The reality behind ‘full-bodied’ art
By Jud Yalkut
One of the greatest paradoxes of contemporary art is the recurrent battle over the exhibition of nudity, especially in public spaces. It is accepted that the old masters and their kin used nude models in their depictions and allegories of ancient battles and revelries, images available universally for view in our most established museums. But, in an increasingly neo-puritan American culture, there is no guarantee that the slightest hint of nudity, or even worse, genetalia, will not trigger somewhere a cathartic revulsion or even censorship.
The observation of the nude figure, both male and female, has been a standard tool for the education of professional artists for centuries, bolstered by the classic traditions of Greek and Roman sculpture. No serious curriculum of art study exists that does not include life studies with often nude models, a tradition in which I participated as a young man of 19, posing for classes at the Louisville Art Institute wearing the accepted athletic supporter.
In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church decreed art to be the handmaiden of the church with a distinct proscription of nudity in religious art, although heroic and mythological nudity was tolerated. Later, French painter Jacques-Louis David defended his use of nudity in his images of heroes, claiming that “the Greeks and the Romans, had they seen my work, would not have found me a stranger to their customs.” His compatriot Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres wrote “the figures of antiquity are only beautiful because they resemble the beauty of nature.” Later as humanism pervaded art, Edgar Degas wrote, “these women of mine are honest, simple folk … it is as if you looked through a keyhole.”
In Dayton, painter Jerry Edwards and the Dayton Academy of Traditional Art at 48 High St. have ateliers open to students and other artists on the upper floor, where they learn to draw from live models. “Nudity is part of Western art,” he said “We try to do it in a private setting. There is no problem in showing this work in an art gallery, but public spaces are a problem sometimes … Mrs. Kettering wanted no nudes in her building.” Edwards is a Benedictine oblate, a lay person working with a monastery of sisters, and the Mother Superior has attended several of his exhibitions.
“Nudity is fine, as long as the figures are tasteful, with no intention of arousal, and even genetalia are okay because it is reality,” Edwards said.
Veteran Dayton painter Curtis Barnes has an illustrious career, also as a professor of art at Sinclair Community College. “I’ve painted nudes for years,” he said. “I refused to back away from teaching it to my students at Sinclair and it has been a major subject of my concern from a classical disposition. It is fundamental to wherever your art is going and life classes are most important to master in my opinion, observing and closely examining the nude figure.” Barnes remembers a show that he curated where the coordinator of the space refused to show one of the entries. “Exhibiting works that reflect nudity is dependent on people’s understanding,” he added. “Academic situations seem to accept it more. It’s amazing that some places show them only in separate rooms.”
Currently teaching art at Sinclair is painter Mark Echtner who also uses life classes to instruct his students.
“I think American culture is in a very puritanical phase right now,” Echtner stated. “Many people can’t see the innate beauty of the human form or the statement the artist is making by using it. We are in an age where everyone is easily offended and many people would rather settle for the bland and sterile than risk causing offense.”
Artist James Pate is a master draftsman who has produced a series of astounding nude images with cultural power, with a large group of that series being shown in February at the Visceral Gallery in Centerville. “My work comes from a combination of life studies, sketches and photos that I take, being very academic but with an edge to them. This series of nudes has airplanes seeming to attack them; I drew the airplanes as a metaphor for attack and the attack on women … women are so more physically vulnerable, and this is a protest and a shedding of light on their fear of walking down a dark street, not being able to relax, the fear of rape, all coming from conversations I’ve had with and about women.”
Echtner thinks censorship happens more than any of us realize. “Both galleries and artists self-censor simply through the selection process,” he said. “Galleries want to avoid conflict and artists don’t want to risk being rejected from a show based on something other than their work’s merit.”
Pate observes “that people have a typical viewpoint of sexual exploitation which may have come from the religious right, but it is overrated and a bad rap. We tend to look at it solely on artistic grounds, being no more interesting than the nudity of an animal.”
Reach DCP freelance writer Jud Yalkut at JudYalkut@daytoncitypaper.com.