One of the very first things I learned in my art history classes at college was the difference between "naked" and "nude." Really, it was something I knew intuitively. Bodily, you might say. But of the many reasons that studying art history was good for me, one of them is that took my visceral experiences -- awe, repulsion, knee-shaking vulnerability before beauty -- and pushed me into articulating what I felt. That is, to see what I felt. To know these feelings, and to make friends with them.
Art History 101: The basic story about naked : nude is this: A nude is a human figure that is idealized, prettified, and dependent on the viewer's admiration. Take, for example, Titian's 1538 oil painting, "Venus of Urbino."
Naked, on the other hand, is the bare human figure full of agency: a being independent of the gaze from us viewers. Consider, for example, Manet's "Olympia" from 1863 (which is a direct reference to Titian's classical painting):
See how she's naked, and not "a nude"? She looks directly, unflinchingly, un-shyly, back at the viewer who is looking at her. Particularly with her left hand, she makes clear that she is possessive about her own body. But she's also not tensed-up or cowering: she looks awfully self-assured. She isn't interested in the flowers that someone has had delivered to her. The lighting is stark, not warm like the light that Venus is bathing in.
I got to thinking again about the fundamentals of nakedness after reading Amanda Palmer's wonderful blog post about it: "Art, Nakedness & Museums, Oh My! (Warning: Contains Art, Nakedness & Museums, Oh My!)" Somebody had the inspired idea of having Palmer do the voice of the audio tour of the new exhibition of "Degas and the Nude" at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The occasion prompts Palmer to reckon with her own experiences with nudity nakedness and art, to think on what Degas was up to with his explorations of bodies as bodies, and to do her own bit of modeling in the Degas exhibition hall as husband Neil Gaiman sketches in pastels. I used to get to hang out at the Boston MFA all the time, and I'm utterly envious that it is no longer in my neighborhood -- so I will neither get to see this show, nor get all naked in the gallery. Curséd luck! But Boston friends, get thee over to Huntington Avenue! Find joy and inspiration there! And in the meantime, enjoy AFP's visitation of it via her blog. Altogether, a wonderful exultation for all of us, our own skins and shapes.
It's getting colder over here in Detroit. I've been piling layers of wool clothing and blankets on my body to keep my own skin warm. I'm walking around clothes-less a lot less than usual. But I know that even with my shirts and sweaters and doubled-up socks and hiking boots, I'm naked all the while, whether it's seen or not. So are you.