So, why do I paint nudes?
Why do I feature nude figures in so many of my paintings, from my Relationships Series to the recent Disasters of War? It would certainly be easier to market my artwork if I just painted landscapes: no more polite rejections from venues; no shadowbans from Instagram. But no subject interests me quite as much as the human figure.
I have always been fascinated with depictions of the human form in art. Maybe it started with my early love of comics, and the idealised perfection of superhuman figures cavorting across their pages. It might have been when I first set eyes on Tintoretto’s or Titian’s glorious mythological masterpieces in the National Gallery. It was a fascination cemented by my introduction to life drawing at art school.
But the nude is a complicated subject in the 21st Century. It would be naive to suggest we can continue to paint the nude figure as it has always been painted. Many of the naked figures that now adorn the walls of our galleries were originally produced as thinly veiled titillation for their wealthy owners. I have started to question my own motivations for painting certain figures nude. When I work on paintings about the “male gaze” I cannot ignore the fact that I am a man, and I might have the same prejudices that I happily mock in other people.
The Nude in Modern Art
I was taught at art school that Manet’s Olympia (shown above) was one of the first modern nudes in art. With no pretence of being an otherworldly goddess, this was a contemporary naked woman staring right back at the viewer. Manet was probably prepared for the outrage it caused, having provoked a similar scandal with his “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe”. I read an interesting article about that painting and the controversy it caused on Artsy.net
When looking at the nude throughout the history of western art, you can see how the perception of the naked body in art depends on when and where the viewer was from. The nude becomes more like a dynamic idea, and the forces that alter our perception of the nude are changing all the time. In my short career as an artist I have had to reassess my own approach to the subject a couple of times.
Artists will always push boundaries
Just as Manet created a stir in the Salon, artist Marina Abramović caused some discomfort amongst visitors to her Royal Academy exhibition. by making them squeeze between two nude models to enter it (as in the photo above). It’s an interesting idea – remove the option for the viewer to remain a detached observer; force them to confront the nakedness of the models’ bodies. In news coverage of this long awaited retrospective, this unusual entrance has become the headline: “Visitors invited to squeeze through naked models”
In a world awash with pornographic images on the internet, I wonder what boundaries artists have left to push in visual art. Good art should challenge us, and should test our sensibilities. But gratuitous nudity can be tiresome, and it is something I try to be alert to in my own work..
My professional art practice started with my Relationships Series paintings, where I explored the relationship between two figures within a composition in both a spatial and an emotional sense (an example shown above). This series had started as an honest portrayal of my own relationship with my partner, but at some point I began to question my own motivation and objectives.
As the series had developed, and featured different “couples”, I became aware that the interpretation of most viewers was overwhelmingly sexual, which wasn’t really my intention. I am proud of the paintings I produced with this body of work, but decided I needed to take my work in a different direction.
You can see paintings from this series here: Relationships Gallery
Objectification and #selflove
Over the years I have received various commissions for nude portraits. The main motivations for women were self-empowerment and body positivity, which I respect and admire.
I started a project called “Unnamed Portraits” which I naively thought might facilitate the same outcome for anyone who wanted to pose. With these artworks I would purposely crop the faces from the paintings, focusing instead on the naked body. I had a good response from potential models willing to pose for me . I suspect the readiness to pose stemmed from the same motivations as my nude portrait customers – essentially wanting to feel good about your body.
However. it turned out that my original ideas – which encompassed our sense of identity, sexuality and body positivity, were more expansive than the final paintings turned out. The risk was that instead of enabling female empowerment, they were simply reinforcing male objectification.
And I missed painting the model’s face. I have always considered my nude paintings as just an extension of my portrait practice. I paused this project, and am still undecided about it.
#metoo and the male gaze
I have already written at length about my experience painting “Men in Suits”, so won’t repeat myself here (the original post is here: Men in Suits. I mention this painting as it was a defining moment in my artistic development, where I identified the themes that I wanted to explore with my art, which I went on to develop over the next couple of years. This painting took so long to finish that the main motivation behind it – the #metoo movement – had long since disappeared from the headlines.
Misogyny and male menace are pervasive in our patriarchal society. #metoo might not be on the frontpages now, but the underlying causes for the movement are still there. You can see some of my paintings that deal with these issues here: Recent Work
Nakedness and Vulnerability
So why did I include so many naked figures in my latest painting The Disasters of War? The keyword here is naked. These figures are naked, exposed and vulnerable. Their nakedness has been forced on them as an act of humiliation and degradation.
But despite this and their terrible situation, they preserve a sense of quiet dignity; there is a beauty about them. The figure on the left is based on Rubens’ Christ Descending from the Cross.
Although the naked figures are in no way sexualised, I wanted there to be an erotic undertone to the masked female figure wielding the knife. This alludes to the base instincts and urges that are feeding this awful war. When I witness the raptures of joy displayed with every killed soldier, I wonder just how close sex and violence are on the spectrum of primal instincts.
The theme that I keep returning to in my recent work is male menace, and male objectification of women. These character traits (or flaws) have always been around. I cringe when I think about what was considered acceptable behaviour when I was young. I shudder to think of all the times when I acted inappropriately, especially when in a group of men.
I have featured the likes of Prince Andrew in a number of my paintings, calling out his bad behaviour. But these paintings are really about all men. We are all culpable, including myself. This is why in my painting Men in Suits I included myself in the back, amongst the various sex pests and offenders. I also added a masked figure, who could well represent you, the viewer.
The layout above was my proposal for the Concord Art Prize – a competition for artworks inspired by a piece of music. My proposition was inspired by The Rite of Spring – a composition that has everything. Starting with a joyful innocence it builds up slowly, ending in a dizzying climax – a frantic menacing finale. It was going to be the convergence of a number of themes that run through my work: beauty; sexuality; lechery; male menace.
It’s one of my biggest disappointments that this proposal wasn’t accepted. I feel confident that it would have been an interesting project. I wrote more about the painting here: Rite of Spring