Nudity in art, over the centuries and across cultures
Idan Wizen shares his thoughts on the place of nudity in history and in art
At a time when nudity is banned from social networks, and when liberating movements such as “Free the nipple” are fiercely opposed to it, society has a hard time positioning itself on the place of the body. To enlighten us, we meet the photographer Idan Wizen, specialized in artistic nudity.
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Hello, I am Idan Wizen, a Parisian artist. More than ten years ago I founded the project Who’s That Nude In The Living Room, where more than 2000 different people came to pose nude.
What is it like to be an artistic nude photographer in today’s society? It can’t be easy on social networks?
Today, being an artistic nude photographer is not necessarily easy. You are very quickly categorized as a pornographer, which is not necessarily a pleasure, when it’s not what you do. We are very quickly censored, first of all on social networks.
Censorship is never pleasant, from the point of view of the image, of communication. It makes things much more complex, (we try to find various subterfuges); and then, especially we have a feeling of injustice. We are not censored because of what we do, but because of the algorithms, which are sometimes totally wrong, the artificial intelligence which is very far from reality.
Especially now that we are constantly receiving pornographic spam, it hurts every time our image is removed, censored, while we try to respect the extremely strict rules, extremely puritanical of social networks.
But in the art world, nudity is not a problem?
It poses more and more problems, and we see that the nude is more and more cataloged, not only on social networks. We see it on online sales platforms, in festivals, photo contests, in exhibitions. It’s quite paradoxical, but there is a retreat from this, while the nude has always been part of art history.
We feel it strongly by the idea, the will to protect each time oneself from the others. On the online sales platforms, the problem is not that there is nude on the platform, but that afterwards one is badly cataloged by Google, by Facebook, that the site does not appear in the algorithms.
It’s always censorship, it’s not because it bothers the person who censors, but so that it doesn’t bother the others so that he is forced to do it.
In our society, the relationship to the nude is complicated. Has this always been the case?
From a historical point of view, if we take the whole era of homo sapiens, it is amusing to see that it was 70-75% of the time totally naked. It is at the time of the Paleolithic where we put on the first clothes, mainly to fight against the cold, than by modesty.
Afterwards, clothing became a tool for social differentiation, in the classes, and was used in the first religious rites. But modesty comes much later, after more than 130 thousand years of humanity.
And elsewhere, what was the relationship to nudity?
In many cultures, at many times, the relationship to nudity is much simpler than in the last millennium or the last two millennia in Europe. What we know easily is ancient Greece where nudity was much more appreciated: the athletes participated in the Olympic Games naked, in ancient Egypt also, it was something quite normal. But further away from us in geographical terms, and more recently in history, we can see it in Japan, for example. We are often persuaded that this is a very modest culture. This modesty came with the arrival of the Americans quite recently, and before that nudity was something quite normal.
There are still a few places where nudity is a little more accepted than in France: in Scandinavian countries, for example, where public baths are something quite normal.
Is the nude, although artistic, necessarily erotic?
We can see that the nude in our society is often cataloged as something erotic, but it has often been a tool of protest. A tool to scare others in our society. We can see it recently with the example of Femen, who use this nudity to protest. But even in ancient Greece, soldiers fought naked to scare their opponents. We also saw it in the USSR, where during the Bolshevik revolution, there were naked demonstrations, to smooth the social classes.
The nude is often seen today as something erotic, when in fact it is a natural state and its free interpretation is up to the viewer and the context.
And has it always been part of the history of art?
The nude has always been present in art history. We can see it in ancient Greece, where the sculptures are naked, and where nudity did not shock anyone, did not disturb anyone. We can also see it on many religious frescoes, where the nude has always been present. And even in more recent times, academic paintings practice nudity in the representation of the body.
In fact, the nude is nowadays seen as something erotic, sensual – it is above all the natural state of man. And to be able to paint it in this natural state is to be able to represent humanity as a whole. This has been great research of artists during different centuries.
Nudity and religion have never gone well together, have they?
Even today, one often imagines religion as being opposed to nudity. It has always been quite complex. It has not always been the case, and it has not been the case in all religions. We tend to see religions in a broad sense, but the main problem was the monotheistic religions, and the relationship of the Church to the nude. Think of the different frescoes in churches that have been painted, repainted, the bay leaves that have been added to statues. Through the centuries, opinions diverged on what was showable, what wasn’t, what must remain within the canons of decency, and what should not.
Is there a difference in perception between the nude in the classical arts, such as painting and sculpture, and photography?
Photography, and mainly nude photography, has never had the same status as painting and sculpture. Photography necessarily represents a reality, whereas painting and sculpture are, despite everything, of free interpretation.
This reality in photography was disturbing. It was far from the canons of the nude, which was supposed to represent the divine. Here it was the representation of the human nude.
This has always pleased and disturbed. Pleased, because since the first photography, the nude is imposed as erotic photography and rightly so. Nudes were made more for eroticism than for anything else. Of course, it disturbed morals and good conscience, and soon, in many places, it was banned and even proscribed.
Even today, the way in which one can capture and depict reality with photography is more disturbing than with painting and sculpture, indeed.
However, and this says again, with photography, as with any art, it is above all a means of expression, and that photography can go far beyond the simple and stricto sensu representation of reality.
We are in an increasingly free society, including on the sexual level. We must still see progress on the acceptance of nudity, right?
It is, I believe, a great paradox of our current society is that it makes a big gap: we have on the one hand of the omnipresent pornography, not solicited and with an apparent liberation of the manners; and at the same time we have a revival of puritanism, where nudity is censured, it is put aside, it became a taboo. That is to say that morally, we are regressing on the level of individual freedom and we tend to judge much more. And then, as against any moral order, we have an alternative system which, however, is more and more present and gaining ground.
Where does this revival of puritanism come from?
I think it’s a bit of an evolution of mentalities, of consciences. Is it a revival of religiosity? Is it a lot in the fear of the other and the vulnerability transmitted by the nude? In any case, it is obvious. On the beaches, for example, where women, even a few decades ago, could do bare breasts without worrying. The practice which is today very complicated, well beyond the sanitary problems, it is especially complicated by the glance of the other.
The naturist spaces are in the process of disappearing, they are not frequented anymore, because it is something today that the young people flee, whereas in the 70s it was a space of freedom, a space where one could be oneself, and not necessarily a place of sexual perdition.
So why do you think pornography is more and more present?
At the same time as this revival of puritanism, we find ourselves today with unsolicited, unwanted pornography, extremely present, and moreover, which is more and more violent.
Let me explain. It is enough to look at the newspaper kiosks in Paris, for example, where you will see an image of a lustful woman, vaguely hidden by two small stars on the nipples. I think that if the little stars hide the nipples, they don’t hide the lasciviousness, the attitude. And all this in the sight of all the children, of anyone who can pass.
On the Internet, despite efforts, sometimes constant of many platforms, we regularly find ourselves spammed with pornography, on social networks etc. There is a need behind, certainly, economic, which will push to very aggressive marketing, which can be disturbing.
The other point is pornographic content that is watched, desired. What we can see is that the pornographic contents tend more and more towards violence, as if there was something of an outlet in it, in relation to our society which oppresses us enormously, as if the fact that pornography is badly seen, badly cataloged, pushes people to look at, to like more and more extreme pornography, sometimes almost unhealthy.
And you, why did you want to do artistic nude?
When I started artistic nude, I had no vision of sensuality or the eroticism of the person. For me, in the project Un Anonyme Nu Dans Le Salon, the idea was to depict humanity but to take each individual out of his socio-cultural context. However, our clothes position us, they are never neutral. We believe or not to choose them, they define us, they define our generation, our social class. They say a lot about us. By removing them, I wanted to give the viewer the opportunity to look at the being almost in the absolute, taken out of a context. It’s never totally true, there are still haircuts, expressions, which make it possible to position a being in a time, in a context, in a social class. But I try to give as few clues as possible and to remove the being from his environment.
Your Pandemonium collection is reminiscent of classical painting. Can you tell us about it?
In the Pandemonium collection, I wanted to emphasize something that amused me a lot in relation to the Renaissance period – our morals are really the opposite on many points: sexual liberation, freedom of the body. In terms of law, we have evolved enormously, we are almost at the opposite. And yet there is a center of symmetry: something that has not evolved is the relationship to posing naked. It is something that, in today’s society and in the society of the time, was in any case tolerated, but not necessarily well seen, not totally accepted.
Even today, we are not going to be neutral with regard to the head of a company or a politician who is going to pose naked, we are going to have a look, a judgment, that is going to make the media talk. It was more or less the same thing in the more classical times, when it was not necessarily the people of power who were going to pose naked.
So there is always a judgment towards nudity, towards this freedom, which should be fundamental freedom.
What I liked with the Pandemonium collection is to take all the codes of the classical painting by positioning models of today and to make a parallel between these two times, where they are the opposite, but in the central point of symmetry, we still have the relationship to the nudity.
In your Backstage collection, you say you are inspired by the 50s and 60s. What did you like about this period?
I think what I liked the most in this period, the 50s and 60s, that I did not know, unfortunately. Maybe I would have liked to have been born at a different time. It is the taboos that were overcome one by one, where we had artists, avant-gardists who dared to question the ways of thinking, the grids of reading to propose a freer society, more open. And where the body, nudity, sexual liberation are part of it.
What I liked in this collection is the tribute to those who broke the boundaries of the forbidden at that time.
What message do you want to convey today?
What I mainly want to say is that nudity, one, must be individual freedom, it has nothing shocking. A naked body is a body in its natural state. And that nudity should not be systematically associated with eroticism, pornography. It can be, but not necessarily.
I think deeply that seeing a male or female sex, a pair of breasts, a pair of buttocks has never traumatized anyone, at a time when we are used to seeing extremely violent and negative images in our society. It’s a bit of a paradox. I have the impression that today it is easier to show images of great violence, rather than to show a naked body.
What I want to say is to accept the body in its natural state and to be able to love it in its first state. My deep conviction is that to love the other, one must love oneself, but that one must be able to love humanity as it is authentically and naturally.
Choosing a work of art to put in your home is never neutral. What does it say about the person who exhibits a nude in his living room?
I believe that people who expose a nude in their living room, (in any case among my nudes, because the nude can mean many things), but within the framework of the project Un Anonyme Nu Dans Le Salon, it is to want to say that nudity it is beautiful, humanity is beautiful, and that the link between nudity and pornography is not there. One can look at a body, a being by the beauty of its forms, without wanting to desire it sexually, without having an unhealthy fantasy. We can appreciate the aesthetic of each being, and feel free and go beyond the judgment of others, fight for convictions.
Here is what I think about it.