Art is about lots of things, but mostly it’s about sex.
People love getting naked for art, they just do. If you walk into any museum it’s likely you’ll see a nude within the first sixty seconds of entering the building. Honestly, who needs OnlyFans when we have art institutions?
Art’s infatuation with the human body is nothing new. From paintings in caves to canvas, nudity has endured all kinds of controversy. Unsurprisingly, most of the famous female nudes we recognise today were painted by male artists. While they might seem beautiful at first, look a little longer and it’s likely you’ll notice the male gaze settling uncomfortably over the sitter. Just delightful, really. With this in mind, here we take a look at five women artists who use nudity in their practice to explore and reclaim themes of sexuality, gender and the body.
Sarah Goodridge – Beauty Revealed, 1828
I’m calling it: American artist Sarah Goodridge invented painterly sexting. Back in 1828, she painted a miniature self-portrait of herself (more specifically, her breasts) as a gift to her lover. Clearly a woman ahead of her time, Goodridge was intent on seducing the recently widowed United States senator Daniel Webster with a saucy hand-painted pic. Measuring an unassuming 6.6 x 7.8cm, the portrait cleverly hid her face to protect her identity from prying eyes of the elite and was sent enclosed in a tiny red leather case fastened with two clasps (cute). Unfortunately, it didn’t work out; turns out Webster needed cash and courted another wealthier lady. But Goodridge’s portrait was more than just a sexual offering, it showed her embracing the eroticism of her own body and agency to choose to share it with others.
Ana Mendieta – The Silueta Series, 1973 – 1978
Rather than painting nudes, Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta decided to undress and become them. Known for her work that fused the body with nature, the artist’s ‘earth-body’ performances saw her explore identity as a female emigrant through mediums of photography, film and sculpture. Exiled from Cuba when she was just 12, her work uses her surrounding landscape to address issues of displacement. Unlike the male artists who were working directly in nature at the time, Mendieta didn’t disturb the landscapes she entered, instead, becoming a part of them. The Silueta Series, 1973 – 1978 saw the artist impress her body into the earth, lie in streams and land depressions throughout Iowa and Mexico. Surrounding her silhouette with rocks, twigs, flowers and blood, the series evoked primitive ideas of burial, death, and sacrifice, reflecting a modern feminist sensibility and ideas of the earth as female.
Marina Abromavić – Imponderabilia, 1977
Performance art and nudity go hand in hand for Serbian artist Marina Abromavić. Recognised for her provocative work that tests the physical and emotional limits of not only herself, but her viewers, she has often used her body as an instrument to be observed, explored, and even violated. In her performance Imponderabilia, 1977 Abromavić collaborated with her partner and fellow artist Ulay to become ‘living doors’ of a museum in Bologna, Italy, in 1977. Without artists there would be no museums, so why not integrate the artist and the public directly? Not kidding around with this one, the artists stood face-to-face in the museum’s main entrance to become a naked doorway. Public gallery visitors had to squeeze past them, making last-minute decisions on who to face while they brushed up against their bits. After about 300-400 people had entered, the police arrived to shut it down, but that hasn’t stopped the work from being reenacted today.
The Guerrilla Girls – Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? 1989
Anonymous art group The Guerrilla Girls have been fighting to expose sexual and racial discrimination in the art world for years. Putting Donald Draper to shame, the group borrows from the visual language of advertising to exhibit their art on posters and billboards. Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? sees a reclining woman wearing a gorilla mask and holding a fan in her hand. Reclaiming the figure from the famous nude painting it was based on (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque, 1981), she’s accompanied by some hard-hitting facts that drew attention to the patriarchal confines of the art world. It was too much to bear for the Public Art Fund in New York, who originally commissioned the piece for a billboard and then rejected it, so The Guerrilla Girls ran it on the side of a fleet of buses anyway. That is, until the bus company put a stop to it, believing that there was more than just a fan in the figure’s hand.
Vanessa Beecroft – VB70, 2011
Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft blurs the lines between performance and painting with her large-scale ‘living paintings’. Staging ephemeral compositions with numerous live nude or semi-clothed women, Beecroft explores expectation, shame, identity politics and voyeurism through the complex relationship between model and onlooker. In performances that fall somewhere between the aesthetics of a renaissance painting and fashion show, Beecroft investigates regimented constructs of the body, beauty and female identity. Her work VB70, 2011 used ten female models painted in body paint that resembled the sculptural materials of marble and uncut stone around them. Drawing a comparison between precious resources and the female form, Beecroft continues a dialogue about the body and art historical references.