For centuries, the naked body has been depicted in visual art, carrying on its shoulders the weight of various meanings. Fundamentally, the body is a blank canvas of intimate corners, angular shadows and soft curves which has had plastered to its neutral surface, sex; expectation; standards of beauty; politics; psychology; the male gaze and so on. At a time when contemporary culture is obsessed with the reclaiming of bodily agency, especially from a feminist perspective, it is interesting to consider the way in which artists have navigated the human form, and how it has evolved as a symbol of vulnerability, intimacy and honesty, as well as the way in which it is used as a weapon.
The danger of this confusion is that we see bodies being used as sexual commodities in order for brands to sell products, alongside Instagram models ‘#freeingthenipple’ in the name of feminism. This sends out the message that in order to reclaim your body, you must market it in the same way that advertisers do. The line between agency and internalisation is a fine one and it isn’t always clear which has prevailed. It seems that our most natural state has been capitalised on and commercialised.
Bodies are being used as sexual commodities in order for brands to sell products
The most recent exhibition at the Laing Gallery, Exposed: The Naked Portrait, which has sadly just finished, offers an exploration of nudity across different mediums and time periods to collate an idea of the way in which our attitudes to our most private selves have changed. Intrinsic to our contemporary view of the naked body as deeply personal, is a sense of freedom when we expose ourselves. Walking around the exhibition I noticed that, after a while, or rather, after exposure to exposure, the idea of nudity loses its connotations of discomfort and overt sexuality, and instead is replaced with a feeling of empowerment and a sense of ‘coming home’ to our natural selves. These different emotions are apparent in the various portraits in the exhibition which range from large scale paintings of slightly awkward figures, to photos of models such as Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss unashamedly baring all.
The exhibition divides its contents into two sections: Bodies of Desire and Reclaiming the Body, charting the shift in society’s perception of bodies, especially female ones, as commodities or an aesthetic object to be sexualised and used as a weapon, to a way of gaining agency over sexuality and gender. What is striking about these images is that nothing has really changed in terms of their contents, it is simply a switch in attitude that has resulted in this alteration in perception. Whether art catalyses this change by exposing people to the taboo, or simply reflects the shift is unclear.