conventional nudes based on classical originals could bear no burden of thought or inner life without losing their formal completeness.
Ch. IX: The Nude As an End in Itself
- Two pictures painted in the year 1907 can conveniently be taken as the starting point of twentieth-century art. They are Matisse's Blue Nude and Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon; and both these cardinal, revolutionary pictures represent the nude. The reason is that the revolt of twentieth-century painters was not against academicism: that had been achieved by the impressionists. It was a revolt against the doctrine, with which the impressionists implicitly agreed, that the painter should be no more than a sensitive and well-informed camera. And the very elements of symbolism and abstraction that made the nude an unsuitable subject for the impressionists commended it to their successors. When art was once more concerned with concepts rather than sensations, the nude was the first concept that came to mind.
- The eye instinctively looks for analogies and amplifies them, so that a face imagined in the pattern of a wallpaper may become more vivid than a photograph.
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