"Do you think anyone ever buys a piece of junk like that?" says one police officer to the other standing in an art gallery. They are discussing a nude statue by Donatello. "Sure." is the reply, "That's art." (Dialog from a scene near the end of the 1946 film noir classic, "The Dark Corner".)
Flash forward seven years later to 1953. The nude photos of Bettie Page or Marilyn Monroe in Playboy magazine were what many considered as the "nude in art" - a perception in some circles that has continued for years. For those not familiar with the Aphrodite of Cnidus or The Discuss Thrower, their exposure to nudes (only in "girlie" magazines) would parallel that of commoners almost 200 years ago. The invention of the camera revolutionized art and made nude images available to the masses. Previously, nudes had been available primarily only to society's elite, in galleries.
It seems as though homo sapiens have been hard wired since the beginning with an obsession for the beauty of our own bodies. British art historian, Tim Marlow, hosts a four-part series, The Nude in Art, that will be released on DVD February 22, 2011. The series begins with the Classical period and progresses through the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the Modern era. Each episode is approximately forty minutes in length and features many of the world's most famous works of nude and semi-nude art.
Along the way, Marlow is joined by art historians, Peter Webb (author of The Erotic Arts), Christopher Kelly (Cambridge) and David Waters (Men's Health Magazine). They offer their opinions on nudes in art and the changing perception of the nude as cultures, societies, and values changed throughout history. They agree that nude artwork reflects the cultures from which it emerged.
The episode on the Classical period takes us back to what may have been the first nude sculpture and the story of the beginnings of art - over 25,000 years ago. Examples of Egyptian and Greek artwork are presented and discussed. 500 B.C. is pointed out as a "crucial moment in nude" art as the Greeks reflect male strength and military dominance with "The Discuss Thrower". Then from 350 B.C. we meet the "most famous sculpture of the ancient world", as Marlow says the piece that, "rocked the art world" - the Aphrodite of Cnidus, a clear precursor to the Venus de Milo. The female form contrasted the male strength and militaristic moods with visions of beauty and eroticism.
The episode on the Renaissance begins with the rise of Christianity and as Marlow says, "nudity became an expression of sin." Marlow and company discuss the centering of man in art as God is moved aside. DaVinci's "Vitruvian Man" illustrates the connection of man with the universe as an "almost divine representation of the circle and square, man in the middle, the measure of all things, naked."
The Enlightenment points out how the church, monarchy, and the aristocracy used art (particularly nudes) as a weapon to reinforce their power. Then, the camera shifted attention to the debate over art vs. pornography as the series concludes with a look at contemporary nudes and their perceptions and acceptance in the Modern Era.
The Nude in Art with Tim Marlow is an informative and interesting introduction to masterpiece art as well as serious consideration of art's "most enduring subject."