Who broke the nude rules?

Clare Gosling: To explore this question I am going to draw reference from the painting The Bathers by Gustave Courbet, 1853.

Up until the painting The Bathers was presented, nudes continued to be depicted in the same way. Painters of the nude stuck to a very specific arrangement of the body, and abided by the ‘rules’ of how a nude should be presented. Timothy J. Clark outlines what these ‘rules’ were.

                “The spectator’s access to the presented body has to be arranged rather precisely; and this is done first through a certain arrangement of distance, which must be neither to great nor too small; and then through the placing of the naked body at a determinate height, which in turn produces a specific relation to the viewer. The body, again, must not be too high – put up on some fictive pedestal – nor too low, otherwise it may turn into an object of mere scrutiny, or humiliation – laid out on the dissecting table of sight.”(Timothy J. Clark)

Timothy is referring here to the typical repeated image of the nude, in which any woman is placed on a bed lying on her side with her body is facing the viewer. The eye contact  of the nude looks out of the painting and directly at the viewer. In this instance, and up until The Bathers came about, I would argue that women were placed in painting and were painted simply as an object – a nude object.

Courbet tried to break these conventional ‘nude rules’ by painting the woman depicted in The Bathers as a naked and ‘real’ woman. Courbet was trying to show this woman as a naked person with her own mind and opinion. I feel he wanted to show a woman that refused to be seen by the viewer as a nude object, instead as a naked person. The figure turns her back on the viewer and walks away with her hand held out as if to say ‘enough of the nude’.  He illustrates this point very well. The woman is empowered by being naked and not being nude. Timothy J. Clark writes about Courbet breaking these rules.

                “But The Bathers broke the rules of the nude in other ways, which were hardly more subtle, but perhaps more effective. It seemed to be searching for ways to establish the nude in opposition to the spectator, in active refusal of his sight. It did so grossly, clumsily, but not without some measure of success, so that at the critic at the time who called the woman ‘this heap of matter, powerfully rendered, who turns her back with cynicism on the spectator ‘ had got the matter right. The pose and the scale and the movement of the figure end up being a positive aggression, a resistance to vision in normal terms.” (Timothy J. Clark)

By Clare Gosling

Quotes taken from Art in Modern Culture – an anthology of critical texts, edited by Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, printed in 1992 by Phaidon Press Limited Selection and editorial material the Open University, P114


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