Skip to content

The Naked Truth About the Nude in Art

When you get down to the bare facts, there’s no genre of art older than that of the nude. The bare human figure—male and female, but more often female—commands attention as much as it makes us turn away in modesty or, worse, shame.

The duality of that “truth” of the nude as well as our reaction to it is the slippery subject of Being Nude: The Skin of Images by Jean-Luc Nancy and Federico Ferrari (translated by Anne O’Byrne and Carlie Anglemire). Nancy and Ferrari argue for “something true right at the skin, skin as truth” as the exposing of flesh “reveals is that there is nothing to be revealed, or that there is nothing other than revelation itself, the revealing and what can be revealed, both at once.” At times a hard philosophical road to slog, Being Nude gives you a multidimensional, multimedia, multigenerational musing on the nude that may not lay all the facts perfectly bare, but will leave you looking at and thinking about the nude in a different way than ever before.

As I worked my way through Being Nude, I couldn’t help but think of Wallace Stevens‘ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” That baker’s dozen of pseudo-haikus showing but not showing the titular blackbird surrounds the concept of the blackbird while simultaneously eluding any conclusions about the blackbird. Similarly, Nancy and Ferrarri, philosophy professors from France and Italy, respectively, surround the nude in art history but never definitively say anything about the nude.

But where Stevens stops at 13, Nancy and Ferrari double down by using the 26 letters of the alphabet as the skeleton for their exploration. Even they admit that their conceit is arbitrary, but quickly counter that “[t]his arbitrariness exposed us in a certain nudity” in which they’ve “not clothed [them]selves in knowledge or philosophy” but rather bared themselves to wherever the subject takes them. Regardless of this professed philosophical and art historical nudity, Nancy and Ferrari follow their bliss guided by their professions and do their best to keep the reader alongside.

You quickly learn that Nancy and Ferrari’s nude isn’t your father’s nude. “For us,” they write, “the nude is neither erotic nor anatomical nor authentic. It remains on the edge of or beyond these three postulations.” In other words, the nude’s sexy, mundane, and right under your nose, but it’s also a state of mind and a state of being, too. Art taps into the energy of those states. If the nude has a secret, they suggest, “[t]he secret is on the skin (the secret and the sacred). Painting, drawing or photographing the nude always poses the same challenge: how to represent the unrepresentable fugacity of stripping bare, the instant modesty that comes to conceal revelation, and the indecency that comes to reveal the evasion.”

This “fugacity” or desire to escape strikes at the moment of revelation, which thus forces the nude to cover up in modesty, which thus forces the nude to recognize the indecency of the initial revealing, but art captures all three stages at once, thus allowing us to see even in a static nude the progression of the state of nudity.

For those who would rather take their art history with less philosophy, the plunge into Nancy and Ferrari’s alphabet of nudity refreshes after tangling with their “preamble”—literally the warm-up mental stretching before their arbitrary stroll down art history. B is for Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath (detail shown above), whose “naked body… is a body of jouissance and suffering, but it is also a body completely exposed, outside itself on the liminal edge of its skin.” The Biblical Bathsheba as she bathed drew the attention of King David, whose lust to possess her led to his murder of her husband Uriah and the eventual loss of David’s kingdom.

Those old-time transgressions find modern form in their Lacanian use of the term “jouissance,” which does mean joy or enjoyment, but more accurately a forbidden, transgressing, violating kind of fun. Nancy and Ferrari pick Rembrandt’s Bathsheba for all those associations, but also for how the Old Master avoids idealizing this nude woman. “The left breast is slightly deformed,” they point out, “it’s probably a tumor—the evil that insinuates itself into her body—an imperfection that makes her nudity even more singular.” The authors continually stress the singularity of the nude in art over the idealized nude, which tells us nothing in its inauthenticity.

What struck me most about the authors’ alphabetical art history trip was the variety of artists, periods, subgenres, and even genders they consider, which adds up to a more fully rounded, diverse look at the nude than most textbooks offer. Classic artists appear (“C” is for “Caress” and Cezanne, “G” is for Goya and his Maja, clothed and not, etc.), but also moderns such as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, cleverly filed under “I” for “Incarnate” for how his paintings “make us feel flesh” and how art “allows the penetration of the flesh—precisely, in-carnate—and enters into the intimacy of the nude.” Women artists appear in smaller numbers, but are admirably included, such as Francesca Woodman, whose photography embodies the nude’s “fleeing presence”` in perhaps the best visual demonstration of what the authors are trying to get at in words. In “T” for “Trans,” Nan Golden’s nudes appear “to show how the nude, beyond the represented subject, is always this placing into question of sexual identity, this never ending crossing of identities.” Male nudes, a growing field of modern art history, with the penis earning the title of “the joker of the naked—but an uncompromising joker, forever too improper really to be put into play.”

From Old Master oils to Renaissance drawings to modern photography, Being Nude covers a lot of bases in what isn’t an encyclopedic study of the nude, but as complete a study as you can get in less than 130 pages. I read Being Nude straight through, but I can also imagine dipping into it at random, perhaps even spelling out something through my selection, and coming away with a new view of the nude.

“The nude is the zero point of material,” Nancy and Ferrari conclude under “Z” for “Zero.” “Zero: neither positive nor negative.” Being Nude: The Skin of Images strips down the idea of the nude in art of all associations—erotic, pornographic, even classically ideal—to look with fresh, neutral eyes at what the nude is, what it does, and what it does to us as we look at it. There’s a sometimes confounding and even annoying subtlety to Nancy and Ferrari’s argument that’s stereotypical of French philosophy. (Kudos to the English translators Anne O’Byrne and Carlie Anglemire for taking on what must have been a difficult job.) The book opens with a poem by Giacometti that plays on the words “we” (“nous”) and “naked” (“nus”) that works only in French, but the poetic nuance of Being Nude works in any language if you open your mind and bare your soul to looking at the nude as much more than naked skin.

[Image: Rembrandt Harmensz.van Rijn. Bathsheba at Her Bath (detail), 1654.]

[Many thanks to Fordham University Press for providing me with a review copy of Being Nude: The Skin of Images by Jean-Luc Nancy and Federico Ferrari (translated by Anne O’Byrne and Carlie Anglemire).]


Up Next