The realistic Nude

Disappointment with machine aesthetics after the First World War led many artists in the 1920s and 1930s to give up experimenting with abstracted human forms. The focus on realistic representation became known in France as Retour à l’ordre (Return to Order) and in Germany as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). 

For some of the realist painters, individualized portraits of the nude body also offered an opportunity to expand and further dissect the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis by illuminating the views and thoughts of the subjects in their works and providing insight into their inner world. Others, against the background of existentialism, were more concerned with precisely locating their figures in space through intensive observation.

In realism, the nude also served as a means of symbolism to address the grim reality of the Second World War and its consequences. The painters used biblical stories about God’s servants, condemned to eternal suffering, to create works full of political messages. These paintings from the post-war period bear witness to the fact that people’s everyday lives had changed forever. 

Neel was just as frustrated by the marginalization of female artists as she was by the fixed female stereotypes. In her works, she broke with the conventional depiction of flawless female bodies.
Her portrait depicts Ethel Ashton as a tall, plump figure who appears timid and awkward. The angle chosen by Neel shows her model from above, to the side of the center of the picture, distorting her features and emphasizing the flabbiness of her voluptuous figure. The bright white light entering the picture from the right accentuates the folds of skin and emphasizes the fullness of the body. Dark contour lines further emphasize the model’s physical imperfections. Neel shows here a new, unusually realistic image of femininity that is vulnerable and strong at the same time, not beautiful, but authentic.

Born in Normandy, Jean Hélion was a prominent abstract artist in the 1930s and a member of the Abstraction-Création group. The “Nude with loaves of bread” is one of several works in which the female form is juxtaposed with ordinary but mysterious objects.
Hélion saw parallels between the desire for the body and food, a preoccupation that emerged from his experience as a prisoner of war. As his notes reveal, he was also interested in the relationship between man and woman, recognizable here in the contrasting forms of the trousers and the petticoat. The naked woman appears to be observed by an invisible male figure, implying an erotic tension. The man’s carelessly placed shoe forms a contrast to the petticoat, but also serves to establish the “homage to the nude. […] Perhaps he is on his knees in the place of the viewer, admiring.” The voyeuristic ‘male gaze’ on the female body is depicted.