on the 'active' nude
Confession: I've been in London for nearly two years now and I made my first visit to the Tate Britain only two weeks ago. Besides the massive art fatigue that I experienced, I came across two incredible works that I want to share about, they are...
The Reading Girl, Théodore Roussel, 1886-7
Woman Washing Her Hair, Walter Richard Sickert, 1906
When one considers the nude subject in art, odds are that two types of images come to mind immediately; a woman lying down or posed in some hyper-sexualised manner, or a confident male (think Greek sculpture) standing upright or exhibiting another sort of confident behaviour.
The fact that both the women painted here are both performing daily tasks such as reading or washing, while also naked, is rather uncommon considering the tradition of female nudes. Here is an excerpt from Sickert's display caption:
Sickert was committed to painting everyday life, and here he shows the woman in circumstances in which she might naturally be naked. This sets her apart from the artistic tradition of female nudes, which were conventionally shown inactive and with little context. Sickert learnt much from the French artist Edgar Degas, including such ‘through the key hole’ views. In this way the woman is shown as if we have glimpsed her without her knowing we are there.
Upon reading this caption, these two images became incredibly powerful and even dynamic to me. In these images, the women are simply going about their business, seemingly unaware of the gaze that is watching or imagining them, a gaze that we can never know the true nature of. They are no longer reduced to the form of their bodies, but they are given all of the context they deserve. A favourite detail is the way Roussel's 'Reading Girl' is positioned, her neck firmly pressed against her chest, making it clear that her only concern are the words on the pages before her. Additionally, the garment draped on her chair is reminiscent of Japanese aesthetics, which is just pretty darn stunning.
Anyway, contrast this with one of Modigliani's iconic nudes:
Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude), 1917
I've never been too bothered by Modigliani's scandalous portrayals of women. The thickness of the paint gives his women a sort of 'presence', made even stronger by the ways in which that are brought right to the edge of the frame. Their "stares" are daring, not bashful or modest.
Anyway, why must the two 'active' nudes be naked? If the point of these images is to show women going about their daily lives, all while they are focused on what tasks are before them, not seeing themselves through/mirrored in the eyes of men, why are they distracting us with their bodies?
The nudity of these active women in these paintings is crucial, as it trains our eyes to see the naked body not as something to be possessed or objectified, but as a body that is simply, well, a body. In a way, these paintings normalise the female nude, making it less shocking and less sensational; less of a body to be observed and more of a body to be, for lack of a better word, getting shit done.
Yes, they are naked, and that may be the first thing that we notice. This isn't a bad thing. The body is not to be ignored. But by simply subverting the expectations that we have regarding traditional nude portraiture, these artists, likely unbeknownst to them, have deeply challenged the way that we view the female body in art.