Updated: Sep 16, 2021
In art history, I learnt about the “feminine nude”. She was beautiful and reclining. Marble and oil paint - classical figures. She glared at me from PowerPoint presentations aware of a voyeur yet seemingly empowered - for she was nude and never naked. The difference between the nude and naked has puzzled me recently. Walking around the labour ward, I’ve watched sleeping mothers framed by barely-there hospital curtains. Breasts sprawled over chests, positioned to birth, positioned to feed, positioned to chat with friends and eat a meal, some have looked directly at me, others have turned away. Most embody vulnerability but also confidence. I’ve started to question if they are naked or nude. And, it seems, I’m not alone.
It is an issue that art critics have been grappling with for years. Art Historian, Kenneth Clark popularised the debate by stating that there is a fundamental difference between the two. In The Nude (1956) Clark argues that the naked body is “exposed, vulnerable, embarrassing”. Contrastingly, the concept of the nude has confidence. While the naked is defenceless, the nude is balanced, aware and confident. The theoretical difference is, as Borzello (2012) states, " the nude in art is a victory of fiction over fact. Its great success has been to distance the unclothed body from any uncomfortably explicit taint of sexuality, eroticism or imperfection”. But to me, it’s a lot simpler. There seems to be a moral judgement that befalls the two - nude is “good” and naked is "bad". This notion of fiction and morality is not new in society. So many of the battles that women fight are mere constructs embedded symbolism, representation and stereotypes. Women’s bodies are acceptable in patriarchally-desired forms and policed beyond that lineup. This concept of the nude and naked illustrates the ways in which many still see women, not only in birth but as beings.
Nakedness is censored while nudity asks permission. Idealised feminine nudes are celebrated while the naked female form, vulnerable, bloody and in pain, is given warning. Furthermore, consented and self-representational images of feminine pain remain undesirable as the female form is permitted a monolithic beauty irrespective of women's experiences with their naked bodies. This is especially true of reproductive rights and their representation. Rupi Kaur’s images of periods, for one, were banned. And if Frida Kahlo were on Instagram - she too would be reported. Frida, like so many female artists, saw this nude/naked nonsense for its patriarchal policeman and created in resistance and healing.
“Henry Ford Hospital” is perhaps one of Frida’s most well-known paintings and an interesting point of departure for the naked and the nude. Her bare depictions of miscarriages and unfulfilled motherhood were major themes of her work. She illustrated reproductive trauma and in a way the connected life and nudity. In this piece, she depicts her miscarriage. She is painted naked on a bed with thin red threads connecting her to reproduction and health. Kahlo represents her injured pelvis, spine and uterus that were a result of a tram crash at eighteen. The incident compromised her fertility - her desire for motherhood - as she underwent medical abortions and this, Henry Ford Hospital Miscarriage.
Less well-known is Kahlo’s lithograph “El Aborto” -"The Abortion". Frida draws herself, unclothed, surrounded by images of reproduction. A formed foetus is tied to her leg while a smaller lingers by her womb. Blood drips down her leg to the earth and settles among plants. She cries - as does the crescent moon. Both images show sorrow and the spirituality of loss. But they also show strength. The blood she lost from the abortion, nourishes the earth and plants. The plants grow and form child-like limbs. She holds a heart-shaped paint pallet with a third arm suggesting the healing quality of her art. There is a sense of death and rebirth. There is sadness but also confidence. There is flesh. There is a beauty but also the profound ugliness of womanhood. Nakedness.
There is something to be said about reclaiming nakedness - in the way that Frida autobiographically did. She refused the title of the nude by painting her vulnerability and reality. She, like the birthing women I meet at the clinic, are unapologetic about their bodies, their grit and grime, because that is what we look like as vessels of life and death. The idea of the nude is masculine. It is one that is afraid of the blood, sweat, shit and tears of women. It frames women as powerful but negates the power-play between subject and artist. It denies the humanity and individual nature of women. And so, I can’t help thinking that all nudes have always been naked. But maybe that's because of I'm a menstrual woman, with two sisters, a gym locker-room and a clinic of side-eyeing naked mamas. We are raw and real. Grotesque and human. We are a little bit ugly more often than you’d like to think.
– NPV 2018