The erotic element has always been connected with the nude in art, or rather, the nude is almost always connected with the erotic – at least in the context of the Hellenic world of the Mediterranean and the cultural and artistic values that shaped Western culture and art history.
Phryne’s nudity stunned and intimidated her judges in Athens! The κάλλος, the beauty of her nude boy had an aesthetic value that was highly celebrated in Classical Greece.
However, it should be noted that the naked female body was not always depicted in antiquity. Artefacts such as idols (Cycladic, Cypriot, and others) and small terracottas of sexual or fertility deities were the exception. Nonetheless, the beauty of the nude gained an appreciation and was a staple value in the cultural life of ancient Greece.
It is worth reflecting on the artistic and cultural life of the fourth century BC through the ‘mythical’ achievements of its artists. Praxiteles ‘made’ two beautiful Aphrodites: the first clothed (sold to Kos), the second naked (sold to Knidos at a lower price!). They were both exceptional pieces of art. The Knidian left to us some ‘spicy’ yet instructive legends and stories that reveal the celebrated position of the beautiful nude in Greek society. Some wondered whether Aphrodite herself had descended from Olympus to stand as a model to Praxiteles, or was Phryne, Praxiteles’ mistress, his actual model?
And then we had Zeuxis painting nude Helen, and Apelles his Campaspe from Larisa, and the marvel of an Anadyomene Aptrodite among many others. Pygmalion in Amathus was laboring on his Galatea.
Two thousand years later, in the nineteenth century, the great Gérôme painted the scene and it is now here with us.
In the Hellenistic and Roman world, the nude was everywhere. With the arrival and spread of the Christian religion, from early on, all pagan art, especially nudes, was considered immoral and unacceptable. Depictions of nudity were no longer in fashion. On the contrary, they were persecuted and as a result of these attitudes, they vanished. Alexandria, I believe, was probably the last bastion of artistic production and celebration of the nude.
Life in Byzantium and medieval Europe preserved a lot of pagan traditions, but the moral rules of the Christian religion and the role of the Church censored expressions of nudity, including in art. Overall, the erotic in daily life was hidden from public view and largely remained marginalised behind closed doors. However, personalities like the Byzantine Empress Theodora, among others, left us with a lot of secret and ‘apocryphal’ stories, especially if we believe Procopius’s storytelling.
Boccacio’s Decaemeron offers us some insights into the more private habits of medieval life.
The great cultural ‘awakening’ of the Renaissance – and the return of the Ancients along with their aesthetic values regarding the nude – occurred in Tuscany and Venice quite late in the fourteenth and into the fifteenth centuries. Renaissance artists in this period celebrated the nude – the mythologies of Homer and Ovid became once more present in public life along with their beautiful uninhibited stories of antiquity. Their work shaped the history of Western art.
I have picked up several early beautiful nudes: a jewel of a painting by Felice Brusasorzi, fantastic paintings by Cesari (il Cavalier d’ Arpino), Reni, Turchi (l’ Orbetto), Ricci, Marchesi (il Sansone) and later painters Mallet, Baudry, Levy, Gérôme and Ralli among many others.
Taking this critical ‘Renaissance moment’ as a departure point, this book looks at the theme of the nude in Western art through to the present, including twentieth-century painters like Lebasque, Souverbie, Lhote, Survage and contemporary Greek artists like Manolides, Angelos and Andreas Charalambides.
[From the Foreword of the publication]