From fig leaves to pinups: Mary Beard on the evolution of the nude

The male gaze has shaped art’s obsession with the naked body. Mary Beard offers a female perspective

Mary Beard is standing on a chair, chiselling the fig leaf off a large classical statue in Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. “God this is quite exciting. My hand is taut with the nerves of it all,” she says, though what lies beneath the familiar modesty motif turns out to be something of a disappointment. The statue, cast in plaster from an original in the Vatican collection, has suffered “a limited castration”, with the result that the fig leaf – probably added in the 19th century to spare the blushes of Irish art lovers – had nothing much to hide. “There’s something really ironic about these things that were meant to stop you seeing things,” Beard reflects, “when what they end up doing is saying: ‘Look at what you can’t see.’”

Her outing to Cork comes midway through the first episode of Shock of the Nude, a two-part BBC Two series which sets out to interrogate western art’s obsession with the naked body. The Cambridge classics professor has already marvelled at the marble musculature of Michelangelo’s David and tried her hand at a life-drawing hen party (“He’s got very good bum cheeks,” enthuses one of the group). These scenes are a subversion of Beard’s central thesis: “I don’t think you can talk about the nude unless you talk about male desire.” Given the dominance of the male gaze, the programmes ask, how is a woman to find her own perspective?

One of the challenges of the subject, Beard admits, was how to place herself as the presenter. “It’s an interesting position to find yourself in, because you’re having to present views to people with your clothes on about what it’s like not to have your clothes on.” She is not afraid to share her own emotional responses. “In my fantasies,” she says of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a reclining nude with her hand lingering suggestively over her genitals, “I’m with this naked lady and we’re both giggling at these blokes who are leering at us.”

Given the brickbats that Beard has suffered over the years, this challenge to the usual formalities of art scholarship is both pointed and brave. “I think you’ve got to be a bit resilient about this,” she says. “It was a team effort. We’ve said what we set out to say and if you get some crap on Twitter, as I’m sure we will, that was not our intention.”

Over the years Beard has repeatedly faced down the misogyny of the media – both conventional and social. “This is what 57-year-old women look like, deal with it,” she told the critic AA Gill after he criticised her appearance in her 2012 television series, Meet the Romans. Discovering that she had been largely edited out of the American version of the landmark 2018 series Civilisations, which she presented alongside Simon Schama and David Olusoga, she wryly responded: “It looks to me that mine were more substantially edited than the others’… I wonder why that was? I always try and stick up for elderly ladies with grey hair.”

The relevance of this very personal history, in the context of a film about the nude, is underlined in an interview with the artist Jemima Stehli, who in 2000 created a provocative set of photographs of herself stripping in front of a series of male curators and critics, to whom she had given control of the camera. One regular response, Stehli tells Beard, was “Would you do this if you didn’t have a body like this?”

Against the intransigence of the male gaze, Beard pits her own, shifting perspective. “I was brought up with 1970s feminism, when the object of the male gaze was seen as a part of male appropriation of women, and there’s a lot going for that position. But as I’ve got older I’ve begun to think: ‘What do I do? Am I not supposed to engage with it? Step one is to see the sexual politics, but can we go beyond this? What happens with women artists? Is it just a case of exalting male desire?’ But I like looking at these things and I have no intention of stopping. I think there’s room for hope.”

Beard’s story begins in Greece, in the 4th century BC, where a sculptor called Praxiteles became the first to carve a statue of a naked woman: “It was shockingly new and close to unacceptable.” So intoxicating was the image of Aphrodite, “who we rather coyly call the goddess of love when she’s really the goddess of sex”, that one young man was reported to have driven himself mad by attempting to make love to her. It doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not – “it was their way of trying to talk about it”.

Before Praxiteles, she says, the nude was the preserve of men and represented an ideal of citizenship, embodying moral and elite virtue in figures whose genitals “were often noticeably small”. She is too scrupulous a scholar to suggest that Praxiteles’s Aphrodite changed all that. “It’s been very hard to document the change in the viewing of the male nude, but the logic has to be that once you have sexualised the female naked form it’s going to reflect back on the male one.”

By the time Michelangelo unveiled his David in early 16th-century Florence, the male nude had been routinely sexualised, occupying “the blurry space where art meets erotica” and causing such anxiety that David himself was pelted with stones and fitted with a brass modesty belt. A brief detour into traditional African art – where the naked body is an expression of community or ritual – demonstrates the fetishistic weirdness of this western tradition, the disconnect between art and real life. “We say Jesus is naked, but we don’t say nude. And what about the bodies of the elderly or anatomical models. Are they nude?” Beard asks. “It’s as if the naked body is the unclothed body and the nude is the naked body in art – clothed in its nudity.”

The programmes are partly a canter through the ruses that have been used through history to keep art and pornography apart. Both location and language play a part in this: if it’s in a gallery, preferably in a gold frame, it’s art. If it has a mythological subject it’s art, even if – as in the case of John William Waterhouse’s pre-Raphaelite painting Hylas and the Nymphs – the myth itself has long lost its significance, leaving a flotilla of pubescent girls with titillatingly budding breasts.

Hylas and the Nymphs became the centre of a minor scandal two years ago when it was publicly removed from the wall of Manchester Art Gallery by the artist Sonia Boyce. The outcry – which even spilled into the Guardian letters page – was quite unfair, says Beard. The painting was never intended to be permanently censored. Its removal was in a tradition of a feminist performance that has become a way of forcing people to question what they are looking at, how and why.

She cites a far more radical intervention in 2014, when the performance artist Deborah de Robertis sat down and exposed her naked crotch in front of Gustave Courbet’s breathtakingly explicit L’Origine du Monde in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, repeatedly chanting “Je suis l’origine. Je suis toutes les femmes. Tu ne m’as pas vue ... ” The performance is not shown, or even alluded to, in the series, though Courbet’s painting itself is displayed in a closeup that powerfully exposes the dissemblance of context. On the gallery wall it is an acceptable work of art; in reproduction, it is a crotch-shot by another name, which remains so shocking that a teacher had his Facebook account terminated when he posted it. “Just think how differently we would look at it if it was called, say, Jeanette’s Pussy,” says Beard, who argues that the painting contains its own critique. “What I think Courbet was doing was exposing so many other of those European nudes for exactly what they are.”

Courbet’s hyperreal pictorial form of truth-telling is not unlike Beard’s own. One of the great popularisers of the last decade, she has a plain-talking style which has no truck with academic jargon. “In some ways we take the nude absolutely for granted. We know it has been the centre of modern art training for hundreds of years but we can also be shocked by it and a bit of vernacular helps,” she says. “I’m not a posh male art historian. They’ve done good things on this stuff, but I think it’s good for a woman presenter to do this. I don’t want people only to talk in terms of tits and bums and willies – that would be unedifying – but we need to have a range of repertoire.”

Her feminist viewpoint is particularly pertinent in the case of Susanna and the Elders, a biblical story of embattled virtue that was painted several times by the early 17th-century artist Artemisia Gentileschi. In the painting, two scheming elders loom over the naked Susanna, who has been surprised while taking a bath. Gentileschi is known to have been raped by her painting teacher. “I can’t help but see her rape in the figure, but I wonder if that’s more about me than about her,” says Beard, who notes that the version she is studying is in the collection of Burghley House, where it spent much of its life in a bedroom. “I doubt anyone there saw it as an advert for sexual restraint.” Where does this leave us now? Today, male genitals cross the line of what’s allowed to be seen, she asserts, though this self-censorship applies in interesting ways to the female body as well. “My first introduction to pinups was at my local garage, and you wouldn’t go to a garage today and see a lot of naked women in the mechanics’ workshop.”

Which brings us back to the fig leaf. “What I think is interesting is that we have a view of it as a very simple trajectory: the 19th century plastered them on and we’ve taken them off, but the moment you look at historical art from the late middle ages onwards the fig leaf and the nude are always in tension with each other.”

So what of today’s ubiquitous culture of selfies and dick pics? “I’m probably a bit old to understand the culture of the dick pic,” she says. “But one of the things that is really interesting to me is, when you go to the Louvre, what do you see people doing in front of the Venus de Milo? They take selfies, and I think it’s too easy to be sniffy about that. We should be more sympathetic about the selfie, because it’s a new way of engaging with works of art and also with your body”

• Mary Beard’s Shock of the Nude will be broadcast on BBC2 on 3 February.


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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