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A New Way of Looking at the Nude

THE ARTIST PAUL Cadmus was flipping through Modern Maturity, the AARP’s official magazine, in 1991 when he saw something that made him angry. A disgruntled reader had written a letter to the editor slamming the publication for reproducing the Italian Renaissance artist Masaccio’s famous painting of Adam and Eve without including the fig leaves that church officials later added to cover their genitals.

In response, Cadmus, then 87, created a drawing, titled “Shame!,” which was recently on view at New York’s DC Moore Gallery as part of the first major solo exhibition of the artist, who died in 1999, in more than 20 years. It shows a lithe white man, woman and child standing tall and naked, arms intertwined. At their feet, a cluster of grotesque, clothed figures, including a hooknosed priest and a mother covering her child’s eyes, writhe in disgust. Cadmus, who is best known for homoerotic images that relish the male form, later wrote that the letter’s author had provided “a profound definition of the word ‘pornography’: a naked man and woman.” In an ironic twist that surely would have provoked the artist’s ire, it’s impossible to access a reproduction of “Shame” online today without clicking a “N.S.F.W.” button.

Nudes are one of the oldest and most stubbornly provocative tropes in Western art. Today, anyone with an internet connection can see a naked body at a moment’s notice (even if they have to press an extra button to do so). But the world in general, and the art world in particular, has remained largely conservative about what kinds of bodies it chooses to depict, celebrate and immortalize. In an age when Instagram polices nipples even as television shows like Euphoria traffic in erotic drama, a new generation of artists are mining this irony and working to broaden the aperture, breaking away from the idealized (usually white and thin) forms that have pervaded art for most of its documented existence. Instead, they are conjuring nudes that reflect a more fluid, more inclusive and fuller understanding of the body. At the same time, scholars and collectors are taking a new look at artists who were previously excluded from the canon because of the naturalistic, warts-and-all approach they took to the nude.

Fresh interpretations of the nude are front and center in a wave of exhibitions on view in New York this spring. At Bortolami gallery, there is Philip Pearlstein, whose dramatically cropped, unsentimental figures were profoundly unfashionable when he introduced them in the early 1960s. Gagosian is presenting its first exhibition of the photographer Francesca Woodman, who, before her death in 1981 at 22, created hundreds of strange, haunting photographs in which she used her naked body as a prop. Then there is Emily Coan, 32, at Dimin Gallery and Clarity Haynes, 52, at New Discretions, part of a group of contemporary artists who are using their own bodies and those of their friends to explore how femininity, gender identity and queerness can breathe new life into this often-vexing tradition.

The story of the nude in Western art begins in ancient Greece, where sculptors sought to pay tribute to the gods by capturing them in idealized human form. When Renaissance artists revived interest in classical antiquity, the nude came along for the ride, mostly as a vessel to idealize the figures of the Christian faith and the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated Renaissance Europe. Some of these works had the suggestion of sensuality or, in the case of Donatello’s sculpture of St. Jerome, deflated classical beauty by focusing on a body in decline. Such notions violated the conservative sensibilities of the church, but it wasn’t until the 19th century when the nude truly began to skirt the borders of taste and propriety. Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” was a sensation. The combination of subject (a prostitute in the classical pose of a reclining female nude) and style (brushwork so flat that it highlights the artificiality of the image) was so shocking that visitors to the Paris Salon of 1865 tried to stab the canvas with their umbrellas. The painting was recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — only the third time it has ever left Paris, though it cast a wide influence on the next century or so of nudes, from the frankness of Gustave Courbet’s “Origin of the World” (painted the year after the debut of “Olympia”) to Picasso’s 1932 series about his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, which brought explicit nudity into the world of abstraction.

In his 1956 book “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form,” the art historian Kenneth Clark wrote that “the nude is not the subject of art, but a form of art.” In other words, the nude, with all its art-historical baggage, is an efficient means for artists to telegraph how their own perspective is distinct from that of their peers and predecessors. The trope can be especially powerful for women, queer people and artists of color, who have historically been more likely to be seen painted nude in a gallery or museum, rather than have their paintings of nudes exhibited there. No other genre has the capacity to interrogate, in a single figure, how we see and how we are seen.

WOMEN WEREN’T PERMITTED to study life drawing in the traditional Western art academy until the late 19th century; no female artist was included in Clark’s authoritative 400-page tome. But more recent scholarship has recovered a number of female and queer artists, including Cadmus, whose nudes were dismissed as unseemly or unserious in their own time and feel considerably more forward thinking now. In 2018, the Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp staged an exhibition of the 17th-century Flemish artist Michaelina Wautier, who, the art historian Alison M. Gingeras notes in the book “Pictures Girls Make,” which will be published later this month, created the first known portrait of a nude man by a woman. Many of Wautier’s works had previously been misattributed to her brother. Last year, an ambitious exhibition organized by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia argued that the French artist Marie Laurencin’s paintings of stylized nude women and animals were not a quirky footnote but rather a significant contribution to the turn-of-the-century Parisian avant-garde.

Today’s artists embrace the nude for reasons ranging from the political to the personal to the practical (several mentioned that clothing automatically dates a painting).

When Sasha Gordon, 26, was assigned to sketch her own body in a college anatomy class, the teacher didn’t know what to make of her billowy form. “The professor had a hard time stepping away from the European way of thinking, with all the certain muscles and bones that you could normally see in a leaner body,” says Gordon, whose mother is Korean.

Today, Gordon places her own body — rendered in hyperrealistic detail — front and center in surreal scenes. (Her work was recently the subject of a solo show at the ICA Miami.) In “Trimmings” (2023), a nude Gordon uses garden shears to create a larger-than-life hedge version of herself. Looking out impishly at the viewer mid-snip, it’s as if she had broken into the pristine European-style garden to leave her mark. In a metaphor for her larger body of work, she makes herself into a monument without asking for permission.

Artists who seek to imbue the nude with new meaning still encounter some resistance. Doron Langberg, 38, whose lyrical portraits of queer lovers with their underwear around their ankles are rendered with the same gauzy reverential treatment as Claude Monet gave to the water lily, says that sexually explicit works still remain a hard sell to many institutions. (He is heartened, however, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Kunsthal Rotterdam are currently showing his erotic paintings.) Clarity Haynes, who is best known for painting the torsos of cancer survivors, queer and trans people, recalls a group of outraged museum donors walking out on her presentation of such works at the NADA art fair in Miami in 2018. And Emily Coan, whose witchy nude doppelgängers huddle around fires, drink and have sex with one another, notes that she and many of her contemporaries are unable to promote their work on Instagram because of the platform’s nudity policy.

Even within the feminist art community, disagreements remain over whether certain kinds of nudes are objectifying or empowering. An earlier generation of painters who dealt with explicit imagery, including Joan Semmel and Betty Tompkins, received similar pushback in the 1970s, criticized for appealing to the male gaze even as they tried to subvert it. What makes this moment different is both the wider spectrum of bodies taking up space on the canvas and the sheer delight, playfulness and weirdness with which they are represented. Many of the artists engaging with the nude today grew up taking photos of themselves and posting them on the internet. They are comfortable toying with images of the body because they know what it’s like to be looked at — not only by someone on the subway or at the grocery store but by everyone all at once online.

What artists playing with the unclothed human form today share in common is a fundamental lack of shame. For Haynes, the act of painting the nude is, more than anything else, an antidote to shame. Before she turned her focus on her community, she started out in 1997 depicting her own torso. It was a way, she recalls, to reacquaint herself with her body after getting sober, leaving her job as a stripper and recognizing how much of her existence had been informed by being sexually harassed on the street. “I thought I would see an exaggerated sexy person,” she says, “and what I saw was just a human being. I saw myself as a human being for the first time.”