Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Naked and the Nude

“No man in my country has seen a woman naked and painted her as if he knew anything except that she was naked. No woman in my country is naked except at night.”

                       – William Carlos Williams, in the essay A Matisse

“In the french sun, on the french grass in a room on Fifth Avenue a french girl lies and smiles at the sun without seeing us.” So concludes Williams after looking at a Matisse on a 5th Avenue wall in New York.

The  poet is not alone in noticing a peculiar difference between American versions of the nude and the continental traditions we have come from. We speak of the figure, as if something about the human being were mechanical and cast-like.

The Matisse that occupies Williams’s attention shows the result of an afternoon Matisse spent outdoors with a model who accepts the artist’s gaze with the same equanimity as she does the rays of the sun. France calls her a nude.

I can think of a few nudes in French art that meet our gaze – Olympia by Manet; that Ingres with the long torso looking over her shoulder at the viewer – but the lack of self-consciousness is indeed the difference, and why wouldn’t it?

When the Platonist sees the figure, it is the human soul. When the Puritan sees the figure he sees sin, guilt and judgment. And when we paint the figure, we are less able to appreciate human goodness, because our belief in things has continued as a backwater reaction against humanism.

You might well say, what of the 20th century? Where did humanism get it right in Europe? It was Puritan and Protestant America that had to come to the rescue and end the carnage of those wars with more carnage of the figure, the figure of mankind.

Although we somehow know the human body is beautiful, because it is an essential aesthetic anyone can appreciate, the sadness is that the beauty of us is not a sufficient defense from harm or war. Alone, this fact is astonishing, often to doctors more than artists.

While I long had an aversion to Philip Pearlstein’s paintings, even to the way they were made in cells, as in a sort of prison, I have been changed by what they struggle to show me. While close to the French model in Williams’ Matisse painting, Pearlstein’s models do not smile at the sun, nor even gaze; instead they wait until their time is up.

This doomed prison of time, of being observed, reminds me so much of Norman Mailer’s Pacific War novel “The Naked and the Dead.” But the dead who were really on our minds after the war were the dead in the concentration camps. To me Pearlstein is heroically rescuing body after body from time, from death, and there is no French sun, no sun at all, just the passing of time as at a resurrection or a wake.

It is the work of art to manage all that lies beyond words, the heavy truth, or the joy transcendent of life.

What nude appears in Eric Fischl’s paintings? Again the wrestling with our Puritan demons. He is either saying “Life includes this; accept yourself in this. All that is human is good.” Or he is saying “You are disturbed by your consciousness of the human experience.” Now what?

You cannot say the honesty of art in America is wrong. On the contrary, we are perhaps uncovering more than what clothes hide. We are studying the human being in its self-conscious truth. Perhaps an uncluttered, uncomplicated enjoyment of sunlight is less taxing on our eyes. But the humanism we seek is one that must defend mankind by revealing to the utmost who we are in our own blessing.

Chivalry, invented in Provence by the French, may have been created by men for women, or by both for both. It is possible that chivalry alone conferred the trust French models show Matisse, and he by that design is trustworthy. He likened his relationship to his adored models as a love, one in which they shower flower petals on each other. There is both a sensual admission to that metaphor and a chaste regard – a charm – which we have heard about and found difficult to master.

But mastery is possibly the problem. It was a dream of the 19th century to establish human will as the spine of mastery. Again, the 20th century saw the fall of supermen and mighty wills. Coincidentally, almost in opposition to this trend, artists painted more loosely, found fresh paradigms, were exiled for not being salon masters. To accommodate them – and Matisse is a prime example – we loosen the definition of master. Now we mean not will, but discovery; not the old done better, but creation from the intuition; not contests, but contributions; not the artist’s ego, but the charm of the subject.

We have given ourselves over to this study of our times through art, not because artists lead us, but because art and we lead them. They are, after all, made of us, in our situation in time.

To think back to medieval painting and our early tradition of the figure/ground relationship, we understand it as a formal problem – yes. But it is also a matter of feudal importance. Land and the person on it – who is bound to it by fate, history, fealty, narrative, loyalty, economics – is an essential feature.

In neoclassical France, the figure/ground relationship follows a different tack. Where the Middle Ages once burst the confines of feudal obligation by the appearance of miracles, modernizing France places dreams of past glory against the ground of time. The anachronism of Socrates is declared lifted and the past is here to help as a form of Academy in humanism, philosophy and the arts.

And between these Ages, Neo-Platonism perfects the Italian Renaissance by replacing the clothed figure with the nude. This, then, is the most natural state, unadorned with the diamonds and gowns that make bachelorettes squeal with material glee on our television flat screens.

The figure/ground debate in America shifts from even these trappings. Olympia, a prostitute shown regally luxurious by Manet, is followed in America by a scrutiny of Balthus for evidence of child sexual abuse.

In fact, the matters of our last 20 years in America are nowhere found more aptly than in the portraits of Anne Harris, which answer the sarcasm and ironies of John Currin’s vision. These paintings by Harris are paintings for our time, mostly of women, and girls, by a woman artist. Here then is the long awaited move – a humane face for the question of what we mean to ourselves. The figure/ground relationship is almost non-existent in the traditional sense. What we notice is the figure’s psyche – the consciousness looking out with some unease about herself, about us, about her fate in being contained in the body. They are spiritual, if you like that term; they are of the school of the naked. They are true as the naked is true, and they are still seeking to be understood, as our human sisters, as what we are, as how we live bewildered, wry, alone,  although horribly public.

Indeed, it may be art that one day makes us incapable of war, incapable of not understanding one another. This is the process begun long ago, the process of art and artist seeking to understand more than anatomy, more than the naked or the nude.

John Sevcik

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