Ideals of Beauty: The Nude

  • Emil Ganso (American, b.1895, d.1941) Lingerie, 1932 Color lithograph 16 x 21 1-2" (sheet) Museum Purchase, 1986, Leo Meissner Fund, 1986.13
March 01, 2014 - January 04, 2015
Library Gallery

 Since the first known depictions of the nude female form were sculpted in Europe over thirty thousand years ago, the human form in its most primeval state has captivated the human imagination and inspired scores of artists seeking to capture, render, interpret, and understand its mystery. Over the millennia, the outpouring of artistic creativity that has emerged in virtually all media, from the visual to the performing arts and beyond, is as vast and diverse as the nude itself, and has defined (and challenged) some of art history’s most sacred and profane moments. 

From its multi-faceted role in religion, in myth and legend, and as an art history staple, the nude in all its vulnerable glory has symbolized and idealized many things, including fertility, heroism, desire, shame, love, and beauty. This exhibition, all from the holdings of the Farnsworth Art Museum, makes a modest attempt to explore one of those ideals—the ideal of beauty.
From the fluid, classical sensuality of John Adams Jackson’s Eve to the soft intimacy of George Bellows Girl on a Flowered Cushion, to the austere aggressiveness of Leonard Baskin’s Apollo, to the overt sensuality of Emil Ganso’s Lingerie, toNeil Welliver’s whimsical Floating Women, it seems that the visual experience of beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder.
Part of the fascination with the nude is how its function and perception has evolved over the centuries. The concept of the nude as art in and of itself is basically a phenomenon that arose in Western civilization, and with that Western perceptions of the nude form come into play. How the nude is interpreted is a reflection of our cultural, social and religious beliefs, and varies, often radically, from culture to culture, and generation to generation.  
Today, how we view ancient depictions of nudity, and the female form in particular, is often with a far different visual lens then that of our ancestors. While the Paleolithic artist defined the corpulent female nude as an ideal of fertility (such as the diminutive Venus de Willendorf sculpture made circa 25,000 BCE in Austria), it is the art of the Classical word that defined, albeit unintentionally, Western ideals of beauty. While there is no denying the breathtakingly beautiful form and execution of such Classical Greek sculptures, there was a real dichotomy between how the sexes were depicted. The nude male predominated, and in particular represented mythic idealizations of majesty and heroic valor as exemplified by the gods of Olympus, Homeric warriors and heroes, real-life Olympic champions and in some cases, homoerotic love. With the exception of the goddess Aphrodite, it was considered in bad taste, even then, to depict the female nude (a trend, like the depiction of the sexes, that lasted for many centuries), although sensual draping or partial disrobing was acceptable.
The rise of Christianity brought a very different concept of nudity to depictions of both the male and female form. Far from being only a symbol of fertility and a mythical source of beauty and heroic valor, nudity was associated with the sin inherent in the fall of Adam and Eve, and in depictions of the Last Judgment and the profane depths of hell, where to be devoid of clothing was only the beginning of eternal damnation.
During the Renaissance, many artists harkened back to Classical antiquity for inspiration, and the nude, the idealized female in particular, found favor once again, led by artists such as Botticelli (and his remarkable Venus de Milo), Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci and Titan. Since then, the Classical world has remained a point of reference, and the portrayal of the nude, both male and female, has ascended in popularity, using new techniques, forms, and styles. From the natural to the sensual, from the dramatic to shocking, from the provocative to the pornographic, artists continue to push the boundaries and challenge our perceptions of just what beauty is, and what it is not.
Exhibition organized by Angela Waldron, Registrar