Helena Pylkkänen, Masculine / Recumbent Torso, 1986–87, bronze, 68cm x 42cm x 36cm Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

The Nude Stripped of Dignity

Anu Utriainen, MA, Senior Researcher, Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki

Also published in Anu Utriainen (ed.), Urban Encounters. Finnish Art in the Twentieth Century. Ateneum Publications Vol. 105. Helsinki: Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum 2018, 138–66. Transl. Don McCracken

The nude body has appeared in visual art and culture in myriad ways and styles; it has been interpreted from different starting points throughout history and imbued with various meanings. The nude has reflected transitions, both within the arts and in broader historical, political and social contexts, and it reveals changes in the concepts of beauty, morality, and attitudes towards gender. As an art object, the nude exposes the model’s surface and depth: especially in the modern age, the nude is an image of both the human form and the psyche.

It is worth asking why and for whom the nude image has been created, and in what context it should be viewed and interpreted. The classic male nude is presented in Western art as a heroic, universal subject, or a mythological deity.[1] The body of a naked man has also been perceived as a sensuous object, but it is not automatically regarded as an object of sexual desire, despite its virility and masculinity. A traditional male nude was portrayed as self-motivated, actively shaping his own world, while women found themselves subject to a demeaning erotic gaze, stripped not only of clothing, but also of their power and autonomy. Masculinity symbolises both vitality and a well-developed mental and intellectual capacity. In contrast to his female counterpart, the male nude embodies a potent mix of power, control and agency, and the gaze appears to be directed outwards from the work of art towards the spectator, rather than the other way around.[2]

[1] See Natter, Tobias G. & Leopold, Elisabeth (eds). Nude Men: From 1800 to the Present Day. Exhibition catalogue, Leopold Museum, Vienna 19.10.201228.1.2013. Munich: Hirmer 2012.

[2] E.g. Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation. London: Thames & Hudson 1997, 33–35. In Finland, Marja-Terttu Kivirinta has addressed Modernism and modernisation in her dissertation, e.g. through the concept of biopower, cf. Kivirinta. Vieraita vaikutteita karsimassa. Helene Schjerfbeck ja Juho Rissanen. Sukupuoli, luokka ja Suomen taiteen rakentuminen 1910–20-luvulla. Helsinki: University of Helsinki 2014.

Featured image: Helena Pylkkänen, Masculine / Recumbent Torso, 1986–87, bronze, 68cm x 42cm x 36cm. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum
Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Hannu Aaltonen

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