Sir Kenneth Clark's closely-argued and intelligent volume on the development of the nude traces both a central strand of art criticism and presents a view of life. Perhaps the book is more interesting in the insights it implies into the nature of man, for attempts to create empathy with a personal reaction to works of art are not always entirely convincing.
Perhaps a significant difference between our age and the so-called "classic" eras, indeed, between any culture and another, lies in attitudes toward physical beauty. American life and letters are largely centered on sex, but the failure of contemporary art, especially public sculpture--for most sculpture has always been public--to find especial satisfaction and success in depicting the human form points toward a loss of feeling for the plastics of human beauty. What seems to intrigue us often is a sort of peeping-tom attitude, that seems to offer delight in a sort of pseudo-wickedness, yet is extremely embarrassed by acknowledgement of the physical facts. Clark refreshingly does not share this attitude nor disparage the sensual aspects of the art of the nude. "No nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling."
But the necessity and depth of this "pure form" in the art of the nude is clearly underlined. Perhaps the central theme of the work is an insistence that the nude is one of the most austere problems of design. The bulk of his analysis argues the continuity of this almost abstract design in the nude throughout Western art. He finds echoes of the design of the influencial classical works--Knidian Aphrodite, Laocoon, Apollo Belvedere, et al.--repeated and reworked, reasserting themselves after generations or even centuries. The most striking example of this that he gives is a comparison of a nude on a 4th century Greek mirror with a Picasso line drawing. Almost every gesture finds its antecedent and is copied and built upon almost unconsciously.
Discussing the distinction between "naked" and "nude," he insists that the nude must be an idealization, and that this ideal beauty is a tangible vision though varying from culture to culture, that the nude is "a means of affirming the belief in ultimate perfection."
The nude, then, need not only hymn what a marvelous work is man, but also how pathetic. The emotions that shape the internal world in which every man lives are perhaps most tellingly portrayed in art in terms of the human body. By one's very close to it, one cannot think otherwise. "Our continuous effort to keep ourselves balanced upright on our legs affects every judgment on design. The disposition of areas in the torso is related to our most vivid experiences, so that abstract shapes, the square and the circle, seem to us male and female, and that the old endeavor of magical mathematics to square the circle is like the symbol of physical union."
It is no accident then that we view our goods anthropomorphically, or that the removed, austere, vengeful Apollo, and the terrible tragic grandeur of Christ Crucified both find their expression in the nude form. The nude has the strength of both immediacy and severe truth--man as he really is. And as in tragedy, this essential humanness makes him essentially divine, the sort of marvelous synthesis of the flesh and spirit that gave rise to the Palatine Anthology anecdote about Praxiteles' Aphrodite," Aphrodite said, "Where did Praxiteles see me naked."
This "truth" of the nude is reenforced by the knowledge that human beauty is transitory. The Greeks felt that the human figure in its prime is the highest subject of art, but not, one suspects, from the unbalanced optimism about the powers of man for which they are often given credit, but from a sense of tragedy of the mortal before the immortal and of the fleetingness of youth and happiness.
If Clark's insights and suggestions into the philosophy of the nude are the most provocative part of the book to the general reader, the scope of Clark's analysis remains overwhelming, as well as the pleasant mixture of scholarship and iconoclasm in his tone. He writes with a simple eloquence that hides the labor of the file which must lurk in his carefully wrought phrases and comparisons. Perhaps his eloquence has the unhappy effect of making one think that the book communicates more than it does; to "explain" the Greeks, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Renoir, Picasso forces a certain glibness, even what seems like a comparatively limited aspect of art history. For if he enlarges the context of his critism perhaps too ambitiously, although on the surface and to the layman, the result is entirely happy.
The problems that he raises are the most important part of his essay. Most revealing are the changes in standards of beauty that he chronicles. The mathematical and detached nude of classical Greece decays with change in attitude toward the flesh, into the bulbous and ascetic shapes of medieval art. "The very degradation the body has suffered as a result of Christian morality served to sharpen its erotic impact. The formula of the classical ideal had been more protective than any drapery; whereas the shape of the Gothic body, which suggested that it was normally clothed, gave it the impropriety of a secret." Ergo, a rebirth of interest in the human form as a subject of art in the Renaissance, although with a different view of man implicit in every muscle, for the Renaissance--especially the Michelangelo--nude was burdened with a soul."
These problems which he delinates seem to be most central to any study of aesthetics or culture, and his often quite modest conclusions, offer food for thought, though not to be taken without careful examination. The work seems sure to become something of a classic. It is richly rewarding and provocative reading which illuminates and makes explicit a part of the world too seldom looked at with the full light of intelligence and that is critical to an understanding of what we are in physical terms, an appreciation which seems very distant from us, and yet Clark's words ring true.
Particularly to be praised are the excellent reproductions which illustrate his argument and without which it would be impossible to fully follow
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