Megan Menzies uses art history to explain the crucial differences between ‘naked’ and ‘nude’
‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.” John Berger
Although initially there may not be a clear distinction, there is much difference between the two terms ‘naked’ and ‘nude’: their connotations hold extreme weight. In his 1972 study, Ways of Seeing, the Marxist-feminist art historian John Berger drew a distinct difference between the terms with regard to the female nude in European oil painting. That analysis can be revived with reference to Page 3 photos and contemporary depictions of women in the media as ‘nude.’
If we consider that ‘nakedness reveals itself,’ ‘nudity is placed on display,’ then in this sense, ‘the nude is condemned to never being naked’ and thus ‘nudity is a form of dress.’ But how have artists created this fantasy of the ‘nude’ and eradicated the notion that the bodies they depict are simply naked?
Turning our attention to Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Cnidus, 4th Century BC, one of the first sculptural depictions of an unclothed woman, we can begin to consider why she is ‘nude,’ rather than simply naked, and what problems this inspired and continued to inspire today. The ‘nude’ is a passive spectacle; her body is clothed in a layer of nakedness for the enjoyment of the spectator, who welcomes her lack of control as their own.
Similar techniques have been employed by Praxiteles and the photographers of Page 3 in order to enhance the experience of the viewer. Naked flesh is emphasised by the sense of reveal and disguise in the drapery of Aphrodite or the ripped pair of jeans worn by a model. Likewise, the contraposto (weighted on one leg) stance of Aphrodite corresponds to the relaxed pose of a reclining Page 3 model, reinforcing their sense of passivity.
This granting of power to the voyeuristic onlooker is problematic for many reasons, as recognised by supporters of the No More Page 3 (NMP3) campaign, who claim that eroticised, passive representations of women in Page 3 and the media are huge contributors to the culture surrounding rape, sexual abuse, harassment and domestic violence.
Indeed, the Aphrodite of Cnidus gathered a huge collection of admirers in her time and was coveted by sailors visiting the island of Cnidus. As is described in Pseudo Lucian’s Affairs of the Heart, Makarios Perinthos, the young Athenian, was so moved by the sculpture that one night he broke into the sanctuary and attempted to have sex with it, leaving ‘marks of his amorous embraces’ on the marble of her thigh.
Here, Makarios’ reaction to the naked body, put on display as the ‘nude,’ warns of social problems presented by over-eroticised images of the passive female in Page 3 and the media today, subconsciously absorbing derogatory messages of sexual culture.
It cannot be denied that women have been, and continue to be, represented in a distinctly different way to men. Sylvia Sleigh’s Turkish Bath,in 1976, is a brilliant indicator of why it would be difficult, given the context, for Page 3 to work if the gender of the subject were reversed. Sleigh’s painting is a direct reference to Ingres’ Turkish Bath, 1862. Sleigh’s work offers a commentary on the influence of visual culture in constructing gendered nude appearances.
As a result, her depiction of naked men in similar poses to Ingres’ eroticised female nudes is rather comical. It challenges the spectator’s perception of what the male nude should look like, and thus Sleigh opposes these gendered conventions.
Linda Nochlin inspired Sleigh – ‘Why don’y you paint a Turkish bath of men?’ – thus drawing attention to the absence in Western art of passively erotic portraits of men. Whereas Ingres’ women revel in their nudity comfortably among each other, Sleigh’s men sit more awkwardly to the effect, which may be quite disturbing.
Sleigh’s painting epitomises just how stark the contrast is between representations of men and those of women. It thus emphasises the problems that this unequal representation has and continues to cause, infiltrating into social constructions of gendered identity: women are presented as passive, men as active. As John Berger has stated that ‘men act, women appear, men look at women, women watch themselves being looked at.’
Moreover, Ingres further marginalises his nudes, situating them within the context of the ‘Other,’ a concept discussed by Edward Said in his 1978 study Orientalism. An intersectional analysis of Ingres’ depiction of women is thus crucial here. Not only are they objectified within the framework of the ‘nude,’ but specifically the ‘oriental nude,’ transporting his audience to the erotic fantasy of the East. Here, power has been granted on multiple levels; the ideological power of man over woman as well as the white man’s control over the Orient.
As Linda Nochlin argues, ‘the male viewer was invited sexually to identify with, yet morally distance himself from, his Oriental counterparts depicted within the objectively inviting yet racially distancing space of the painting.’
The crucial reason why these representations of women are problematic is that in their passive ‘nudity’ as opposed to nakedness, they invite a particular reaction, a reaction that is influenced by the expectation that women are displayed for visual pleasure. Indeed, even though Rupert Murdoch claims to be in support of NMP3, writing on Twitter ‘aren’t beautiful young women more attractive in at least some fashionable clothes? Your opinions please,’ his main concern is still that women are to presented as ‘attractive,’ with clothes on or off: the object of the male gaze.
The campaign has made some progress, but weekly online photographs continue to be available, with David Cameron’s refusal to back the campaign arguing that it is an issue for the consumers to decide. The fact is that naked pictures of men for the sexual enjoyment of women are rarely, if ever, publicly displayed.
Lucy-Anne Holmes, founder of NMP3 points out that ‘none of us get the choice of whether we want to live in a society where newspapers are primarily there for men’s sexual pleasure. All we want to see is women represented with respect in the tabloid media, but everywhere we see female sexuality and the female body presented as being there for men.’
One may be compelled to argue that it is the choice of the model and therefore not a problem. One could even argue that the NMP3 campaign explicitly and literally contradicts the Free the Nipple campaign. However, what I hope to have proved, through an art historical analysis, is that there is a huge difference between being ‘nude’ and being ‘naked’ and the NMP3 campaign is about the problems created by the nude.
The freedom of being naked on equal terms as men is a different more positive issue posed by the Free the Nipple campaign. in 1914, Mary Richardson took an axe to Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. The suffragettes’ iconoclastic attack of the female nude can thus be interpreted as a precursor to the NMP3 campaign, both striving to slash the expected representations of women as the nude spectacle of the male gaze.