Nudes in art are older than the Seven Hills of Rome. The male form was the popular favorite in the ancient Imperial state, where even the athletes conducted their games in the nude. All that changed when objectifying nude women became all the rage. It still is. And the concept of female beauty remains unambiguous: passive and preferably asleep.
Contemporary artists are challenging that objectification in a new show at Sotheby’s S|2 London, “The Nude in the 20th and 21st Century.” Included in this collection is Marina Abramovic’s “Freeing the Body, 1974/2014: an assemblage of 7 black and white silver gelatin prints; based on an 8 hour performance in Berlin. You may remember her earlier performance of “Freeing the Body” in 1974, also in Berlin – a six-hour performance of her standing nude in front of a white wall moving her hips from side to side to the beat of a drum – at first energetically and ultimately robotically in exhaustion. To this reviewer, the effect of that performance was not one of “freeing the body” but one of a woman under the influence of someone else’s rhythm – namely the drummer’s – even to the point of ignoring her waning energy.
Also in this show is Tracey Emin with a drawing called “The Perfect Dream, 2014, which is so faintly described that it’s indiscernible to this reviewer. One may wonder if that’s Emin’s “perfect dream” – something she can’t remember. Another drawing done in the same year called “Selfie,” shows her reclining with her knees drawn up and held tightly together, which contrasts with her upper arm raised as if at ease. The takeaway from this image is a portrait of modern woman – in constant conflict.
Whatever your response to these images, you know they’re not pinups. And just in case you think the days of objectifying woman in art is the stuff of history, consider the exhibit example by Tom Wesselman, a drawing called “Study for Sunset Nude (Variation #5)” – a nude female on her back, her face cut off from at the picture’s edge, her nudity in plain view, complete with legs splayed in the air. The cut off face is reminiscent of Bill Brandt’s celebrated photos of females sliced and diced like so many vegetables by severing shadows.
But hey, at least Wesselman shows the whole of the female body despite the missing face, which is a step up from his “Pink Breast” that reduced the female to a single body part.
It goes without saying that nudes in art are a ticklish thing to picture. But when pink and posed as Wesselman’s have been, they tend to look like ads for feminine hygiene products. Good nudes have a redeeming feature, as in the psychologically-charged work by Emin and Abramovic in the Sotheby show. Hopefully, Bob Dylan song has it right. “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”