Monday, January 16, 2017

A Worldwide History of the Nude - Paul LeValley

For twenty years, I wrote the art history column in Naturally magazine. It grew into the longest-running signed column in the history of the American nudist/naturist press. From the beginning, the plan had been to republish those columns in book form. My editor, Bern Loibl, laid out chapter 1 before he suddenly died. No major art history publisher would touch this project.

So after retiring to Cypress Cove, I laid it out myself. That way, I could have print big enough for me to read, and I could put pictures and their explanations on the same page (or facing page). I even thought it important to include a travel guide to the artworks, so vacationers could seek them out and view them in person.

I like to think this is a major publishing event—the first major book on nude art written from a naturist perspective. This is also the first comprehensive survey in full color. The whole world is included: Egypt, India, China and Japan, Greece and Rome, the Middle East, American Indians, Africa, the Pacific, plus Europe and America from medieval times to the present.

This book is expensive; art books are. But with 572 pages and more than 700 color illustrations, a price tag of $99.90 is reasonable. Look at it this way: You get seven pictures of great nude art for a dollar. Where else can you find a bargain like that? Only 500 signed and numbered hardcover copies have been printed in this limited edition.

For whatever it's worth, I am not gay. Yet the book does not shy away from mentioning gay issues, or featuring the work of several gay artists. Here are a few examples of artworks that may interest you. You can read sample pages (and order books) by going to my web site.

Zerge, Wrestling Boys—Private collection.

"As a youth I lay prone on sweet grasses, my nude body pressed tightly against the ground so that all my sense drew strength and stimulation from Demeter [or Mother Earth]. I swam and floated in waters that soothingly, sensuously caressed my form, then roughly, harshly battered me; the better to forge my body, mind and spirit into one invincible self. On the playing, field, I ran the hard race, hurled the discus far, spurred by vigor drawn from my gleaming body. I wrestled with others, forcing muscle against muscle, touching sweating flesh against flesh that invigorated our contest. I sat unclothed, listening and discoursing with great teachers as Helios [the sun] warmed my whole self. I was able to dart and parry, because my mind was as free as my physique. Had I been encumbered by cloth I would have been bound tightly, restrained and constricted. But nudity provided me freedom to soar where I would in my quest for understanding my inner self, and creating my whole being."

So wrote a Greek schoolboy. The name of Menalkes, a fifth-century pentathlon winner, has been attached to this fragment—though it was probably written a few centuries later. A clothed alternative would not even have occurred to an athlete of his time. Athletic nudity seemed like such common sense to the Greeks, that it took a thousand years for the question of "Why?" to even come up.
During all that time, the Olympic committee clung to some old-fashioned ideas. They never, for instance, adopted the age classifications common for athletic competitions in the rest of Greece: boys (without pubic hair), beardless youths (with pubic hair but unable to grow a beard), and men (able to grow a beard). Nevertheless, in 386 BCE, twelve­-year-old Damiscus of Messene beat all of the older boys in the stade race at Olympia.

For military, rather than athletic purposes, the first two years of transition into manhood (ages 18 to 20) were called the ephebe stage. Since the late nineteenth century, artists and writers have often misused that term for youths or boys—probably because the English language has no single word for the high school athletes so beloved by the Greeks. A twentieth-century artist, Owe Zerge of Sweden, painted the timeless "forcing of muscle against muscle" as Menalkes described it so long ago. Two modern fourteen-year-old boys, newly arrived at the beardless youth stage, test their growing strength.

Delville, The School of Plato—Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

The modern Olympics fall far short of the Greek experience in several ways. One is in nudity. Another is in honesty. Might a return to simple, honest, athletic nudity lessen some of the corruption? The link between nudity and honesty is a strong one. As Socrates put it, "Experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up... then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but the good."

Socrates lived in Athens, where nudity also meant the association of a free body with a free mind, as the Menalkes fragment emphasizes. Like other boys from Athens, Menalkes would have studied the academics, music, morality, and athletics in the city's gymnasiums—a word which means "place of nudity." These were park-like areas where, as part of the boys' well­-rounded education, philosophers such as Socrates wandered in and out. In fact, during the next century, each of Athens' three main gymnasiums became the home base for a group of philosophers: Plato's followers at the Academy, Aristotle in the Lyceum. and the Cynics taking their name from the Cynosarges. (Plato, by the way, had been such an outstanding student-athlete that he once competed in wrestling in the Isthmian games at Corinth.)

Yet painters and sculptors seldom recorded the dullness of the morning lessons. They preferred the greater challenge of depicting active bodies practicing in the afternoon.

And so to see young men pausing from their exercise as they listen to a philosopher, we must turn to the imagination of a Belgian artist, Jean Delville, who in 1898 painted The School of Plato. The setting is accurate, though a little too spacious. And yes, homosexual affection was much more accepted in ancient Greece than in our own society. (In fact, military leaders at Athens' rival city of Sparta encouraged it, believing the soldiers would fight more fiercely to protect their companions.)
Many things differed at Sparta. Spartans took an ornery pride in the fact that they wasted no time on art, or literature, or philosophy. All they cared about was the military training of their young men. And the training was tough. From the age of twelve, boys spent most of their time nude, whatever the weather; one short cloak had to last all year. Trainers deliberately gave boys too lit­tle food, so that they would learn to steal, in preparation for foraging days in the army. One boy did wear his cloak when brought before a magistrate on the charge of stealing a neighbor's fox. He stood there calmly denying the charge until he fell over dead; the fox under his cloak had clawed out his stomach while the boy showed no emo­tion. Instead of seeing this as another example of the evil that results from covering things up, Spartans retold this story to their sons as an example of courage. With such tough-mindedness, Sparta dominated the first century-and-a­-half of the Olympics; nearly 60 percent of known winners came from that one city.

Lidbury, David and Jonathan.

It's inevitable. Any discussion of the nude in art must eventually come around to the David statues. Unfortunately, a great deal of balderdash has been written about them, as modern critics try to project their own hang-ups about nudity and sexuality into the minds of Renaissance artists. To get at the truth, we must begin by slaying a few demons of our own:
No, there is no evidence strong enough to support a charge of homosexuality in Donatello. On the other hand, the existing evidence on Michelangelo seems pretty clear, though it points only to his later life, some twenty years after he finished the David.

How was David really dressed? The Bible only says that he took off the military helmet and armor offered to him because they felt too big. It does not say he took off everything, though it does add that right after the battle, Saul's son Jonathan took off every stitch of his own clothes and gave them to David. So the new hero could cover up to greet the admiring crowds? We can't be sure. Nudity is not required in the David story; rather it comes from the Greek art tradition.

Though critics have sometimes questioned the sexual orientation of sculptors who carved nude Davids, few have closely examined the hero's own life. David's lament over the death of his boyhood friend, Jonathan, contains such memorable lines as "They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions," and "How the mighty are fallen!" Yet homosexual men have for centuries also taken comfort from the line, "Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." Religious leaders have usually interpreted this as simple male friendship. Then as the Gay Rights movement gained momentum, Joe Phillips at the beginning of the twenty-first century chose to paint an erotic parting of the two friends. [The painting is lost, but the artist provided his preliminary sketch for the book.] The Bible says they parted at the edge of an archery field, while a servant searched for stray arrows; any athletic nudity in those pre-Greek years seems to be yet another of the artistic liberties in the David tradition. Still, it is rare to find David depicted nude away from the Goliath adventure.

A few years later, Malcolm Lidbury stood on firmer biblical ground when he showed Jonathan lending his clothes to David for the victory parade. This is the beginning of their friendship. Yet, like Phillips, the artist preferred a bearded Jonathan—moving beyond the teenage David tradition, to young adults capable of making their own life choices.

Caravaggio, St. John the Baptist—Capitoline Museum, Rome.

"Scandalous!" people say, when looking at erotic temple sculptures in India. "Such goings-on could never happen among devout Christians." Yet there was a time when the church, indeed, turned to sex as one method of getting its message across. It was the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 1600s.

On some points, Catholic leaders conceded that their Protestant critics were right, and they proceeded to clean house. Among the abuses thrown out, cardinals had to give up their mistresses. Just as men do in prison, some turned to homosexuality. Relieved church officials chose not to look into these matters too closely.

On other points, Catholic leaders believed they had been right all along, and determined to intensify their efforts. Protestants had criticized lavish church art; Catholic leaders determined to make their churches even more ornate. Protestants had attacked them with logic; the Catholic Church would fight back with even greater emotional appeal. They sought any emotional hook—even such a powerful emotional force as sex—if it would bring people back into the arms of the church.  Officials called on artists to find bold new ways of snaring people's emotions in the religious cause.

A curious and not wholly welcomed result of these two trends was the controversial artwork of Caravaggio. A disreputable ruffian, he lived with an openly gay cardinal who bought up pictures of pretty boys as fast as the artist could paint them. But they did have emotional power. Caravaggio's painting of a nude John the Baptist is open to widely differing interpretations. The viewer has clearly intruded into some kind of intense relationship between the boy and the sheep. Is John really beholding the Lamb of God? Or is this some more earthy youthful experiment we don't talk about? This painting has bothered the critics. Some have insisted that it could not be a religious subject—just some anonymous loutish shepherd boy. But Caravaggio did more than forty paintings of the young John the Baptist—most of them scantily clad, but much more wistful than this painting. Their deliberate sex appeal is hard to deny.

Papow, Aphrodite and the Erotes II.

Cupid began in Greek art as an adolescent, then after 350 BCE was demoted to a swarm of winged babies. That remained the case pretty much until the mid-1700s. Then, Neoclassic artists, reading the ancient texts, restored Cupid to adolescence, and emphasized his love affair with Psyche. But after a little too much of that, the trend reversed again, and Cupid shrank back down into safer babyhood.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, O. Henry wrote "Mammon and the Archer." In his story, a wealthy businessman argues that money can buy anything. But not love, his family members insist. He arranges a traffic jam that gives his son time to propose marriage and be accepted. As he pays off the head of the taxi-drivers' union, he asks, "You didn't notice, anywhere in that tie-up, a kind of fat boy without any clothes on shooting arrows around with a bow, did you?" When told no, he reflects, "I thought the little rascal wouldn't be on hand." No, we haven't seen Cupid much in the last hundred years, but he probably hasn't aged during that time. [Written in 1992.]

Postscript: Early in the twenty-first century, a flock of Cupids were sighted after a hundred-year absence. They first appeared in Aphrodite and the Erotes, a February calendar frame by Dustin Papow. Aphrodite remains eternally young, as is fitting for a goddess of love and beauty. But she has a bunch of teenage boys hanging around. In a note, the artist carefully identifies each of the erotes (clockwise from upper left) as blind Himeros, god of sexual desire who has accompanied Aphrodite since the moment of her birth; Eros (or Cupid), Aphrodite’s teenage son; Anteros, god of mutual love and avenger of unreturned love; and Pothos, god of unattainable longing. On close examination, they do each have wings, and two of them carry a bow and arrows. Yet they are definitely older than traditional erotes. Does that mean that, in these less prudish times, Cupid is starting to grow up again? It will be interesting to watch.

Stradling, Omphalos—private collection, New York City.

Some of the most interesting art today is coming from gay men, who have moved beyond lust, beyond anger, beyond politics, to give us new perspective on universal themes. English painter Matthew Stradling named his painting Omphalos after the famed "navel of the world" in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. There, nude young men competed in athletics and music. But far more is involved. The artist also works in the tradition of Baroque ceiling paintings that fooled the eye into seeing a dome with an open skylight above it. And he is aware of the Buddhist concept of everyone whirling around the calm center of the wheel of life. We are seeing familiar things in new ways—and that, after all, is one of any artist's most important jobs.

People sure of themselves can live comfortably in a world of ambiguities. They don't need to know the answer to everything. They can stand on their own feet, without the props of conventional ideologies. Even John Steinbeck, that ultimate realist, saw that the nuclear age called for a new type of thinking. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he warned, "Having taken God-like power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have. Man himself has become our greatest hazard and our only hope."

What we make of our world depends on our choices and our actions. We must begin by finding peace and unity within ourselves—with no distinction between mind and body. We have no dirty parts. We are whole. All of life is sacred. Only when we begin to understand the oneness within ourselves can we begin to find peace and unity with the world around us. Our understanding and our choices ripple outward. By our every act and at every moment, we are creating the Existential age.