The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form  

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"The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word "nude," on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed. In fact, the word 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." --The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956) by Kenneth Clark

"Considering how the nude dominated sculpture and painting at two of the chief epochs in their history, one might have expected a small library on the subject. But in fact there are only two general studies of any value, Julius Lange's Die menschliche Gestalt in der Geschichte der Kunst (1908) and Wilhelm Hausenstein's Der nackte Mensch (1913), in which much useful material is cooked into a Marxist stew." " --from the preface to The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956) by Kenneth Clark

Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

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The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (1956) is a book by British art historian Kenneth Clark. It differentiated nudity from nakedness.


On the erotic, sexual, pornographic and obscene

The word erotic ("vestige of erotic feeling", "invite erotic fantasies", "erotic provocation", "erotic impact", "erotic images in his abstract work") is only mentioned a limited number of times, and eroticism ("a smell of stylish eroticism") likewise. The sexual act is only mentioned four times in the index. The term pornograph/y/ic is not featured. The term obscene four times.


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." (contradiction to Samuel Alexander's famous dictum from Beauty and Other Forms of Value)
    • The full fragment reads: “high-minded theory is contrary to experience. In the mixture of memories and sensations aroused by Rubens’ Andromeda or Renoir’s Bather are many that are ‘appropriate to the material subject.’ And since these words of a famous philosopher are often quoted it is necessary to labor the obvious and say that no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals. [emphasis mine] The desire to grasp and be united with another human body is so fundamental a part of our nature that our judgment of what is known as ‘pure form’ is inevitably influenced by it; and one of the difficulties of the nude as a subject for art is that these instincts cannot lie hidden, as they do, for example, in our enjoyment of a piece of pottery, thereby gaining the force of sublimation, but are dragged into the foreground, where they risk upsetting the unity of responses from which a work of art derived its independent life. Even so, the amount of erotic content a work of art can hold in solution is very high. The temple sculptures of tenth-century India are an undisguised exaltation of physical desire; yet they are great works of art because their eroticism is part of their whole philosophy."
  • "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


The chapter Pathos opens with the statement that the depiction of agony in art mostly refers to four themes: Niobids, the dying hero (Hector or Meleager), Marsyas and the Laocoön.

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

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

gratuitous nudity
  • "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."

Selected list of works referred to

See also

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