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The Aesthetics of Nudity

Five exhibitions on show this year are dedicated to sexuality - a topic which is still up for controversy since the compulsory cover-up of naked savages centuries ago. It has posed a challenge to art since.


Sex is a challenge to art

For almost the whole of known human existence, our ancestors lived in communal nudity. Until loom technology emerged in Asia around 7,000 years ago, clothing simply wasn’t available unless one was fond of fur, which was worn by tribal villagers in colder climates. But it was not the best material for hot and humid days.

Since the invasion of western civilization, tribal people had lived happily and unashamedly nude for thousands of years. The compulsory cover-up of naked savages in the name of civilized modesty led to a sense of body shame, which at the time was an essential element in the control and conversion of native peoples - but which has prevailed throughout the centuries to the 21st century.

Rising eyebrows

Few aspects have dominated human culture to such an extent as the subject of nakedness – and the forever recurring indignation over it. Despite bare-bosomed beauties on glossy magazines, potency pills in drug stores, and easily available pornography in video stores on the corner, sex, and with it nudity, is still a topic which raises eyebrows and can lead to heated debates in modern day civilization across the world.

In Germany, a current debate over the naked human body is dividing the north German city of Hamburg. On February 2, an exhibition opens to the puplic titled "Naked – the aesthetics of nudity". Prior to the opening, Hamburg’s city transport has refused to allow posters advertising the exhibition in its trains and buses. The posters, which depict the naked torso – half photograph, half statue - of a woman, were reduced to the museums’s invitation cards. But even the mere title of the show infuriated Hamburg’s otherwise liberal citizens. According to the makers of the exhibition, the Museum for Art and Advertising, some of the members of the museum’s patrons association left the group in protest.

Fighting wars naked

But nudity was not always taboo in Europe. Those prime contributors to western civilization, the ancient Greeks, regarded the human body as artistically inspiring. For centuries they competed nude in the Olympics and at times even fought wars with nude combatants. Their cultural successors, the Romans, socialized nudity in their public baths and nudity was often part of pagan ceremony throughout pre-Christian Europe.

Early Christianity denounced the pagan’s more liberal attitude to the naked body. "Flesh" was seen as an evil temptation, especially if it was female.

This attitude to the naked body prevailed for over a millenium after the Church succeeded the Roman Empire as the driving force in western civilization. The rejection of the bare, human body mounted to absurdity in the 19th Century, when even a bit of bare leg was considered an impertinance to society. Undressing was confined to the dark and sex was for procreation, and not recreation.

But at the same time, nudity started to make a comeback in Europe - but only as a body acceptance movement, which proposed nudity as an antidote to the repressive extremes of puritan and Victorian restrictions.

The exhibition "Naked" in Hamburg reflects just this controversy. In the section "Feminity, Availability and Refusal", Japanese Photographer Hideki Fuji combines present day liberality with traditional asthetics. He depicts his Japanese nudes engaged in traditional bathing rituals, in traditional Japanese dress - touching the subject of nudity in countries where to show a bare shoulder in public was both a sin and a moral crime. In "Borderlines", the exhibition takes a look at the grey zone between erotic and pornographic art. It shows Alfons Mucha’s "Salon des Cent", a poster which depicted a bare-breasted woman, and sparked outrage in Paris in 1896.

In fact, the Hamburg exhibition focuses on 2,500 years of publically presented nudity and reflects the controversy of nakedness over two centuries. Exhibits include sculptures dating from classical antiquity to scandalous contemporary posters, exquisite Baroque figurines, Japanese coloured woodcuts to masterpieces of bibliographic art, fashion and erotic photography. With these the exhibition makes clear that a multitude of different motives were and are involved in the enterprise of presenting nudity for the public: the breaking of taboos and the attempt to shock, the visualisation of Utopias, the study of human anatomy, the
allocation of gender roles and not least sensual stimulation.

However, "Naked – the aesthetics of nudity" is not the only exhibition in Germany focusing on the subject of the bare human body.

"Sex. Knowledge and Wishes" is the title of an exhibition on show at Dresden’s Hygiene Museum. The exhibition "Prudishness and Passion" at the Art House in Munich and "The Life-reform" exhibition in Darmstadt both cover the subject of sexuality and open this spring. Which leads to the question - why does this topic seems to be of such great interest in present German culture?

Sex sells

According to the Hygiene museum in Dresden, "artistic works have frequently anticipated changes in horizons and the breakdown of taboos". The art on show in Hamburg, for example, expresses various artists’ attempts to shed light on a subject kept in the dark for more than two decades.

But in the world of television, internet and advertising, sex is increasingly becoming a tool for attracting more viewers, more users and more buyers. As sexuality becomes a realm of commercial exploitation and our knowledge over the subject expands relentlessly, Germany’s museums take a look at the changes in traditional understandings of sexuality and reflect on how sexuality has manifested itself in contemporary life.

However, the recent dicussion over the title of the exhibition "Naked" in Hamburg shows just how far we are from breaking down sexual taboos which have existed ever since naked flesh was regarded as an evil temptation in the Middle Ages.

American photographer Diane Arbus brings it to a point. In the photograph "A Retired Man and his Wife in a Nudist Camp" an elderly couple sits naked in a sitting room, the freedom of their nakedness contradicting the petty bourgeoisness of their surroundings. Simply the way they sit reveals certain attitudes still not forgotton despite the freedom of absolute nudity: the man sits, confidently, with legs apart - his wife with her knees pressed close together.