Naked isn’t Nude

The unclothed and semi-clothed female form has been used to express both lofty ideas and carnal desire for as long as art has been made. There is a thin line that separates the depiction of justice from desire, sex from mercy, and truth from eroticism. While I could get all feminist and strident on the subject, I will instead try to explain how I see the difference.

Women’s bodies are attractive, arousing, and comforting to men and women alike, regardless of orientation, and for reasons best explained by Carl Jung, not me. It is not surprising that unclothed and semi-clothed women show up in a multitude of poses in a multitude of settings. At times the message in the image is clear and at other times it is jumbled; sometimes the model is naked and sometimes she is nude.

Art, sensuality, and sex are closely linked. It is not surprising that many artists have had sexual relationships with their models, and these liaisons have created some very memorable and moving pieces that, perhaps ironically, are not about sex, but about love, tenderness, and vulnerability in addition to their explorations of shape and form. Wyeth’s Helga paintings for instance, or Weston’s portraits of Charis show the depth of feeling these men had for their muses, morals aside.

Apart from the use of the female body to express the deepest and most tender emotion, woman has also traditionally been employed as a symbol of justice, truth, and honesty. Semi-draped Lady Liberty, for instance, is hardly dispensing sartorial or relationship advice from her perch in New York Harbor–instead she stands for the ideals on which our country was based. Lady Justice is also scantily clad in most of her depictions for the same reasons–Justice should have nothing to hide but should at the same time show mercy. It is no coincidence that our language embraces this symbolism as well with expressions such as, “the naked truth”, “bare justice”, “the unadorned truth” and so on.

We see a lot of different things when we look at an unclothed woman, and while we may easily see the symbolism and the inherent form in the roundness of her body, we also see her through the filter of our own experience. It is that experience that often leads the way in composition and paves the road to our peril, for photographs of the bare body will show what we may want buried like no other subject matter. It is in that little, often unconscious, pit where the difference between naked and nude resides.

For me, the definition of ‘naked’ is a picture in which the unadorned female is gratuitous, whereas ‘nude’ is a woman whose lack of clothing is integral to the message, which may, in a semantically confusing way, express naked emotion. Darn you, English! If a picture is stronger without the model, or the model could easily be posed another way for a better picture, it’s likely you’re looking at a naked woman. If, on the other hand, the presence of a figure is central to the image, and cannot be removed without losing the composition, or if posed differently weakens the piece, she’s probably nude.

Naked pictures can show how the photographer feels about the model’s body, what the model represents to him, in an erotic sense. Maybe she’s just wearing high heels, perhaps her drapery dangles between her legs, maybe her tongue is out, perhaps she’s leaning against a horse. What would it say if those high heels were battered or old fashioned instead of shiny stilettos? What if the horse weren’t even there? Or the woman? Alternately, a naked woman may be trapped somehow–in a hole, under a table, closed in a car. What kind of picture would it be were those women posed in a way that showed anguish, fear, defiance, resignation, or fury?

Naked pictures also often show heavy-handed symbolism, just in case you missed the message that the photographer is aroused or angered or hurt by unclothed women. Or they show attempts at making a naked woman into a “fine art nude” (which seems only to be a declarative statement that the photographer is not making porn, though it’s hard to tell). You might see bottles of alcohol, knocked over glasses, an arched back, or a coy look. Some tricks to arty-up a naked picture may include soft focus or the use of alternative techniques (an ambrotype of a naked woman is still a naked woman, just taken by a person who knows how to pour plates); the presence of props that are supposed to show she’s brainy–a book or glasses for instance; hard surfaces to set up a contrast between it and the softness of the body; or my favorite, the naked woman with her face covered.

Nudes, on the other hand, transcend the nakedness of the model. What you see is the beauty of form, the conversation of shape. A nude can be slender, she can be heavy, traditionally beautiful or conventionally ugly, but her body always has something to say. A nude may not show those parts that are uniquely female; a nude may be largely androgenous; she might be fully relaxed; she might be raw emotion. Possibly there are props or context where they lend something to the story, but you won’t find superfluous objects. The relationship described may be between the body and its surroundings, or the body and its parts.

The truly extraordinary nudes show not only the beauty of form and shape of the female body, but also express the emotion that flows between the model and the photographer. The viewer is privy to the depiction of vulnerability and strength, sensuality and tenderness, nakedness and respect, and the purity of human connection. We couldn’t see this as clearly with a clothed woman, or pull it out of even the most clever arrangement of objects. An extraordinary nude shows us the best of our humanity, where woman is treasured and revered, no matter how she looks.

In the end, a naked picture makes me feel old, fat, and unattractive but a nude lets me see the enduring beauty of the female form at any age and any condition. A naked woman makes me realize my loss of attributes whereas a nude shows me they never fade.

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