The Modest Nude


April 9, 2006

Last month I visited the Morgan Lehman Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood to see Stitch, an exhibition of the most recent work of contemporary artist Cynthia Atwood.

The sculptures in the exhibit, which are made of elegant lingerie, lace, and high fashion fabrics, among other materials, are abstract, and they do not represent recognizable figures from life, but they do evoke ideas about the female body. The ruffled, fluted, crimped, and frilled forms announce a subjective femininity that is filled with desire, weirdness, romance, and modesty. The pieces are playful, sensuously funny, and they sometimes suggest fanciful creatures or organs imagined inside the female body. The layers of translucent cloths call to mind dancing feminine forms, and the bent, pointed shapes seem to represent a sexual longing that has a sense of humor.

As I spent time with Atwood's work I began to reflect on the western tradition of “the nude” in art, especially traditional depictions of the female nude. I remembered how my art history professors at Smith College in the 1990s were still responding to the impact feminism had on art criticism, which had ignited art critics to debate the nude’s place in the history of art.

In the midst of the feminist movement Kenneth Clark had famously defended the tradition in his prominent book of art criticism, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, where he wrote:

To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word 'nude,' on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.

Throughout his book, Clark justifies the nude’s place in western art from the ancient Greek sculptures of ideal male figures to the images of nude women in paintings that began to emerge regularly during the Renaissance period in Europe.

Clark’s main claim is that the great western artists were able to transcend the unclothed body. This is an extremely complicated idea and process, and one which deserves much further explanation, but on the simplest level, artists traditionally achieve this disengagement by means of aesthetic detachment; they attempt to see the nude as "un-naked," to look at the body as an arrangement of shapes unrelated to or beyond sexuality.

I found a story in an essay from Art Journal where a nude model’s experience in the classroom clarifies this idea:

The model was posed on a platform...Suddenly she said to the instructor, "People are looking at me." The instructor gave her a puzzled look, because of course people were looking at her. "No," she said. "People are looking at me." Then the instructor turned toward the door and saw what she meant. People on their lunch break from the courthouse across the street had wandered into the building and were peeping through the window in the door to the classroom. When the instructor noticed them, they scattered and left.

This story suggests that there are different ways of looking, and it supports Clark’s argument that artists “de-pornographie” the body or remove the impulse to degrade the body when it is revealed outside of a private context.

Clark believes that the classic paintings and sculptures of the nude eliminate sexual degradation and elevate sensual thoughts to the highest level. He also argues that the dignity of the body can be preserved without repressing sexual sensations: "No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even if it be only the faintest shadow - and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals." Clark implies here that it is practically inhumane to disconnect images of the body completely from erotic life.

Some feminist art critics have maintained that Clark’s view does not take into account the inevitable objectification of the nude by artists, patrons of the art, and viewers. The British Marxist art critic, John Berger, famously made this point in Ways of Seeing where he wrote, "In the average European oil painting of the nude the principle protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture, and he is presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there. It is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity. But he, by definition, is a stranger—with his clothes still on."

Berger goes on to argue that painters from the western tradition have regularly objectified the female form. Berger describes how this tradition is reflected in the culture: "Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female."

Atwood’s sculptures do not mirror Berger's theory as they never simply convey an attitude of female passivity. While the pieces invite the viewer to look closely, they modestly don't allow one to look inside. They coyly resist revealing all their secrets. At the same time, an ineffable joy in celebrating the body, and the inner life that it carries, emanates from the pieces. Atwood reimagines the idea of the female body, allowing the viewer to be a participant in a woman’s experience of her own body, an experience that is delicate, peculiar, comic, charming, romantic, and demanding. The pieces provoke delight, introspection, awe, and sometimes discomfort as opposed to gawking or self-satisfaction. And the fact that the figures are abstract reduces the potential for gaping.

Odalisque is the show’s masterpiece. (Odalisques, virgin slaves who lived in Middle Eastern sultan’s harems, were usually given as gifts to the sultan, and their unclothed bodies were favorite subjects--or should I say objects?--of works by many European painters, most famously, Matisse and Ingres. See Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque). Atwood's soft undulant form is filled with cloth flowers, pink sleeves, sewed up holes, and feminine buttons and zippers. The image made me think of a woman lounging in a pretty dress in her room after a party as she dreams about her night out. There is a hint of fur, a long seam down the middle, a sense that one can enter, but the fabrics are sewed closed. The image invites yet the buttons can’t be undone, and one wonders about the three or four cute but perhaps disagreeable rubber bees imbedded and half hidden in the fabric throughout the piece.

This odalisque is not locked in a power-game with the viewer as many of the traditional nudes seem to be. The classic nudes, from the Renaissance onward (see paintings of the nude by Titian, Rubens, and Valasquez, for example), often gaze out with a knowing seductive half- grin in a pose that seems to reflect a dominance/subservience fantasy. In some ways, these classic paintings say more about the painter than the subject of the painting, which may be what makes them so interesting.

Atwood's odalisque is no slave; rather, she is an "odalisque" transformed; and she can be appreciated on her own terms, insects and all. Atwood's complicated and warm odalisque is flirtatious and graceful, but she is neither objectified by the artist nor desexualized. The image embodies imperfection and beauty, discretion and yearning, appealing sweetness, difficulty, humor, and an idiosyncratic oddness; in other words: a woman.

Eve Grubin is the author of a book of poems, Morning Prayer (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2005), and she lives in New York.