18 May, International Museum Day, free access.

By Teresa de la Vega

The body is “good for thinking”. Our consciousness of ourselves as corporeal creatures is at the very core of the human identity. But the body isn’t just a biological entity. It’s a social construct as well, the place where the strategies that govern power and the gender stereotypes that have shaped western culture converge.

The nude hovers between organic reality and social mask, between what biology has “given” and what culture has “added”. Since it is free from specific temporal markers, we might think that it has a universal, eternal value. But the truth is that artists who have depicted nudes have imbued them with the zeitgeist of their time, with their aesthetic inclinations and the changing senses of morality.

The nude as a symbolic form has aroused countless and often contradictory sentiments and ideas: innocence or sin, harmony or pathos, truth or confusion, communion with nature or social alienation. The body has been conceived as a sanctuary and a prison, as a matter of pride and a scourge, and above all as an object of desire, but there is no doubt that the contemplation of a beautiful naked body provokes an erotic response, or at least suggests that possibility.

Although it has been a recurring motif in art throughout the ages, from the Palaeolithic to the present day, it is only western culture that has prompted the idea of offering the body, in itself, as an object of privileged contemplation, treating it as an artistic genre in its own right, subject to specific rules or conventions, somewhere between realism and idealisation.

Over the centuries, the nude has inspired some of the most sublime works in western art. It even survives today, in the 21st century, and not just as an academic exercise. For although it has undoubtedly undergone countless transformations, it is still one of our main links to the classical tradition, because the artistic depictions from ancient Greece and Rome continue to influence the way we perceive physical perfection.

But what is the nude? The British historian Kenneth Clark describes it as “an art form invented by the Greeks in the fifth century BC, just as opera is an art form invented in seventeenth-century Italy”. Clark’s succinct defi-nition suggests that the nude is not merely a theme of art but a form of art.

The title of Clark’s book’, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, leaves no doubt as to the author’s point of view: he makes a distinction between the nude and nudity, emphasising that the nude is not simply the direct transcription of an unclothed body but rather—as a symbolic form and ideal conception—a body “clothed in culture”. Hence, nudity of the body is the condition of being naked, of not wearing any clothes, whereas the images conveyed in the western artistic tradition represent balanced bodies, full of confidence, re-formed bodies.

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