Monochrome Art Nudes; The Nude in Western Culture by Michael Bomberger

Creating nude photographic images recalls a deep and lasting artistic tradition in Western culture. The nude has been a consistent and prominent subject in Western art for centuries

Creating nude photographic images recalls a deep and lasting artistic tradition in Western culture. The nude has been a consistent and prominent subject in Western art for centuries in part because it is beautiful in its own right, and because the beauty, dignity, and grace the nude evokes is unique to each individual.

As art historian Sir Kenneth Clarke asserted in his landmark 1956 review “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form,” the nude is not merely the subject of an art form in the Western tradition, but an art form in itself. Indeed, the quest to produce images of the perfect nude for both secular and religious audiences has inspired many of the great artworks of the Western tradition. The nude, in short, is Western culture.

-The nude, done right in any medium, creates an instant emotional connection between the artist and the viewer; this connection is perhaps greater than other forms of art because it is based on deeply-held psychological notions of shared humanity, spiritual ideals, and the dichotomy of human strength and weakness. We can all feel an immediate connection to the nude because, at root, we are seeing ourselves.

-Another primary theme that the nude conveys is purity–the nude, after all, shows a more honest ideal of who we really are. The subject is seen in full view; without the embellishment of the various costumes we all put on, every day. In effect, clothes and other accessories allow us to hide behind a carefully-crafted projection of a self-chosen image of ourselves that we hope will give us special worth in the eyes of our fellow human beings. To appear strong, we put on leather biker jackets or ersatz military garb; to appear rich, we adopt the silk and wool armor of the wealthy. With the nude, there is only naked honesty.

-Anthropologist Ian Gilligan from the University of Sydney, a specialist in the prehistory of clothing, notes that clothing affects the way in which we perceive ourselves in relation to the natural environment and separating ourselves from it. Gilligan points out that the adoption of clothing was probably one of our first adaptations–the first among many, at this point–to separate ourselves from the natural world.

Former J. Paul Getty Museum Associate Director Thomas Kren’s book, “The Renaissance Nude,” that was published in 2019 provides an excellent review of the development of the social and artistic fault lines that help to shape our views of the nude today in Western society. The book serves as a catalogue for one of the most extraordinary and ambitious museum exhibitions of this decade, gathering almost a hundred Renaissance artworks dating from 1400-1550. The book was a companion to the massive exhibition organized by the Getty museum in Los Angeles and the Royal Academy of Arts, London. According to Kren:

-The continental art tradition during the Renaissance embraced the Greek and Roman ideas of the nude more strongly than did England. Meanwhile, the formation of the socially-conservative Church of England and the influence of Tudor monarchs and staunchly anti-Roman clergy deepened this separation in art traditions over time–creating a fault line in Western art traditions that continues to this day. Conservative British influence that had its roots in this trend may account, in part, for the reduced embrace of the nude in American art traditions as they began to develop two centuries later.

-The Church played a central role in popularizing the use of the nude by using it frequently in Christian artworks; while Christian art had featured the nude for centuries, its overt embrace of more sensuous depiction of saints and other religiously-significant figures (made possible through advances in knowledge of anatomy and pigment technology) paved the way for the broader public use of nude artworks during this time. The Sistine Chapel is one of thousands of such examples.

-Church adoption of the sensual, in turn, undoubtedly gave additional fuel to restless reform advocates whose strident criticisms of the lavishness of Rome gave us the stark and plain church styles in many protestant denominations today. American fundamentalist “Christian” animosity towards “sinful” nudes can be traced to anti-Roman animosity among the forerunners of the evangelical British during the reformation.

The ghost of the Tudors loom ever large in both America and Europe at present, with newly-empowered conservative fundamentalist “Christian” groups–aligned with nationalist and white supremacy groups–sustain attacks on most “modern” trends in art, and attacks on the use of the nude. America’s political right has grown increasingly hostile toward the arts in general, with extremist conservative figures figures denouncing the arts as a mere “playground for the rich.” Repeated Republican attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts reflect this deep hostility.

-It may be easy to laugh at such nonsense, until one realizes that up to a third of the American population appears to share such views, as well as growing numbers in a broad number of European countries.

-It is a bit of a historical joke that the current “conservatives” in the American political spectrum who support “Western” and “Anglo-Saxon” culture denounce the arts’ use of the nude as “sinful pornography” –the same nude that has served as a cornerstone of Western art for centuries. Of course, the dichotomy stems more from historical ignorance than it does from any legitimate interpretation of the Bible or the previous norms of American conservatism.

Art is partially defined by the civilizational values it depicts and advances. Today, the art nude plays arguably a particularly important role in countering another attack on this great artistic tradition–the endemic commercial over sexualization of the human form in the name of corporate interests. When shedding their clothing, many models have said they also shed many of the voices that are now ever-present in the Western world that seem to tell woman that they can have real worth only by wearing a certain fashion label, or that they are too fat, or too thin, or too stupid, or too clever, or that they simply do not measure up in some other way. Corporate America is now very good at telling women their worth is only as good as how attractive they are to men, and that buying some product is the only way to overcome their many flaws as they pursue that goal.

-At root its a hurtful message that may be effective at selling product, but is ultimately damaging to human beings.

-It also plays a role in promulgating the message that all nudity is sexually-oriented, a view alien to American and European culture, and is partly responsible for a “modern” culture–particularly in America–that promulgates an immature, unsophisticated and stunted view of both nudity and sexuality.

As you look at the images below of model Keira Grant, you will see some of the the highest quality figural art posing available in America. Grant is an expert at conveying meaning and emotion with her posing, displaying extraordinary body awareness and elegance of movement. The images were captured in the Salon of an 1870’s American Second Empire townhouse in the natural sunlight of the late afternoon; they reflect a moment in time in a specific place, yet can be symbolic of so much more. As you study the images built from shades of black, white, and grey–from light and shadows–as important as what you see is how the images make you feel, and what they make you think. Do you see strength? Or fragility? Do you see beauty? Or pain? Do you see a lush green field, pregnant with the promise of Spring? Or is blue haze of Winter set to arrive?

-The questions the images can evoke are individual to each in the audience, and specific to their life experience. The important thing is recognizing them, and centering one’s thoughts on what the images say to you.

-In a number of images, the natural light played a determining role in how they were captured. For example, in several some nearby curtains made from a 100 year old Victorian lace pattern woven in Scotland reflected light patterns from the setting sun. A pattern, created a century ago, creating patterns in light today.

Images captured exclusively with natural light on Kodak T-Max fine grain film and developed with darkroom chemistry. Film developing thanks to The Darkroom in San Clemente California.

Special thanks to model Keira Grant. Ms. Grant is one of the finest figural art models in the United States with a background in music. An accomplished painter of figural artworks, Grant’s innate knowledge of applied psychology provides her a uniquely expert ability to transform pose into emotive imaging. She is based in North Carolina. [All photographs by Archangel Images, all rights reserved.]

About Michael Bomberger

Michael Bomberger, founder of Archangel Images, is an art photographer based in Pennsylvania, United States.  Bomberger’s work focuses mainly on elevating expressions of the purity and elegance of the human form, capturing high quality images in both digital and analogue media.  His work has been featured in galleries and magazines in both Europe and America.  

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