Stripped of conventional, high-cultural aspirations

A provocative art book speaks of a cultural shift and shows 'gorgeous and disturbing' pictures

By Stoddard Martin, January 4, 2013

The Naked Nude/ By Frances Borzello/ Thames & Hudson, £28

"Naked” connotes truth. “Nude” was about beauty. Naked Nude thus confronts an old urge to the transcendent with uglier fact. That is the theme of this seductive book. Modernism is the crux: a movement which saw two millennia of classical standards as constricting and prohibitive. Unbounded possibilities had to be broken into — the myriad realities of the body and of the psyche revealed, or not, by it.

Frances Borzello opens her account of this cultural shift with Kenneth Clark’s 1956 book, The Nude, which charted the long western tradition. She moves quickly into territory that the great and good mandarin of Civilisation was uneager to inhabit, though The Nude did note an “alternative convention” beyond Apollonian and Venusian idealisation – the witches of Dürer, the tormented of Bosch, elongated or meaty females among the Flemings.

Clark’s tradition was made by men. Borzello’s epoch is of female emancipation. Images of women made by women helped dethrone a spectacle of women depicted by men to be seen by men as men wished to see them. The new women: pubescent, pregnant, un-pretty, non-passive, old, with uneven breasts and crease-lines, and bodily functions, as body art themselves, helped to liberate men too, to be un-heroic, vulnerable — Sam Taylor-Wood’s 10-minute video of a bemused naked male slow-dancing to the same music that Stephen Spielberg used to underscore ultimate pathos in Schindler’s List.

If traditional content was overthrown in the period Borzello tracks, so was its medium. Art schools dropped live drawing; painting became a “timid choice” amid happenings, performance art, installation.

No one wanted a new orthodoxy. When Willem de Kooning incorporated a figure into one of his frenzies of colour, it augured a counterrevolution. By the 1970s, Philip Pearlstein and Lucian Freud were pioneering forms of hyper-realism. Meanwhile, Warhol and other pop-artists played with versions of old ideals that had migrated to “non-artistic” mass culture. Robert Mapplethorpe photographed them.

If the traditional nude conveyed vistas of male heroism or female loveliness, the modern cult of the naked asked us to lower sights to the animal, the raw sexual. In a postmodern phase this was partly rejected in favour of play, whimsical and masturbatory.
Borzello charts the whole jamboree with scope and insight in her elegantly produced book, full of gorgeous, sometimes disturbing illustrations.

Stoddard Martin is an author, publisher and writer on modern culture

    Last updated: 12:09pm, January 4 2013