Nudes Under State Gaze

By Aranya Bhowmik  

‘‘Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.” This statement by Pablo Picasso brings out some pertinent facts about perception on art. It is the social and cultural conventions, which creates a façade through which an artwork is often looked or understood.

The issue of censorship is not a new phenomenon rather it has been going on since ages. In this case the intervention of “state” is very crucial as it has always intervened in the freedom of expression and has condemned whatever is not going in sync with the “state’s” ideology( Louise Althusser coins it as “Ideological state apparatus”). This is how certain artist and art works have come under the state’s radar as being controversial and against the ideology of state.

“Nudes” have often fall victim in this case, but the irony is nudes are also the most celebrated sensually titillating genre in western painting. “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude…Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.” John Berger in his seminal book ‘Ways of Seeing’ clearly defines ‘nudity’ and distinguishes it from ‘nakedness’. Throughout ages, nudity has played an important role in serving the male sexual fantasy. At a point of time, nude art works have become a commodity to the male viewer whose libidinal fantasies are fulfilled through it.

It is very interesting to see that how such conventions have been criticized by artists like Edouard Manet and Gustav Courbet in their paintings like ‘Luncheon on the Grass’(Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe)1863, ‘Olympia’, 1865 and ‘The origin of the World”( L’Origine du Monde), 1866. The bold and unhindered gaze of the Olympia or the naked woman in Luncheon on the Grass penetrates straight to the viewer and questions the objectification of woman. It is the nakedness without the disguise of nudity that provokes the gaze and discomforts the viewer. All of these paintings have been able to raise the eyebrows of audiences as well as the salon juries who were not able to accept the challenge that all of these work posed to them.

‘Luncheon on the Grass’(Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe)1863, Eduard Manet

‘Olympia’, 1865, Eduard Manet

‘The origin of the World”( L’Origine du Monde), 1866. Gustave Courbet

In the west , most of the celebrated nudes by Ingres, Baudry, Cabanel and many other artists represents mythical characters like Venus, Aphrodite and Nymphs and they are not subjected to controversy or salon rejection. But the ones, which represent people around, have often jolted the jury and the public. The nudes as long as they are mythical and pleasing the gaze, is not threatening to the state and the society. In 1989, Guerrilla Girls published an ad saying ‘How women get maximum exposure’. The ad criticised the policy of Metropolitan Museum of keeping maximum number of ‘nudes’, which indicated towards the age old tradition of objectification of woman.

‘How women get maximum exposure’. 1989, Guerrilla Girls

The issue of nudes take different turn when it comes to Indian art. In India, nude study is still in the curriculum of academic practice in various art colleges. Yet when it comes to the public space, it still creates ‘awkwardness’ for a common person (except for the intellectual minority!).

Raja Ravi Varma in his later years had to fight a case filed against his paintings of nude mythological characters like Urvashi and Menaka. M.F Hussain went through severe ordeal over his painting ‘Bharat Mata’, which depicts a nude woman on her knees creating the map of India. He went in exile to Qatar where he took the citizenship after having hundreds of cases filed against him on hurting religious and nationalistic sentiments. The other artist who faced such trouble was Akbar Padamsee, whose work ‘Lovers’ was confiscated by police from and exhibition in Mumbai in 1950s. The painting represented a naked couple in sensuous posture. Fortunately, the verdict of the case got in favour of Padamsee.

Urvashi-Pururavas, Raja Ravi Varma

‘Bharat Mata’ M.F. Hussain

“Lovers” by Akbar Padamsee

In 2013, the show”The Naked and the Nude: The Body in Indian Modern Art” in Delhi Art gallery also faced similar protest. The right wing women organization argued that the portrayal of naked woman in public is a disgrace to women in our country. They tried to disrupt the show, which eventually did not happen due to the police security called up by the gallery. Protesting against such shows or artwork in order to protect women’s prestige in the society is nothing but beating around the bush, where the original issue of woman’s place in the society is not being addressed rather diverting the attention through attacking art. In addition, the works that the show had images referring to some pertinent issues related to woman, the crisis, anxiety and the place of a woman in a society which is more than just the naked human figure.

Apart from State’s measures, in ‘Social Media’ also there is a conscious attempt of resisting nude pictures. Recently an image from a graphic novel by artist Orijit Sen titled ‘Punjaban’ was removed from Facebook due to a report of being explicit by some Facebook follower. The picture showed a topless woman tying the drawstring on a pair of Pyjamas. The setting is not so provocative as such images of woman getting dressed or bathing has always been a part of European and Indian art, yet the picture was found explicit to someone on whose request without any notification to the artist the photo was removed. The incident and Orijit’s reaction to it got quick responses on net and after uploading it again, the picture was kept without any further action. Although such incidents on social media in recent times were increasing which is why 14th Jan 2015 was called the ‘Facebook Nudity Day’ by a group of artists and art historian, Kathy Schnapper, Stephen Pusey and Grace Graupe-Pillard as a response against the increasing threat of censorship on art. This saw a huge response online and social media like Facebook was flooded with images of Manet, Courbet or Egon Schiele, Robert Mapplethorp and many other artists.

“Punjaban”, Orijit Sen, 2015

Until now whatever have been discussed hints towards the bitter truth, which is the lack of awareness towards art. The education system in our country lacks a proper curriculum where art is given equal priority as other subjects. Art has always played the radical role of questioning the society and the system. There are different connotations attached to nudity. The representation of nude in an artwork is an outcome of the artist’s freedom of expression. Which is beyond the paradigm of gender, nationalistic and religious sentiment?

Sources links





2015 – “Indian Graphic Novelist Celebrates Artistic

Nudes After Facebook Censorship” : Maren Williams, CBLDF

2011- “On M.F. Hussain, Free Expression , and pluralism”, Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC

2015- “A Brief History Of Art Censorship From 1508 To 2014”- Priscilla Frank, The Huffington Post

2016- “On Facebook Nudity Day, People Are Protesting The Random

Censorship Of Art”- Katherine Brooks, , The Huffington Post

2013- “Why do we always need the past to validate our present?”, Priyanka, Rediff news.

2015- “Of bans, blasphemy, brouhaha and the bourgeoisie…”. Monica Arora, Artsome blogs.