The moment that Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge was the end of their nudity. Ashamed of their disobedience to God, they covered their private parts with fig leaves and went from nude to naked. Nudity and nakedness features in all art forms, and the invention of photography left little concealed.
The original Biblical nudity did not last very long. But when nudity is considered with the evolution theory in mind, we find that man lived naturally in the nude, and only started covering himself up to protect him against the climate. Nowadays, even men from tri- bes in hot Africa wear clothes, be it only a cord around their waste without which they would feel naked. And a New Guinean wit- hout a penis gourd is a shamefaced nudist. The sense of shame and the taboo of public nudity is however mainly a feature of Western civilization. To 19th-century Victorians, an exposed woman’s ankle was enough to cause arousal, something that also happened with the bikini in the 20th century. From then on, wearing clothes that bared practically all was accepted without problems, but com- plete nudity was tolerated far less. Yet in art it has been accepted for several eras.
Without pondering too long on paintings and sculptures from the past and the role that nakedness played in that respect, we may say that it unmistakably influenced photography. Two painters of the 19th century, Courber and Manet, who did not work in the tradition of the Renaissance, dared to depict women in scenes that were neither Biblical, mythical nor imposed by Christianity. Instead they worked by the principle of Realism; including nudes in an everyday setting. In 1839 photography was officially invented and started to develop quickly. The method Daguerreotype invented by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851, France) allowed a greater number of unique slides to be developed in less time. But photography was not a job for the impatient. The exposure time was around ten minutes, the equipment was heavy and photographers had to use strong chemicals. The faces of the models had to be powdered white constantly and feet had to be plunged in cold water to bring out the nipples. Photography was new and exiting mainly because it registered reality, which was a big difference from the painters and sculptors who added freely from their ima- gination. And voyeurism suddenly became possible everywhere, especially with women as objects. Accordingly they filled most of the images. Women were also more willing than men to pose without their clothes in front of the camera. And if photographers wanted to earn some money they had to choose to photograph women as most male art buy- ers preferred feminine curves to masculine angularity. From the first nude photography sprang more erotic and pornographic ima- ges in the late 19th century. One could get liberated from the prudishness of society by photographs of hidden desires and fanta- sies, which were sold anonymously because public nudity was still a crime.
Penalty for pubic hair
Photography developed further; in 1924 Leica brought the first 35mm camera to the market, and nudity expanded in various styles and forms. Hollywood distributed the first scarcely dressed pin-ups, called ‘gla- mour’ photography by some and ‘art’ by others. Naked or nude, erotic or pornograp- hic. It signified something else for every per- son, in every society. The famous American photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958) for example, could never be certain in the 1930s whether or not post-office workers would dispatch his nude photos. If a single pubic hair was discovered, the work was destroyed. The international appreciation for his work would come much later. Another stubborn practitioner of the genre was Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969, Germany), who co-founded the Dutch DaDa movement after WWI and owned a leather shop in Amsterdam. He had several fetishes: eyes, hair, breasts and mouths. With solarisation techniques he developed surreal pictures, but covered this nakedness frequently with see-through veils (inspired by the medieval painter Lucas Cranach). This way prudish New York, where he lived during in the forties, was able to accept his nude photo- graphy.
With the first issue of Playboy in 1953, a big step was taken towards public acceptance of nude photography. Marilyn Monroe was shown on the cover and inside as the cen- trefold. Pure eroticism could now be found in the newspaper stand. Nowadays each department store sells booklets with pin-ups and pornography from the past, as retro gifts. Everyone is familiar with the most explicit images through films, television and the Internet. Very little seems to be left to the imagination. But how is it then possible that people have trouble with photos and sculp- tures of Jeff Koons having sex with his former wife, the porn actress Cicciolina?
And why did the Andres Serrano’s 1997 ‘piss’ photo, exhibited in the Groninger Museum, cause such a row? In the past, nudity was accepted in art, but now the opposite seems to be true. Because art reacts to our expe- riences in everyday life, a life that now inclu- des a lot of nudity, it seems peculiar.