Nudes fascinate and outrage; excite and inspire. Depicting unclothed bodies offers virtually infinite possibilities for rendering our perception of ourselves and expressing our ideals, fears and dreams. Nudes form a specific artistic genre that constantly reinvents itself to communicate social, political, and aesthetic matters.

Nude, the [njuːd] (engl = Akt): Glossar According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a nude is a picture or other piece of art showing a person who is not wearing any clothes.


Historical Nude

Learning from the past

Until the 20th century, artists who intended to depict unclothed human bodies without infringing on social and moral rules had to embed their nudes in biblical, classical, or literary contexts. Such works assign gender-specific roles to the figures: men have active and heroic attitudes, while women seem passive and vulnerable.

Male Gaze, the [meɪl geɪz]: Definition of male gaze in the Cambridge Dictionary: “the fact of showing or watching events or looking at women from a man’s point of view”, and to sexualise the female body.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896) Der fahrende Ritter, 1870 The Knight Errant, 1870 Tate. Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 Foto: Tate

The Knight Errant, a work by Sir John Everett Millais that figures a naked woman modestly looking away as an armoured knight cuts her bonds, caused a sensation when it was presented to the public. Although the character of the knight-errant is common in medieval literature and the woman on the painting is rendered in a passive and submissive attitude that meets the standards of the 19th-century art, critics felt that she was too life-like and assumed that she had loose morals.

Interestingly, recent x-ray photographs of the painting show that in the original version of the work, the woman had a clearly more active attitude, turning towards the knight and establishing direct eye contact with him. However, as the painting did not sell, Millais retouched his work and adapted it to the mores of his time and to the male gaze.

August Rodin (1840-1917)
Der Kuss, 1901-1904
The Kiss, 1901-1904
Tate. Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and public contributions 1953
Foto: Tate

Private nude

Nudes in private settings

Artists of the early 20th century broke with the traditional approach creating nudes staged in private settings and focused on intimacy, desire and naturalness. The Kiss, a sculpture by Auguste Rodin, figures two lovers concentrated exclusively on themselves and their desire. This work, with its erotic charge, idealises physical love. However, it conceals the tragic dimension of illicit passions as described in The Divine Comedy by the 14th-century Italian writer Dante Alighieri: the jealous husband of the adulterous woman kills the lovers, who fall to hell. Which suggests a question that remains pertinent today: what is more important in a work of art, morality, or the rendering of sensuality?

The most important thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble and to live. To be a human rather than just an artist.

Edgar Degas, Frau im Waschzuber, 1883 Woman in a Tub, 1883 Tate. Bequeathed by Mrs E.F. Kessler 1983 Foto: Tate

In artworks depicting women bathing or washing themselves, the figures seem unaware that somebody is watching at them; the viewpoint is that of a voyeur observing a scene through a keyhole.

Towards the end of his career, Edgar Degas created several such nudes, in particular the finely executed pastel presented here. It was part of a series shown at an Impressionism exhibition held in Paris in 1886. Some art critics praised Degas for depicting credible, modern women, while others complained about the ugliness of the models and insinuated that they were prostitutes. In this pastel, however, there is no reference to the woman’s social status. What is your opinion?

Bathing is an everyday, yet very private activity and women depicted as bathing at home seem to forget the world around them. Pictures by Edgar Degas stand out for the sensual movements of the figures, but this does not apply to works by Pierre Bonnard, especially that figuring the painter’s wife Marthe motionless in a bathtub. However, this painting possibly refers to the water therapy that physicians recommended to heal her tuberculosis. But the question remains: how does it feel to watch strangers bathing?

Voyeurismus, der [vo̯ajøˈʁɪsmʊs], (fr. voir = see): a person who takes sexual pleasure from secretly watching other people in sexual situations, or (more generally) a person who watches other people’s private lives.

Otto Mueller (1874-1930) Badende (Zwei Akte im Dickicht), 1915 Bathers (Two nudes in the Undergrowth), 1915 LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur, Münster Foto: LWL-MKuK/Hanna Neander

Even when observing pictures that figure bathers in natural settings, we remain passive viewers of a scene, not certain whether we are voyeurs or not.
Members of the artists’ group Die Brücke painted many nudes. Rejecting academic art and artificial poses, they intended to study the unclothed human body in all its simplicity and freshness in natural settings. To achieve this goal, they favoured dark contour lines and a flat, compact painting style. Today, we appreciate the joie de vivre that radiates from these paintings, even if we question the clichés that they carry and are not sure whether we are intruders in the figures’ private spheres. Such questions arise from the issues related to child modelling and the stereotypical depiction of Romani people.

David Bomberg (1890–1957) Das Schlammbad, 1914 The Mud Bath, 1914 Tate. Purchased 1964 Foto und ©: Tate

modern nude

Modern art perspectives

In the age of Modern Art, painters experimented a great deal with form. No longer compelled to embed nudes in any historical or narrative contexts, they were free to represent the unclothed human body using various abstract approaches. But how abstract can a nude be if it is still to be recognised as such?

I appeal to a Sense of Form. In some of the works I show in the first room, I completely abandon Naturalism and Tradition. I am searching for an Intenser expression. In other works in this room, where I use Naturalistic Form, I have stripped it of all irrelevant matter. […] My object is the construction of Pure Form.

Picasso abandoned the classical perspective inherited from the Renaissance. By splitting the body into various geometrical forms, he succeeded in creating several simultaneous perspectives, which is not possible in reality. In the painting presented here, the face of the woman—Picasso’s muse Marie-Thérèse Walter—is double, whereby the right half may be either the model herself or her lover, kissing her lips.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Weiblicher Akt im roten Sessel, 1932 Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932 Tate. Purchased 1953 ©Succession Picasso / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023 Foto: Tate

Avantgarde, die [avɑ̃ˈɡaʁdə]:ideas, styles, and methods that are very original or modern in comparison to the period in which they happen. This applies in particular to 20th-century art movements that promoted progressive and radical politics and criticised the dominant aesthetic norms.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) Die Ungewissheit des Dichters, 1913 The Uncertainty of the Poet, 1913 Tate. Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund (Eugene Cremetti Fund), the Carroll Donner Bequest, the Friends of the Tate Gallery and members of the public 1985 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023 Foto: Tate

Surrealist artists used nudes to explore the various facets of a dream-like world. The unclothed bodies in their works seem strange and alien, which is in line with the definition of the term “surrealism”: superior or higher reality. The surrealist movement included not only painters, but also writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

1. The sculpture in the painting by De Chirico is a torso of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.

2. This ancient work contrasts with the passing train in the background, which refers to the present.

3. Shadows and a distorted perspective undermine the conventions of pictorial space and time.


Traces of life

Sir William Coldstream (1908–1987) Liegender Akt, 1974-1976 Reclining Nude, 1974–1976 Tate. Purchased 1976 © Estate of Sir William Coldstream. All rights reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images Foto: Tate

Most realistic nudes are rooted in the present and convey an impression of authenticity. Such works figure people in real life, which contrasts with historical idealised paintings or abstract and experimental Modern Art nudes. Sir William Coldstream intended to render unclothed bodies as objectively as possible in his works. In the painting presented here, this is most evident in the red dots that he used to measure the proportions of the model’s body, and have become active parts of the work. The fact that many of Coldstream’s paintings remain unfinished may suggest that the intended perfection is hardly achievable.

When I look at a body I know it gives me choices of what to put in a painting; what will suit me and what won’t. There is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so.

Sir Hamo Thornycroft (1850–1925) Teukros, 1881 Teukros, 1881 Tate. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1882 Foto: Tate

A muscular superman, fully focused on his target and seemingly invulnerable: the mythological Greek archer Teucer is considered the epitome of masculinity.

The carnal, physical nature of the human body, the materiality of its skin, muscles and tissues, is involved in many aspects of human life.

Beauty ideal, : the way people understand beauty of the face and body at a particular time in a particular culture.

Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017) Family Jules: NNN, 1974 No Naked N******, 1974 Tate. Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of the North American Acquisitions Committee, 2015 © Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York Foto: Tate

The model, George Jules Taylor, sits naked and relaxed on a sofa; his coolness provides his nudity with an inconspicuous touch; he gazes at us with his chin raised as he smokes. Is this attitude provocative or does it allow us to approach the young man without tension?

In the 1970s, Barkley L. Hendrick created several portraits of George Jules Taylor that express the dignity, pride and self-confidence of people of colour. Since that time, a growing number of exhibitions have been organised specifically to feature people from various non-white communities.

Francis Bacon (1909–1992) Liegende Frau, 1961 Reclining Woman, 1961 Tate. Purchased 1961 © The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023 Foto: Tate

In this work by Francis Bacon, an unclothed figure melts into an organic mass. In spite of the title, Reclining Woman, the work originally represented a man, as the artist subsequently covered over the figure’s genitalia with a thin layer of paint. Also unusual is the fact that the figure was cut from another canvas and pasted onto this one, onto which Bacon painted the background.
political nude

Negotiating roles

Sylvia Sleigh (1916-2010) Paul Rosano, liegend, 1974 Paul Rosano Reclining. 1974 Tate. Purchased with the support of the Estate of Sylvia Sleigh 2015 Foto und ©: Tate

Art has a political dimension and is a mirror of its time. Over centuries, many artworks have showed naked women painted by men for men, but things started to change in the 1970s. The rise of feminism initiated a political debate about nudity that intended to challenge sexual and race stereotypes. Still today, roles are being renegotiated.

Empowerment , the [ɪmˈpaʊə.mənt]: the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you.

In 1989, the feminist artist group Guerilla Girls had large-scale posters affixed to New York buses that asked the question: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” The campaign intended to draw the public’s attention to the deplorable fact that, although museums exhibit many pictures of naked women, their collections include very few works created by female artists. The question asked by Guerilla Girls remains pertinent today—probably more than ever.

Why have there been no great women artists?

Alice Neel (1900–1984) Kitty Pearson, 1973 Kitty Pearson, 1973 Tate. Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Hartley and Richard Neel, the artist’s sons 2004 © The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel and David Zwirner Foto: Tate

Alice Neel portrayed her colleague Kitty Pearson directly and unfiltered, without concealing the model’s lack of confidence and awaiting attitude. What message do her gaze and body language convey?

Female artists remained the exception until well into the 20th century. In 1971, this prompted Linda Nochlin to publish an article sarcastically entitled: Why have there been no great women artists? The answer in just a few words: over centuries, talent in art was judged by men who excluded women artists from museums and art history. One of Nolchin’s specific arguments fits the context of the present exhibition: history painting used to be considered the highest artistic genre and the most suitable for artists to evidence their talent. As women had no opportunities to paint nudes, compulsorily embedded in historical contexts over centuries, they were unable to demonstrate their genius.

Linda Nochlin is therefore considered a trailblazer in feminist art history. However, it took more than forty years for museums and scholars to begin reconsidering the question. Even the present exhibition shows more works by male than by female artists, especially from past centuries.

LGBTQI+ , [el.dʒiː.biːˈtiː kjuː aɪ plʌs]: abbreviation for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and more”.

Zanele Muholi’s work focuses on the concerns of the South African LGBTQI+ community and includes intimate portraits of (transgender) women, most of whom remain anonymous.
Zanele Muholi (geb. 1972) Bona, Charlottesville, 2015 Bona, Charlottesville, 2015 Tate. Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquistions Committee 2017 Foto und © Zanele Muholi, Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson, New York
vulnerable nude

Vulnerable people

Tracey Emin (geb.1963) Das Letzte, was ich zu dir sagte, war, lass mich hier nicht zurück II The Last Thing I Said to You was Don’t Leave Me Here II, 2000 Tate. Presented anonymously 2002 © Tracey Emin. All rights reserved / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023 Foto: Tate

While ancient artists created nudes that embodied an idealising approach to beauty, the profane depiction of unclothed people was considered a sin in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, examples of sacred art depicting Adam and Eve without clothes, or Jesus Christ almost naked on the cross, intended to show how vulnerable humans can be. Contemporary artists still render our vulnerability, thus expressing a variety of fears that exist across society.

The camera looks down on a naked woman huddled in a corner of a ramshackle hut. The close-up centering heightens the creepy atmosphere. This self-portrait by Tracey Emin triggers protective instincts, as we wonder “What’s going on here?” The photograph’s title, The Last Thing I Said to You was Don’t Leave Me Here II, opens up several levels of interpretation.

Although artists usually express their own feelings and values in self-portraits, that of Emin presented here conveys the impression that it also reveals the public’s gaze. The artist explores her own biography, starting with her childhood. This may be uncomfortable for many people, but creating such artworks enables her to overcome traumas.

Talking about his work, John Coplans once stated: “I photograph my body. I generalize it by beheading myself to make my body more like any other man’s.” In the case of this series, it is the body of the 70-year-old artist, fragmented and squeezed into picture frames that seem a little too tight.

John Coplans (1920-2003) Selbstporträt (Fries Nr. 2, vier Tafeln) Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 2, Four Panels), 1994 Tate. Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 2001 Foto und ©: The John Coplans Trust

John Coplans (1920-2003) Selbstportät (Füße frontal), 1984 Self-Portrait (Feet Frontal),1984 Foto und ©: The John Coplans Trust

How do we affirm our presence in the world? How do we relate to others? How do we form our identity? In a time when selfies are touched-up and optimised, imperfections are rarely acceptable, and showing the ephemeral nature of human life is tantamount to breaking a taboo. Yet our body changes during our lifetime and neither tummy tucking nor a special pose really help, if we are honest. Have we developed a new type of shame, now that bodies idealised through digital processing have become omnipresent?

Nude as a statement

Artists have been creating nudes for thousands of years, albeit the media and techniques involved have changed over time. The relationship between artists and models also changed during the 20th century. Moreover, as their relationship is no longer determined by a one-sided, dominant gaze, artists are able to give a voice to a variety of people, thus creating a platform to talk about social and historical issues, including racism and discrimination.

Dealing with desire, truth, mortality and equality, the nude expresses identities and enables us to be ever more aware of social diversity.

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