Ever since artists began creating art, they have incorporated sexual themes into their work. Ancient civilizations were replete with sexual or erotic imagery and their relationship to sex and the human body is clear. It could be said that the beginning of all art is the human figure. As children we draw it in stick form. Early Greeks and Romans established the classical standards for sculpting the human figure.
When you think of the nude figure, you may think primarily of the female nude, which has been and continues to be the obsession of male artists. However, in the history of art, understanding the male nude was a requirement of artists, the basis of art training. There are striking differences in these two images. Margaret Walters explains that "Over the centuries of Western civilization, the male nude has carried a much wider range of meanings, political, religious and moral, than the female. The male nude is typically public: he strides through city squares, guards public buildings, is worshipped in the church. He personifies communal pride or aspiration.
The female nude, on the other hand, comes into her own only when art is geared to the tastes and erotic fantasies of private consumers" (8). The male nude typically represents power, virility, courage, sometimes is even defined as spiritual beauty. An example of this is the 14 foot statue of the Biblical hero David, which for centuries stood in one of the main squares in Florence. When artists began to depict the nude female in the 16 th century, she is depicted as passive (not active like the male nude); this suggests her availability to the male viewer. This depiction is fairly constant in the history of art.
And there's another difference. The depictions of the male nude are similar; they refer back to some idealized notion of the male physique. But females' bodies vary enormously, from culture to culture and artist to artist. "It is as if male fantasy constantly reshapes the women's body to better fit his shifting desire, at the same time being careful to preserve the integrity of his own male self" (Walters 13).
By the 17 th century, the female nude becomes more popular than the male nude and by the Nineteenth century, the term nude pretty much means the female figure. The idealized form of Greek art became the standard for academically trained artists, who worked from the live, nude model. The Baroque period presents nudity in a much more sensual way. The nudes appear to be much more naturalistic.
These artists were looking back to antiquity and the idea of perfecting the human body. This was also the idealism of the perfect human body, according to the male viewer. In the 19 th and 20 th century the classical depiction of the nude was challenged by artists working in the modern period (1800 to present). In Classical Greek and Roman art erotic images were frequently used, many of which portrayed love stories of their god. In the Renaissance period a majority of the art produced was of religious subject matter. The artists in this period however did use erotic tones in the religious stories of both the Old and New Testament.
The subject of the erotic continued to flourish in art throughout the 16 th to 18 th century. The subject matter for which erotic tones were used for stayed fairly consistent during this long period. In the 18 th century the French Court encouraged artists to create works dealing with love and sexual pleasures. Some of the French artists stayed with the traditional portrayal of eroticism through mythological and religious subject matter. Other artists created a new way to portray eroticism through art by using aspects of French court life or the implication of love making as their subject matter.
The nude remains an important subject in contemporary art. In twentieth and twenty-first century presentations, the nude has become a vehicle for complex social, societal and self-image issues. It has been influenced by the changing mores and sexual emancipation of society brought on by the feminist movement, the gay movement, the rise of AIDS, and the increase of violence in all aspects of society. Its influence on our values and morals is unquestioned, even in the face of mounting opposition. Artists continue to push the envelope of what is considered socially acceptable in the name of expression. The line between nudity as an artistic expression and nudity as pornography has blurred considerably since the first nude subject was created.
However, the fact remains that our expression and interpretation of nudity and the human body were shaped by earlier artists.