The skin, the flesh, the curves, the hollows, the shapes and contours... The naked body is the surface of all projections... and an eternal source of controversy. In a letter to her friend, artist Georgia O'Keeffe, Frida Kahlo wrote these humorous words: "Do you like to be undressed by a look?" In one sentence, the Mexican painter, known for her fight for the emancipation of women – and having posed nude many times – summed up a great questioning on the role of the nude in society and in art. Is it the naked body that shocks? Or the greedy look that rests on his innocence? In recent years, a societal paradox has hung over the Western world. There is a tug-of-war between two opposing trends: on the one hand, a resurgence of puritanism (mainly aimed at women) invites modesty and encourages to cover all parts of the body considered as potential catalysts of desire. On the other, in the name of freedom, fantasy and art, an exaltation and eroticization of the female body triumphs.
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At the last New York Met Gala dedicated to Karl Lagerfeld, corsets and transparent dresses, called naked dress, were legion. Kylie Jenner, Gigi Hadid, Ashley Parks and singer Billie Eilish unveiled outrageously assumed versions of their femininity. At the same time, thousands of Instagrammers around the world, including French-Canadian singer and model Charlotte Cardin, tried to defy the prohibitions of the social network by posting artistic images of bare breasts, being censored in the process. Immediate reaction through the hashtag #FreeTheNipple (Free the nipple), a viral campaign echoing the scandal of the nipplegate when the singer Janet Jackson unveiled a breast, by accident, during the Super Bowl of 2004.
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Represented in art, film, fashion and advertising, in its biblical purity or barely covered, the body reflects both the aesthetic standards of an era and its eternal contradictions. According to what criteria is nudity allowed? When do we get naked, in front of whom? "It is to understand nothing, except to realize how much nudity bothers us, vermille our taboos as the boar searches the earth to find worms," writes the young naturist philosopher Margaux Cassan in her new book entitled Vivre nu (Ed. Grasset). She also advises getting rid of jewelry and clothing, which mark cultural and social belonging, and focusing on the naked body.
She also says that when she delves into her fondest childhood memories, she struggles to imagine them dressed. As a young girl, she spent a lot of time with her naturist aunt and uncle, admiring them "playing music and living naked." In her story, she leads us into the world of naturism and maps this movement: from the first free communities formed by anarchists in the early twentieth century to the utopias of the hippie years, through the family village where her childhood went, to the libertinism of the island of Levant.
Naturist communities, on the contrary, are safe places where diversity between bodies, and even between genders, is smoothed, because there is an absence of models
According to Margaux Cassan, the new trend of no longer leaving naked children at the beach is not a precaution that really protects them from possible perverse behavior. The latter are much more generated by prying eyes on social networks. "Our privacy is constantly violated," she explains. When you went topless on a beach thirty years ago, you didn't risk being captured by a stranger's phone without your knowledge, and then maybe found yourself naked on a public platform." According to the philosopher, the omnipresence of staged images creates a fear of eternity – the image remains – which dissuades people from revealing themselves in their nudity.
"Naturist communities, on the contrary, are safe places where diversity between bodies, and even between genders, is smoothed, because there is an absence of models," she says. They are free and imperfect bodies that you never see in movies, advertising or social media." His testimony also questions what nudity says about a society obsessed with the question of flesh, but unable to show its own without making it up. The philosopher explains that she brandished nudity as a form of claim when she realized that in the eyes of others, it represented "a transgression, a source of fantasies, even a crime as is the publication of a pubis on social networks".
Cover of the album of the singer Rosalía. Rosalía
On the latter, the body beckons on all sides while its materiality continues to slip into our hands. We notice more and more publications of images that suggest the nude without representing it: women holding a fruit cut in half between the legs (the singer Rosalía) or other imagery of the same ilk. "There is a real problem currently around the representation of nudity. Wherever you are, it is banished by the moral conscience that comes to us from a very puritanical America, explains sociologist Elsa Godart. As much as the naked body was trivialized in the 1970s, it is much more complicated to expose it today, while unsolicited, unwanted pornography is very present. "
There is an overexposure of the intimate to the confines of exhibitionism
It depicts a "society of masks". "On the one hand, there is an overexposure of the intimate to the confines of exhibitionism – we hear young people talk openly about their problems and questions in podcasts, social networks or Netflix series," she continues. On the other hand, we see everywhere images that use the Nude filter, meaning nudity, which is misleading since, paradoxically, it hides imperfections!" The reversal of trends sometimes follows an indisputable logic. Aubade ads from the 1990s, in which the face was often absent, would no longer be accepted today. "They made the female body a sexual object for the desire of the man," continues Elsa Godart. "It is fundamental to find new rules to show nudity, but it should not be eliminated! The problem with excessive moral prohibitions is that they generate even more extreme perverted reactions of subversion. Not showing nudity, as if it has become ashamed, does not help women."
Puritanism and hypersexualization usually go hand in hand. The more taboos we place on a body by covering it, the more we suggest that behind it there is an erotic intention. In the fashion sphere, the debate is no less complex. Famous British supermodel and performer, Bianca O'Brien remembers how nudity was an obligation that models could hardly escape without harmful consequences for their careers. When she started her profession at a very young age in the 1990s, the pressure was constant.
"Today," she says, "there are more women behind the cameras, they can show their peers differently by changing the way we look at them. But, twenty years ago, 80% of fashion images were taken by men. They had very persuasive manipulation techniques to fully undress their models. A lot of models felt forced and pretended not to show it." At that time, Kate Moss, a libertine fashion icon, posed nude. "The argument was, 'Kate is super cool and she's in tune with her nudity. Why not you?" The British top finally admitted that she had been forced and that it had traumatized her, "continues Bianca O'Brien, who also says that it was only years later that she finally agreed to reveal her nudity.
Nudity is a wonderful act of self-abandonment
"I have worked with photographers on the border between art and fashion, such as the extraordinary Juergen Teller, who explores nudity and its social meanings, or Jérôme Sessini, who has taken nudes of me so beautiful that they look like paintings. Nudity is a wonderful act of self-abandonment, and confronting it helped me reconcile with parts of my body that I didn't like."
A mirror of the soul, nudity has been explored by masters of photography such as Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton, Robert Mapplethorpe, and more recently Cindy Sherman and Vanessa Beecroft. Charlotte Rampling, the elusive muse of photographers, says: "The image sometimes has a curative virtue, like psychoanalysis. Obscenity only incidentally needs the nude, while nudity can have nothing licentious, "says the one who let herself be immortalized just dressed in a fur boa and red panties by Juergen Teller. For some artist-photographers today, the naked body is a political object in itself through which to convey messages that educate the gaze.
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A look out of clichés
Among them, the young and very talented Parisian photographer Marguerite Bornhauser. She recently made a series of beautiful portraits of over 40, teaming up with the Belgian feminist collective Hanami 40+, to offer a look out of clichés. "We don't show this type of nude enough, because we're afraid of them," she explains. I find that we lack benevolence on the beauty of a less young body. Often, by lack of fantasy, we remain stuck on canons dictated by an old and idealized vision, while imperfections bring grain and sensuality to a nude image. As in all my projects, I have set up soft lights that bring distance and make the stripping less raw."
In reality, nudity is no less present in art today. It even appears at the Fondation Cartier through the exhibition of Ron Mueck, showing hyperrealistic sculptures of his obscenely huge or skinny body, or with Charles Ray's work on Greek statuary at the Pinault Foundation. "The nude is not absent. It is its nature that has changed, explains art historian and curator Jean de Loisy, former director of the Palais de Tokyo and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The nudity that we currently see in art and in society does not engage us in the complexity of desire. It evokes the immortality of Greek nudes or it speaks of a painful nude, because it was assaulted – as shown by the work of the British visual artist Tracey Emin.
According to Jean de Loisy, the nude in art no longer refers to the force of sensual interaction between beings. "These are extremely realistic bodies, captured in their existential or protest pain – Miriam Cahn's nudes, for example, that are paraded to denounce." In other words, according to the historian, we disarmed Venus. "When we look at Bronzino's painting Venus and Cupid, we see the gods amusing themselves with the human passions that are awakened by Eros. Today, these themes are no longer addressed in art and we lose something of the complexity and warmth between beings."
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Juergen Teller, photographer: "Nudity is a natural way of being"
"I don't consider myself an art photographer or a fashion photographer, but a photographer who produces work. When I photographed Malgosia (supermodel Malgosia Bela) naked on Sigmund Freud's couch, I wanted to explore with her the emotions of the human soul. This type of work requires total mutual trust, a desire to share. There's not a lot of nudity in my entire work. But I photographed Kristen McMenamy naked at 45, or Vivienne Westwood and Charlotte Rampling when they were in their sixties. I enjoyed taking pictures of them – and sometimes posing with them – because we were linked by a very strong bond of friendship. There was a deep understanding between us. I respect them. For me, as a German, nudity is a natural way of being. When I started my self-portraits, I didn't want to be associated with any kind of attire. Nudity allowed me to be more direct. That's how you're born, that's how you are. I love the shapes and color of the flesh. For each photo, I ask myself: "How can this work be better?" It's about being pure and honest. What I love is the intrinsic sweetness of these moments of abandonment."
Juergen Teller is the author of Donkey Man and Other Stories.
Joana Preiss, artist and performer: "Nudity makes sense when it is linked to a narrative"
"Any naked body can be disturbing, touching, intriguing. There is something moving about nudity. It all depends on how you look at her. At the time Nan Goldin photographed me naked, we were exploring together a quest for intimacy. The nude is a story of consent and truth. Nan Goldin captures bursts of life, gestures and expression of the body, just like Juergen Teller who photographs the soul. I wonder why, nowadays, the banal and sometimes vulgar nudity that we see through a profusion of images on the Internet is accepted, while artistic nudity is increasingly censored. I am a performer, and the body is one of my fundamental tools. Nudity finds its full meaning when it is linked to a narrative – theatrical, photographic, cinematic or pictorial. Nudity in art is dressed up with a purpose."