Uh-oh. Can you feel some alarming stirrings in the Zeitgeist? First, painted nudes will cease to appear among the works on offer at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonham’s, for fear of upsetting art-lovers from Dubai or Kuwait. Next, the major art galleries will start becoming circumspect: should they continue to hang displays of nakedness on their walls, where they might outrage the sensibilities of any Islamic tourists who clap eyes on them by accident, while heading for the Constable landscapes? Mightn’t it be better to keep such pictures quarantined in specialist rooms where no one’s religious or cultural beliefs might be compromised?
I pray that won’t be the case. Because the nude, especially the female nude, is the cornerstone of Western art. It, more than any other subject, is an emblem of culture and civilisation. And it represents a victory over the power of organised religions. When Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in 1484, the first full-scale depiction of human nakedness, it cocked a snook at a millennium and a half of Christian restraint and anti-sensuality; it celebrated the simple fact of human beauty. And when no clap of divine thunder or fizz of lightning-bolts was prompted by the sight of Venus’s astonishingly pale breasts, half-covered by one hand, every other artist of the next 500 years piled in with his (it was mostly his) own sighing tribute to the female form divine.
I don’t want to compare myself to the Renaissance, but it was the same dynamic that made me remove the picture of the Sacred Heart of Christ from the wall of my bedroom when I was 13 and replace it with The Rokeby Venus by Velasquez. My mother, an intensely religious woman, couldn’t remonstrate with much conviction since the vain horizontale was, unquestionably, Art.
I would argue that her response – half shocked, half accepting – has been at the core of Western culture for centuries. Because the Nude is never just art, is it? It’s a revelation of beauty, sex, desire, self-consciousness, concealment, wantonness and modesty, all mingled in various harmonies, switching between canvas and viewer. It asks us if we’re happy to inspect nakedness on a canvas, from Titian to Lucien Freud, or if we’re repelled by it. It asks, effectively, “Are you embarrassed by this? Embarrassed to be human?”
The artistic nude has been a staple of comedy for centuries. Art historians have long been amused to find that Cardinal Richlieu, the most fanatically repressive Catholic in 17 century France, was obsessed with Rubens’s The Bath of Diana and gave the painter’s widow a gold-encrusted watch for it. In EM Forster’s A Room With a View, the English ladies checking out the artworks in Florence galleries agree that the nudes are “a pity.” Peter Cook and Dudley Moore had a nice art-gallery sketch in the 1960s, in which Pete (or was it Dud?) observed, of a Rubens, “Amazing, isn’t it, how the bums follow you around the room?” Monty Python fans will remember the Art Critic whose lecture begins, “Tonight we examine the place of the nude in my bed – I’m sorry, the place of the nude in Art…”
These were all vestigial expressions of the 17-century suspicion that being able to call the nude “art” allows us to look at naked women without having to call our desire to do so Sin, or prurience, or lechery or dirty-raincoat perviness. This guilty freedom has been a cornerstone of Western culture for 500 years. It would be a shame if its beauty were obscured by too fastidious a desire to indulge the easily offended.