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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Body Compare: Is the Meaning of Nudity in Art Universal?

Female Figure

Female Figure
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist (probably Syrian), Nimrud, Iraq
Region: West Asia
Date: Neo-Assyrian, ca. 8th century BCE
Period: 500 BCE – 1 CE
Material: Ivory
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 11 ¾ in. (30 cm); W: 2 7/8 in. (7.4 cm); D: 5 ¾ in. (14.5 cm.)
Credit: Courtesy of Il Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia, Turin, Italy

Statue of Aphrodite

Statue of Aphrodite
Artist / Origin: Roman artist
Region: Europe
Date: 1st–2nd century CE copy after Greek original ca. 3rd–2nd century BCE
Period: 500 BCE – 1 CE
Material: Marble
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 62 ½ in. (158.8 cm.) (with plinth)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Is the meaning of nudity in art universal?

We often think about the nude as the body in its most essential state. But nude bodies in art are just as much the products of our subjectivity as clothed bodies and can communicate just as much information. Nudity is not meaningless nor does it always mean the same thing. This is especially true when it comes to the relationship between nakedness, sex, and gender. When we are seeking to understand ancient figures like the Nimrud ivory and the Aphrodite statue seen here, cultural context can make all the difference.

Questions to Consider

  • There was a long tradition in the Ancient Near East of representations of the nude female body. In ancient Greece, on the other hand, representations of women unclothed appeared rather late compared to those of naked men. What can you infer from this about each culture’s attitudes toward the female form?
  • Noting that the now-missing arms of the Aphrodite statue were likely making a gesture of concealment—one raised in front of the breasts, the other reaching to cover the genital region, what does each of the above statues communicate through it’s gesture and posture? What kind of relationship do these elements help to establish between figure and viewer?
  • Each of these figures presents us with an ideal body type. What does a comparison of these bodies suggest about the cultural relativity of physical ideals?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2