Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Eye of the beholder

Musings on nudity and eroticism in art

drawing by Paul Cadmus
Stories with photos of bare breasted women on protest marches in Manhattan have been going around the Internet lately. The half-naked women were claiming their right to go topless. The story on policymic.com carried a picture of an attractive redhead with a lovely figure, breasts exposed. It was not an erotic picture. It was a joyful picture. There were also videos posted with more bare breasted women on the streets of New York surrounded by hoards of happy people, most with their cellphone cameras flashing. The topless women were nice looking. In different contexts or poses they would probably be considered sexy, but there was nothing sexually stimulating about those video images. They seemed to me wholesome, healthy and joyful, but certainly not dirty.

Reading about the protest set me to thinking about attitudes toward sex and nudity in general and, specifically, in art (and by-the-way, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that it is legal for women to go topless in the city).  

Le Sommeil by Gustav Courbet

I remember when I was about 20 years old and as horny as any 20-year-old could be, and I somehow came into possession of a nudist magazine filled with photos of naked men, women and children of all shapes and sizes. Those photos were interesting but not arousing. It makes me wonder if our society would not have a much healthier attitude toward sex if nudity were commonly accepted. Taken out of sexual context, bodies are just bodies; we all have them.

In that nudist magazine there was one photo that I can still picture in my mind some 50 years later. It was the picture of a teenage girl leaping for joy with arms reaching heavenward. I thought she was as beautiful as any creature I had ever seen, but her photograph was not sexual in any way. Her picture did remind me, however, of some of Gauguin's paintings of bare-breasted Tahitians, which I thought were extremely sexy and tender.

Eroticism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Gustav Courbet, the father of realism, is also known as a painter of erotic imagery. His “Le Sommeil,” a painting of two naked women asleep with arms and legs entwined, is considered one of the more erotic paintings in Western art history, and it is often debated whether or not his “The Origin of the World” is pornographic. To me, “Le Sommeil” is somewhat erotic but also, like the Gauguins, very sweet and innocent, and I do not think “The Origin of the World” is pornographic; nor do I think it is particularly arousing. Some of the artworks I do find to be highly erotic are drawings by the sculptor Pierre August Rodin and paintings by Amedio Modigliani, and drawings and paintings by Cadmus drawings, who is about the only artist I know of who has made pictures of both male and female subjects that are tastefully erotic.

Odalesque, acrylic on canvas by Alec Clayton 1985

There is a dearth of male nudes in art history. Other than Cadmus and some contemporary gay erotica, most of which I’ve seen is of little artistic merit, there is Thomas Eakins, and then you have to go back to Rodin and all the way back to Michelangelo’s David and beyond that to Greek statuary to find beautiful male nudes.

One thing that strikes me as I contemplate these things is that with few exceptions the artworks which to me are erotic are not realistic. Gauguin’s figures have a blocky, primitive look, Modigliani’s figures are simplified and flattened, with very little realistic detail, Cadmus’s paintings have a cartoon-like character, and his drawings and those by Rodin are loose and expressively drawn with more attention to the line quality than to the depiction of the figure. So what is the difference? I think it might rest with what I said in the previous sentence: upon what does the artist focus — the art or the figure? If the focus is on the art — line, color, value, shape, texture — the humanity of the subject comes across as real; but when the focus is on the body the subject(s) of the art become objectified, which makes it more pornographic than artistic and not really sexy, or certainly not in a healthy way. Rodin’s drawings are an excellent example. He did some explicitly sexual drawings in which the figure is obviously objectified, but they are not the more erotically stimulating of his works. His more erotic works are the drawings of figures dancing or in other natural poses with lyrical contour lines playing off against washes of color or gray tones and without the intentional attention to sexual parts.

I’m meditating on these things now because of the stories about the New York protests and because this summer I am scheduled to show and discuss a film that deals with the subject. The film is called Open Studio. It was a class project my wife did as a film student at The Evergreen State College in 1988. At the time I was making art that dealt with sexual subject matter, not necessarily erotic art, although some of it could have been seen that way, but art that commented on our society’s attitudes toward nudity and sex. For the filming we hung a large selection of my paintings on the wall and invited a group of TESC students to look at them and discuss them with me.

We will be showing the film at B2 Gallery in Tacoma July 12 at 7 p.m. The film viewing will be followed by an open discussion. In the 25 years since the film was made my art and my attitudes have changed. I’m not even sure that I agree with some of the things I said back then. It will be interesting to re-watch that film with other viewers and then discuss it.
The event will take place during the run of the exhibition Bathers of the Sun, Bathers of the Moon featuring the works of abstract-figurative artist Leonardo Lanzolla, mosaic artist Jennifer Kuhns, and printmaker Mary Pacios .
The night of the film viewing, and that night only, I will also show a group of figure paintings, some of which have never been shown publicly. Hopefully we will have a lively discussion about nudity in art, about the difference between nudity and nakedness, and the difference between erotic art and pornography. When we get closer to the date I will send out invitations by email and on Facebook.


Carv said...

Please keep me in your Facebook loop. For reasons related to my book, I've been thinking a great deal about eroticism in art myself lately. The line between eroticism and outright pornography is especially blurred in the "Made in Heaven" series by Jeff Koons.

Alec Clayton said...

Carv, I started to include a statement about John Currin but decided not to. His paintings really cloud the line between art and pornography. And yes, Koons does too. Both of them are saved, if at all, by their sense of humor. See https://www.google.com/search?gs_rn=17&gs_ri=psy-ab&tok=M61LHlzWdYjWKiVrFSFDew&suggest=p&pq=john+currin+painter&cp=11&gs_id=1na&xhr=t&q=john+currin&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS248&bav=on.2,or.r_cp.r_qf.&bvm=bv.47810305,d.cGE&biw=1680&bih=880&bs=1&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hl=en&tbm=isch&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&ei=FYK3UaaAAqWdiQKXwYDgBQ