One of the lesser-known movements in nineteenth century art was the Orientalist period - so called because of the surge of interest in the middle-eastern culture and art. Throughout the 1800s artists accompanied explorers and political opportunists into the little-known areas of the middle east in search of exotic material for their next painting. What they found was a treasure trove of visual delight, particularly in the ornate, earthy, and thoroughly non-westernized depictions of the female human figure. Dramatic scenery, exotic animals, foreboding locales, bejeweled costumes, exquisite architecture, and mysterious, alluring women all combined to offer up rich and seductive themes, full of color, intrigue, sexuality, and forbidden delights.
Here are several photos taken from a variety of shoots in which I am attempting to create a photographic equivalent of this rich artistic period. The photographs contain objects from my travels - a leather Tuareg trunk fashioned in the Sahel region of the West African desert, a hand-carved Chinese wedding bed, a bolt of royal red fabric from a Nigerian marketplace - even an Egyptian lamp made of amber and brass from a tiny market in Cairo. These nudes, none of which are of Middle Eastern descent, are nevertheless reminiscent of the figurative themes of those British and French artists who took such delight in painting odalisques, slaves, and princesses. Provocative, ornate, and sultry, they are in keeping with the Orientalists themselves, who took artistic liberties to showcase the unabashed, stereotyped sensuality of an exotic world that existed as much in the imagination as in the Arabian tent. You can learn more here.
It is a subject I have had to articulate to friends, co-workers, even models - often! Welcome to America - an uptight, puritanical society driven by false morals in which sex is regarded as the primary function of the naked body… (Lewis Grizzard: Nude means you ain’t got no clothes on… Nekkid means you ain’t got no clothes on and you’re up to something…”) Unfortunately, in America, a comedian’s one-liner tells us all we need to know about understanding how Americans think about the nude.
I once worked with a model who was quite at home modeling lingerie. I hired her for numerous catalog shoots for one of my clients, a boutique lingerie manufacturer. When posing for figurative art, however, though far less revealing, she was chronically ill-at-ease and unreliable. Twice she failed to show up for paid shoots, both times confessing that she felt too exposed to go through with it. She cost me a lot of money and I stopped using her, not to mention that the results were just artistically sub-par. Ironically, that same year, she moved to L.A., signed with Playboy, and today is one of their top “playmates” and the only person I ever met with such rare potential who chose instead to save herself for the porn industry. Modesty? Propriety? It was pure illusion, of course. She merely calculated her exposure as a business transaction, something wholly consistent with our capitalist society in which nudity is a commodity, not an artistic endeavor. I can’t really blame her. Were she living in Europe her options might have been greater, but not in America.
Despite feminist rants against pornography and sanctimonious sermons by preachers (who as a demographic are more addicted to porn than the average man in the street) nudity has become a lot of things, but art isn’t one of them. Poop in a can, fine. Cut up a cow and put it in formaldehyde, no problem. Shoot a kitten onstage, bite the head off a bat, sure, but for God sakes don’t bare a nipple or an unclad torso. Unless of course it’s porn, in which case whether for a layout, lap dance, or a Las Vegas liquor-fest, it’s just another bald-face business transaction. Gynecologically speaking, there seems to be no limits where exploitation and economics intersect, What’s good for Grey Goose is good for the gawker.
But try and put a tasteful classical artistic nude photograph in an American gallery - one that isn’t trying to shock, mock, or make a political statement - and it’ll be back under wraps within the hour. Americans just can’t take nudity as a reflection of themselves - especially as a photo and not a painting. Here in the American Southern city where I live, nudity is still something to hide, welcome only in one of its eight strip clubs, not its two art museums. In fact, a few years ago a friend who was an art teacher took her 5th grade students to the local art museum and, upon entering, realized that her students would have to walk past an exquisite Bouguereau nude in order to get to their destination, a Civil War exhibit. She promptly called off the field trip on the spot, so fearful was she of the potential backlash from parents. By the way, there are more than 700 churches in the city, but I’m sure there is no possible connection.
Like hell. Much of religion (especially the Abrahamic variety of which Christianity is part) has created a dysfunctional relationship with life in general and the body in particular, wherein that which is most natural has become loathsome. Were they ministers of fish, they would have declared swimming a sin. Harmony, sensual delight, happiness - these are all baked into our species, and yet our nation’s persistent destructive religious puritanical roots are all but ruining us through a false morality built upon an irreconcilable three-course diet of war, greed, and Jesus, not to mention the systematic strangulation of art education in our schools in favor of military science (or as Americans like to call it, science…) Toss in porn - a great deal of it - and there you have it. A misshapen spirit with a shriveled artistic aptitude so damaged that not even Botticelli could bring it back to life.
But enough complaining. Here is what I tell those who bother to ask about the difference between the fine art nude and the run of the mill cheesecake nudie. There’s the question of basic taste, of course, but more importantly, there is a distinction with regard to the intent and respect for classical conventions in the artistic tradition. One of the challenges for photographers is that when a viewer looks at a painting of a nude, he sees a nude. When he looks at a photograph of a nude, he sees a person. The camera is a machine that captures, not creates. The photographer must supply the creativity through both spirit and skill, and to the extent he does or does not, a final photograph is either an expression of beauty, or a recording of what the optic nerve set in the frame. Painters have a slightly easier time of it in that regard.
Kenneth Clark, in his book “The Nude” wrote that the nude is not a subject of art but a form of art” - invented by the Greeks in the 5th century BC. Try as we might to get away from it, if we are to talk about the nude as art, that is our touchstone. Not that we have to all our photos look like Praxiteles or a Venus of Urbino, but the conventions, practices, and “rules” that they set down are first and foremost the tools of the trade. America, in general, just doesn’t know or give a damn.
By now you are probably aware that my concern isn’t simply about art vs. photography or even about the nude as an art form. That is merely a representative slice of the whole of American art and culture in general. At a recent symphony concert I was astonished as the audience was asked to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Weird enough, but when everyone began to cheer at the end of it as if they were at an AFC playoff, I realized that the conventions and standards that season our lives with beauty and grace have all but left us. And why? Isn’t the intent of classical music different from, say, a rock concert? Both musical forms are grounded in the same basic rules (scales, harmonies, rhythms, etc.) - with tremendous latitude, but it is primarily the intent of a piece that makes it a Bach or a Beyonce´… And let’s face it - neither really tries to pretend it’s the other. Yet, in much of America at least, the egoic, shameless appetite for commercialism has managed to channel our inner Ted Nugent in every sphere of life, from religion to the visual arts, music and even statecraft, where even now the disease of ignorance and greed threatens to choke off public funding for the arts altogether. If the earth doesn’t outright reject our species first, we may actually live long enough to see a nation consigned to the nightmare of Robert Frost’s ‘Hired Man’ - with “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”
All of this is to say, if you really want to understand the difference between American sleaze-cake and fine art nudes, skip church one day and dive into a study of art, and particularly the nude in art. It is fascinating and it will lift everything other area of endeavor you pursue. It’s a bold claim, I know, but if you subscribe to idea that our sense of beauty, harmony, and proportion is derived from our innate connection to the “rightness” of the human body and of nature (as in the divine or “golden ratio”) then it makes sense that the nude deserves to be understood, appreciated, and celebrated. To the extent that we are either unwilling or unable to do so, we will never fully appreciate the magnificent painting of life of which we are all a part.
One good place to begin is with Kenneth Clark’s book “The Nude.”
Then enjoy these ten subjects, composed, lit, and executed in the style of the painting masters of old. They will probably never make it into the local museum, but I like to look on the bright side - neither will they ever cause teachers and students to go running out of a gallery.
The “BEAST” is a 600 year-old Chinese cypress root dug out of the mountainside and shipped to the U.S. more than a century ago. It somehow wound up in an antique store window and when I saw it I knew immediately I had to incorporate it into a photo shoot. Here is a series I call “In the Belly of the Beast.”
Asylums have always been a great place to scare the bejeezus out of young and old… Here are 3 shots from a shoot done in an abandoned warehouse a few years back… Trick or treat…
On my way to Nigeria earlier this year I made two side-trips - one to the Art Institute of Chicago, and the other to the National Gallery in London. In Chicago I communed with Titian’s “Danae” and in London (very briefly, because my layover was short) with Velasquez’s exquisite “Rokeby Venus.” Both depict Greek goddesses, but they might easily have fallen into the category of “Odalisque” - a harem slave - had goddesses not been all the rage during their time. There is, in fact, a captivating 1874 Odalisque by Jules Lefebvre at the Art Institute of Chicago, depicting a nude with a back so exquisite she might easily pass as the Rokeby’s equally disarming descendant.
The Odalisque, popularized by Ingres and populated by a number of Orientalist painters of the 19th century, has been an enduring theme for painters, for it offers them the opportunity to paint the nude form at its most resplendent - without false modesty, and with all of the accoutrements of a lavish lifestyle afforded a “kept woman” in such a time and place.
So the Odalisque was very much on my mind as I perused a Nigerian marketplace on my final day in Africa, where I found not only some jewelry befitting the theme, but a bolt of exquisite fabric as well. Add to that an Egyptian lamp I picked up in Cairo a few years ago, a lapis blue scarf woven with gold thread, also from Cairo, and a hand-made goatskin pillow (a gift from one of the Nigerian Chiefs we met there) and all the makings of a photo shoot were in place. All that was needed was the Odalisque. My model, a fellow lover of both art and beauty, understood the delicate balance between grace and sensuality that the masters of the genre held in tension.
For those wishing to deconstruct the photographs, I will reveal that three strobes were used, along with the Egyptian lamp, which posed a particular challenge in the exposure department. My intention was to re-create the lighting reminiscent of the Orientalists of the 19th century. The color scheme led with amber tones and deep shadows. Composition emphasized an abundance of warmth and comfort. Only a few blue highlights in her scarf and in the floor stones served to complement the warm tones and round out the palette
We had great fun on this shoot, as you will see in the final three images in the series - these are “behind the scenes” shots taken either while waiting for me to adjust a light or frame a shot ( did Odalisques really dine on grapes like Caesar, or sip champagne while sporting Ray-bans? We’ll never know…) The first work in the series, simply entitled “Reclining Odalisque” won an award in the Light Space and Time Figurative Art Competition. At some point I may add some other images to this collection, but for now, enjoy the photographs and savor, as people have done for centuries, the nude, neither puritanical nor profane, but simply as she is, resting in the lap of luxury, an expression of elegance and timeless beauty.
One final note: close inspection of the first photograph will reveal some painstaking photoshop work in which I have altered the shadows and background somewhat to complement the skin tones, and added an effect to approximate a particular oil-on-canvas treatment, complete with cracks in the “paint.”
On Thursday I will be at the Moroccan Embassy in DC to film an interview with the Moroccan Ambassador to the United States. It should be great fun, but the family and I then plan to make two additional stops - one at the National Gallery of Art to have a final look at the 2nd century’s Capitoline Venus before she makes her trek back to Rome. The other will be Washington DC’s National Cathedral to once again take in the late Frederick Hart’s breathtaking work “Ex Nihilo.” It appears at the main entrance (west facade) of the Cathedral along with his exquisite sculptures of St. Peter, St. Paul, and Adam.
When I despair of the deluge of confusion that is modern art, I am heartened by the skillful, ethereal lightness of Hart’s sculpture. “Ex Nilho” (“From Nothing”) suggests the creative force that stirs within each of us even as it animates the entire universe. Even when working from life (with the model who would later become his wife) Hart drew his inspiration from the classical sculptors of antiquity and applied his skills to give his figures a celestial yet thoroughly human energy. To my mind it is without equal.
Hart, who died in 1999 at only 55 years of age, is perhaps best known to Americans as the creator of the three bronze soldiers at the Vietnam Memorial. Yet most of his works are rooted deeply in the classical figurative tradition. He once said, “I believe that art has a moral responsibility, that it must pursue something higher than itself. Art must be a part of life. It must exist in the domain of the common man. It must be an enriching, ennobling, and vital partner in the public pursuit of civilization. It should be a majestic presence in everyday life just as it was in the past.”
No wonder his works, though largely ignored by art critics during his lifetime, are at last being recognized alongside the Capitoline Venus as among Western art’s finest. Seeing both works in the same day should be something of a “bookend” experience. There they are - one of the finest complete sculptures from Roman antiquity standing just a few miles from one of the grandest figurative works of our time, joined across the ages by a gifted artist’s generous mind and skillful hand. Hart himself would have relished the thought of such a happy convergence in a world badly in need of beauty.
The Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio liked to portray the effect of a single light source in his paintings. In this photograph I am experimenting with Caravaggio’s technique. Those with a very keen eye will see that, while it may appear that the light is coming from a window in the upper right, in fact there is second light source softening the shadows that a single light source would create. Of course, lighting is only a small part of creating beauty, as I am sure you are already aware. This is from the series “Girl with the Green Jewelry Box.”
Art critic John Berger wrote, referring to the nude in art, that men ACT - women “appear.” For the nude in western art this observation seemed to hold true from 6th century BC Greece to its questionable conclusion in mid 20th century Europe and America. I say it ended (at least for me) at around the middle of the twentieth century when Picasso lowered the bar by popularizing the portrayal of women as mere objects upon which he could unleash his hatred, abusing them both in real life and on canvas. His painful, dark disfigurations of women were not merely some cubist experiment, but anger made visible. He once told one of his many mistresses, “To me there are only two kinds of women - goddesses and doormats.” Hmmm… That seems to be a distinction one could only make if describing two objects, not persons. I am likely in the minority here, but his work has always left me feeling weaker, less than whole than before I saw it. Perhaps it is because for all his genius, in the end it seemed to be all about Picasso. In stirring elements of a sociopathic bent into his paint, he damaged art in general and the nude in particular.
It is an assault on art from which it has yet to recover.
Long before Picasso beauty had taken some hard knocks in the Western World at the hands of the Protestant reformers. A few years ago I visited Ely Cathedral in northern England and saw first-hand the effects that anger can have on beauty. In the 1600’s Protestant reformers brandishing hammers and axes swept through Europe destroying everything in sight they believed represented a “graven image.” At Ely Cathedral many of its exquisite stained glass windows were knocked out and every statue within reach decapitated. As one art historian wrote, “It was a very bad day for art.”
Have things improved? Well with the exception of the Taliban blowing up a magnificent Buddha in Afghanistan a few years back and Bush’s Attorney General ordering a burqua on a bronze nude statue, we don’t really engage in the outright destruction of art - at least physically… But in other ways, the Protestant movement and the Puritan doctrines from which our country’s values are derived continue to wreak havoc upon art in this country, not with axes and hammers, but with indignation and in some regions, out and out ignorance.
The nude has been a life-affirming art form since the dawn of civilization, which makes it all the more curious why American artists and photographers who seek to express beauty through the nude are frequently censored even as artists like Picasso, Damien Hirst, and others unleash their weirdness on the art world. True, many schools have given up teaching art, and yes, the digital age has confused matters by spawning an entire industry built around guys with cameras who photograph naked women for sport. Yet even among professionals beauty seems subordinate to stark realism, where the term “conceptual” is often code for shocking, and sensational realism is sometimes justified as being “photojournalistic.” Not that reality is unimportant. James Nachtwey’s masterful photographs have shown us that disturbing images of reality can have positive, redeeming value. But photographs captured merely to shock or surprise tend to have the opposite effect.
I choose to use my camera to create life-affirming beauty. I frequently choose the nude not only because is it the supreme challenge, but because the ideal human form is an incomparable expression of beauty merging body, mind, and spirit. When we look upon, say, Michelangelo’s David, we can connect with that massive kinetic energy that we so often wish to feel when confronted by the Goliaths in our own lives. When we look upon Titian’s Venus of Urbino, we can feel an animal awareness of woman at her most resplendent - sensual, secure, sagacious, sublime. What woman has not wished to be so admired?
Such beauty ennobles the human spirit and lifts our eyes to a higher plane. It reminds us that while we may reel from the garish realities of life in our time, they need not define us. Human beauty not only delights our senses, it feeds our souls. Yet it is from this that we shield our children. From this we fear their tender minds will be forever disfigured…
No, anger disfigures. Beauty nourishes. Children in other countries not only have survived nude art in their midst, they grow to love beauty at least as much as America loves its gun shows and military parades.
Let me end by sharing some beauty with you - two works: One is Titian’s masterpiece, “Venus of Urbino.” The other, a figure work I made a few months back after returning from Florence and eager to begin working with various poses, compositions, lighting, and finishing techniques. Admittedly, there are limitations to photography that a painter doesn’t have to contend with. Still, different though the works are, both embrace beauty as energy and both invite the viewer to look beyond the object of the body with the same confidence and clarity they possess in their appearing before us.