Capitoline Hercules, 4th century BC – photo by Mary Harrsch
When we do events for organisations we are sometimes asked for a draped model, the organisers fear that some member of their group will be offended. We always prefer working from the nude, drapes break the line of the figure and make it harder to understand what the morphology is doing, essential when you are learning to draw; that is our main concern. But then when you have spent decades squinting at the naked human form you forget the impact that nudity can have on the unaccustomed eye.
We know that in some countries nudity is kind of, ‘whatever’ and in others it’s seen as an abomination. All the indications point to the problem, when it arises, being sex.
Greek art was positively writhing with heroic nudity and when the Renaissance exploded in Europe, the nude, often inspired by the great works of the classical period, had a central place. Whilst you could argue that the divine is expressed through the perfection of human form it also has to be accepted that amongst the piety and aesthetics of beauty there is an element of “Phwoar!”
We are complex beings are we not? We may aspire to purity but comingled with the higher thought are the procreative urges, alas!
But one of the things that is so brilliant about what remains of our civilisation is the way that we have the freedom to choose. Confronted with the naked human form we respond at many levels, in our experience, artists do not generally choose the path of prurience. They choose to discover the naked humanity of their model and engage wordlessly with it. They want to gaze, explore, understand and describe. The study of the nude is an enquiry and celebration not only of the model but of the artist too.
The awakened artist will be aware that whilst we may have the weakness of flesh, what sets us apart from the beasts is our ability to choose to be more than bestial. The ability to integrate the full sweep of our humanity is what can make us divine.