The definitions of Naked/Nude have evolved gradually throughout the history of art. Diderot first declared partial nudity as indecent in 1767. In his opinion a partially clad women is dressing up deliberately to provoke men, whereas a fully ‘nude’ woman is innocent in her natural state. ‘Imagine the Medici Venus is standing in front of you, and tell me if her nudity offends you. But shoe this Venus’ feet with two little embroidered slippers. Dress her in tight white stockings secured at the knee with rose-colored garters. Place a chic little hat on her head, and you’ll feel the difference between decent and indecent quite vividly.’
Kenneth Clarke claimed in 1956 that the word ‘nude’ was invented to justify the naked human body as a worthy artistic subject. So the nude refers to an artistic genre – the balanced, prosperous, and confident body, but to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, implying embarrassment.
Sixteen years later John Berger gives nakedness a more positive slant – for him, to be naked is to be oneself – without the objectification that is applied to the ‘nude’. So for example an artist might paint his wife naked instead of nude, conveying intimacy. He says that whilst nakedness reveals itself, nudity is placed on display (usually for the male gaze).
Donatello’s David is one of the first artworks to feature the semi-nude figure, described by Kenneth Clark as ‘a work of incredible originality’. It shows David triumphant after killing Goliath, whose severed head lies beneath his feet. David is nude save for his sandals and a helmet – but does this make him naked? These items of protective clothing appear out of place, bookending his bare skin. David was traditionally depicted as a bearded king, far from the sensuous youth envisioned by Donatello. Many have speculated on Donatello’s sexuality, suggesting that this offers an explanation for the homoerotic overtones we see in the work today. To the Renaissance viewer the sculpture's lack of clothing may have called to mind the heroic nudity of antiquity, comparing David to the Gods and heroes of the classical world. Either way, it was a bold statement to make in the centre of the courtyard in the Palazzo Medici, home to the most prominent family in Florence.
Egon Schiele is known for his semi-nudes, exploited for their provocative potential. Their eroticism is emphasised by the suggestion that they are in the process of undressing, or revealing themselves for the voyeur. No doubt Diderot would have found them highly indecent! Stockings for example would have associated them with prostitutes - combined with ‘imperfections’ such as body hair, these items of clothing sever the naked body from its classical associations. In their place a humanity and expressiveness is allowed to come through. Schiele’s woman is intensely aware of the viewer just as we are intensely aware of her nakedness.
Semi nudity or nakedness is also employed in feminist art by women using their own bodies. VALIE EXPORT’s ‘Action Pants’ is a set of photos in documentation of a piece of performance art in Munich in 1968. They show her sitting outside on a bench wearing crotchless trousers and a leather shirt, holding a machine-gun in front of her chest. Her feet and genitals are bare and vulnerable. Her level of attire is the inverse of Schiele’s women, and somewhat unconventional. These touches of feminine vulnerability are juxtaposed with the aggressive, phallic imagery of the gun with which she appears to threaten the viewer, as well as her confrontational stance. She is said to have carried out the performance during a pornographic showing in a cinema, walking through the audience, her exposed genitalia at face-level. This confrontation aimed to challenge the historical representation of women as passive objects without agency, in cinema as well as art. The image also questions the sexualisation of the female body - when divorced from the rest of the body is it possible for an individual feature to be inherently erotic?