To paraphrase the Dutch-American painter Willem de Kooning, flesh is the reason why oil painting was invented. Portraiture has been one of the cornerstones in fine art since its beginning and is still relevant in today’s contemporary art scene. As in everyday human life, naked skin is ever so present throughout figurative art history.
Over the course of history there have been quite a number of groundbreaking paintings by European artists sending their shockwaves throughout their moment in time, like Goya’s La maja desnuda, Manet’s Olympia and Courbet’s L’origin du monde, just to mention a few. One also has to take into consideration the modern art masterpieces that are Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso and de Kooning’s Woman, I, which in their own rights have shattered and reconstructed the way we look at art.
But to arrive at the approach towards nudity in today’s art world, we have to look back at what has happened over the last few decades, focussing on three prominent figures whose work completely transformed, and in doing so broadened the scope of naked flesh depicted on canvases immensely.
Thanks to the recent auction record set by his painting Fat Sue, German-born British painter Lucian Freud is currently subject to the most media attention of the painters mentioned in this article. He is also the one that could almost be called a traditionalist. After all, naked voluptuous women have been present since Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens focussed his attention on immortalising their lively curviness in his works. We could even go further back to the dawn of humanity’s artistic creations and mention Paleolithic stone carvings such as the famed Venus of Willendorf, estimated to have been created between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE.
But there is something intrinsically different in Freud’s approach. Where Rubens was bound by an academic style, thinly layering paint to give his figures a porcelain-like state of perfection, Lucian Freud wanted the paint to work, in his own words, “just as flesh does”. Real flesh with all its imperfections down even to callused skin under the feet. The older he got, the rougher his ductus became, layering dry, blotchy paint over and over, making brushwork appear like pores of the skin. Paying attention to how parts of the body move, like the weight of breasts and the stomach, he says that the “obsession with his subject is all that he needs to drive him to work” and that he asks nothing more of a painting than to “astonish, disturb, seduce, convince” him.
At the same time as Lucian Freud, another painter focussed his attention towards a different fascination, approaching the body as if “we are meat, we are potential carcasses”, saying that he wanted his “picture to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of the human presence… as a snail leaves its slime.” This artist was, of course, Francis Bacon.
It is impossible to try to understand the paintings without taking his personal story into account: the mood of his surroundings after two world wars, growing up with a strongly conservative father, whom Bacon disliked, but felt sexually attracted to, chronic asthma, being locked into a cupboard by his mother, all of which found visual representation on his canvases. “I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by his passions and his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the good or the better or the worse. It must alter him. The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.”
Especially Bacon’s masochistic sexuality and violent relationships harboured a never-ending source of creativity. His best works were directly inspired by “sadomasochistic sexual relationships at their most intense” as art historian John Richard once put it. In particular, his life partner George Dyer, who took his own life on the opening night of a Bacon retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris, inspired some of the most raw, emotionally unfiltered and visually distorted works.
Especially Bacon’s masochistic sexuality and violent relationships harboured a never-ending source of creativity.
In the cases where Francis Bacon painted multiple figures on one canvas, their bodies are split into indistinguishable fragments, almost melting into each other, indeterminable where the one ends and the other starts, which leads to a loss of the self, ending in being diminished to lumps of meat, which are at once seductively beautiful and a reminder of our mortality.
The third artist is just as obsessed with naked skin as Freud and Bacon were. Jenny Saville says about her own oeuvre: “I paint flesh because I’m human, If you work in oil, as I do, it comes naturally. Flesh is just the most beautiful thing to paint.”
Often heralded as the heir to Lucian Freud, though she is as interested in form and volume as he was, Saville’s canvases are of a more direct and even aggressive grandeur. She criticises the nature of nudity in art. In the tradition of John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing, she said: “There is a thing about beauty. Beauty is always associated with the male fantasy of what the female body is. I don’t think there is anything wrong with beauty. It’s just what women think is beautiful can be different. And there can be a beauty in individualism. If there is a wart or a scar, this can be beautiful, in a sense, when you paint it.”
This rebellion against the male gaze lead to paintings of plastic surgery, a practice of “beautification”, showing obese women with pen marks made by surgeons all over their bodies. Saville’s dealings with the possibility of manipulating the body in all its flexibility peaked in two canvases showing transgender people. She was “searching for a body that was between genders”, and said about her painting Passage, which was executed in 2004: “Thirty or fourty years ago this body couldn’t have existed and I was looking for a kind of contemporary architecture of the body. I wanted to paint a visual passage through gender – a sort of gender landscape.”
In an earlier work, Matrix from 1999, the subject is photographer and activist Del LaGrace Volcano. Saville was fascinated by Volcano’s body because “it represents a human form proceeding through a self-initiated process of body transition. He/she is a mutational body with gender defying body parts. You want to push Del’s body into a category of male or female but can’t – he/she is in a process of becoming.”
From Freud’s concern to depict the body in as much realness and sensuality as actual flesh, over Bacon’s rough and traumatising goal to “bring one nearer to the actual human being” to Saville’s criticism of social norms and standards of beauty, the depiction of naked skin has evolved more in the last few decades than in most of its presence throughout art history. With an outlook towards new generations of young artists, making use of advances in technology, art material and being inspired by our present social surroundings, the nude form will surely reach new heights and will continue to challenge and enrich our cultural life, especially at a time when a nude body isn’t just naked skin anymore, but rather a statement, political or social. I believe art is one of the most powerful tools humanity has, distilling ideas and ideologies into images that transport their meaning even better than words sometimes can, going beyond cultures and languages. Works of art can record the times they are created in, be reminders of the past and in some cases, show or even demand from us a better future.