The Naked and the Nude

Utamaro, Shunga

Utamaro, Shunga

Sir Kenneth Clark opens his book The Nude, with the following phrase:

The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.

These few sentences contain so many ill thought assumptions as to be a compendium of all that is wrong when making an intelligent assessment of why depictions of naked women have had such ascendency in western art and why the legacy of this convention makes so many women in today’s sexually saturated society so uncomfortable. He goes on to comment that:

There are naked figures in the paintings of the far east; but only by an extension of the term can they be called nudes.In Japanese prints they are part of ukiyo-e, which includes without comment certain intimate scenes usually allowed to pass unrecorded. The idea of offering the naked body for its own sake simply did not occur to the Japanese mind…

Clark footnotes this observation by stating that no western artist (even at his crudest) would seek such specialisation – a fact he attaches to the legacy of Greek notions of wholeness. Jonathon Jones revives Clark’s old argument in the Guardian Newspaper this week whilst reviewing a recent publication by art historian Frances Borzello called The Naked Nude.

Guercino, Susannah and the Elders

Guercino, Susannah and the Elders

If we look at the now popularly recognised shunga of Utamaro and at one of Clark’s exemplars of the nude, perhaps it will be possible to understand the indelicacy that made the art historian so tetchy and uncomfortable that he felt moved to write a whole book about it. The western nude is pretty much exclusively concerned with what Laura Mulvey described as ‘The Male Gaze’. Mulvey proposes that in film, women are typically the objects, rather than the possessors of gaze because the control of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres. The same assumptions can be made about the history of easel painting.  Western painting developed a taste for nude subjects following the early modern expansion of capitalist models of social organisation. These models, as in contemporary culture, assumed and reflected a male heterosexual audience who were both wealthy and empowered as consumers and who required by deft sleight of mind, a rubric within which to legitimise a taste for voluptuous female flesh. Of course two things enabled this to happen even in a restrictive Christian society; namely the classical past and the idealisation of form. These are the two tenets that Clark spends four hundred pages attempting to post-rationalise. For Clark (and the English middle classes he both informed and reflected) there is an embarrassment in the flesh… The word “nude,” on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. There is no such embarrassment for the Japanese artist; not (as Clark would argue) because of moral inferiority, but for quite the opposite reason. We can really only marvel at a culture as sophisticated as that of Edo Japan, lacking the kind of gendered difference in sexual relations that has enslaved so many women in the west to be the objects of obsessive visual consumption.

Utamaro, Shunga

Utamaro, Shunga

The uses of shunga remain disputed. There is evidence that hand-painted sexual art works were used as part of the marriage trousseau and this tradition may have lingered on, to be replaced by printed ukiyo-e, which is likely to have been used by individuals and couples as a sex aid. Nevertheless, unlike their covert western equivalents, Japanese shunga was produced on a vast scale by the best artists of the day and with the tacit approval of the state. What fascinates about Japanese pornographic art is (as Clark points out) the absence of the solitary female nude.  Even in the most explicit shunga there is little or no nudity; to be clothed and to reveal was considered a highly sexually charged situation. Nudity in Japan was commonplace, with women and men scantily clad in the summer months, and mixed bathing and public washing commonplace. The naked form was therefore divested of its power to titillate. The act of having sex however was highly regarded and there was nothing shameful about both sexes enjoying sexual encounters. It is hard to think of western images of the female orgasm or of female arousal whilst Japanese art is full of explicit representations of just that. Of course from a cultural point of view and based on this evidence alone, one can only conclude that sex between men and women in Edo Japan was mutually enjoyable and mutually desired, that it was also considerate, free of shame and socially acceptable at every level.

Fragonard, The Swing

Fragonard, The Swing

In contrast, sexual activity in the west is almost completely absent in visual representations. It is however obsessively interested in looking. Voyeurism is a constant theme in western painting, almost from the invention of the easel and canvas. Whether it is through carefully chosen classical motifs such as Diana Disturbed at her Bath or of Susannah and the Elders (where the voyeur is depicted – as in The Swing by Fragonard, pictured right), or simply in the representation of a naked woman where the viewer is left to do the looking, we in the west are all voyeurs and in that moment we are complicit in what is a shameful act. Tradition has taught us (and Clark) however, that the covert gaze – this intrusive act – is somehow less shameful than actually having sex. In the west, our confused and shaming attitudes to women have left a legacy in the way in which women are portrayed; in advertising, in the media and in pornography (we persist in making these false hierarchies; as between erotica and pornography). Whether it is the countless millions of jpegs of naked women available on line or the glossy ads in FHM Magazine, these depictions of women are all the legitimate heirs of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens. Clark attempts to legitimise his covert voyeurism and sexual shame by making a semantic distinction between the naked and the nude;  and his embarrassment at the overt sexual content of Japanese ukiyo-e says a great deal about Christian guilt and nothing at all about art.

Lely, Nell Gwynne

Lely, Nell Gwynne

All references to Kenneth Clark’s The Nude are from Clark, The Nude, Penguin 1993.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, Kenneth Clarke, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Naked and the Nude

  1. Dylan Thomas Hayden says:

    I very much enjoy your blog and this is an interesting post. If you haven’t read it I would highly recommend “Sex and the Floating World” by TImon Screech as a fascinating examination of shunga, their uses and the culture in which they were created.

  2. Pingback: Japanese Art and Western Art: The Naked and the Nude | Modern Tokyo Times

  3. Pingback: Now you see it, Now you Can’t… Shunga at the British Museum | Toshidama Japanese Prints

  4. Pingback: Now you see it, Now you Can’t… Shunga at the British Museum | Modern Tokyo Times

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