fb-pixel Skip to main content
critic’s notebook | sebastian smee

How to look at nakedness — in art, that is

Some of the marble statues that were covered up with wooden panels on the occasion of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's visit. Gregorio Borgia/AP

When nude sculptures in Rome’s Capitoline Museum were covered in white wooden boxes for the sake of President Hassan Rouhani of Iran last week, the action was defended in some quarters as a simple expression of courtesy to a visiting head of state.

Wooden panels covered statues inside Rome’s Capitoline Museums for President Rouhani’s visit.Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP

Elsewhere, it caused conniptions. Many regarded the act (for which no one in the Italian government seemed to want to take responsibility) as a disgraceful capitulation to Islamic fundamentalism. Europe, went the refrain, had caved in, tossing civilization itself out the window.

The episode, to me, had a hugely comic upside. It conjured a scene from a forgotten film by Fellini: Italian bureaucrats running around barking anxious commands, carpenters erecting boxes, curators draping sensuous statues with white cloths as a severe-looking foreign VIP pulls up outside. . . . How marvelous!


But the incident also triggered in my mind something the late novelist James Salter wrote when he was trying to explain what Europe meant to him.

“The thing it finally gave,” wrote Salter in his memoir, “Burning the Days, “was education, not the lessons of school but something more elevated, a view of existence: how to have leisure, love, food, and conversation, how to look at nakedness. . . ”

The idea that it might be worth learning how to look at nakedness deserves deeper examination — if not for Rouhani (who never asked, by the way, for the Capitoline sculptures to be covered), then certainly for us, who live in a region groaning with great nudes.

The Capitoline, of course, also has a few. It is home to such famous works as the Capitoline Venus (based on a lost Greek original by Praxiteles), the Dying Gaul (a Roman copy of a lost Greek original), and the Esquiline Venus (a late Hellenistic marble of Venus emerging from water).

What is it we might learn from such works, and from the Western tradition of the nude they helped inaugurate? Nothing, needless to say, if the works are covered in boxes. And nothing if you don’t want to see; if some belief or prejudice precludes you from seeing.


But why not shed such a prejudice? After all, we look at things in order to learn about them. Having eyes and occupying bodies, we surely all share an impulse to learn about our common embodiment through seeing. It’s fundamental.

Why we make and look at art is another question. But we do it, I think, as part of the process of fitting the things we learn into the wider reality of our existence. Not only our private existence, with all its desires, confusions, and fears, but our shared existence, which demands a certain order if we want to get along.

One of the things art, and specifically the nudes, does is to sublimate desire, on both a social and an individual level. It brings this most anarchic of forces — the life force itself — under some kind of temporary control.

There are, perhaps, other ways of bringing desire under control, including banning all images that might inflame desire. But suppressing desire and refusing to satisfy visual appetite can backfire. Freud alighted on a truth we can all understand when he wrote about the “return of the repressed.” Desire, repressed, turns to frustration, unhappiness, and potentially even to violence.

“Dying Gaul” in the Capitoline. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

Every nude in the Western tradition is different. But taken as a whole, the Western nude reminds us that carnal desire exists within a framework that is not only biological but also social and spiritual. Art can moderate desire in ways that lead it away from the raw, the violent, and the abject toward the civilized, the noble, and even, perhaps, the sacred. And each great nude in the Western tradition contributes something to this process of moderation. Without denying or repressing desire, great nudes help us get a grip on their role in our lives.


Nudes may also instill in us a profound respect for the naked bodies, male or female, they show us. Sometimes, as in the aloof, neoclassical, 19th-century nudes of Ingres on view at the Harvard Art Museums, these bodies are both intensely erotic and, at the same time, imperiously aloof. What they communicate is a kind of dream, enchanted, weirdly glabrous, but also inviolate. Our desire may be inflamed, but its object remains unapproachable — cordoned off from the viewer by an archaic atmosphere of legend.

Other nudes, such as John Singer Sargent’s “Nude Study of Thomas E. McKeller” at the Museum of Fine Arts, dare to introduce a reality effect. In the process, Sargent reminds us — through his model’s exposed neck, hanging genitals, and gauchely jackknifed legs — of the tender vulnerability of even the strongest, fittest, and youngest male bodies.

Needless to say, people are going to come at such nudes from completely different angles. We are talking about sex and desire after all: Our approaches are inevitably determined by gender, sexuality, culture, religion, and our own mental and physiological makeup.


Lesbians will probably look at Harvard’s Angelica by Ingres differently from straight men or women. Straight men may look at the Sargent with different kinds of desire (and conceivably defenses against desire) from gay men.

Some observant Muslims, Christians, or Jews might see any displays of nakedness as infractions against rules of decency and modesty, regardless of whether they are on pornographic websites, on advertising billboards, or in great museums (presumably the reaction the hospitable Italians were anticipating, in line with their long tradition of covering the genitals of nudes with fig leaves and drapery.)

The Capitoline Venus on display at Rome's Capitoline Museum.FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

But despite all these viewpoints, there is a tremendous amount we may ultimately have in common. That’s because what the tradition of the nude can teach us is the place of desire within civilized life.

Feminism reminds us that our museums are disproportionately loaded with eroticized views of female bodies. And not just any bodies, but idealized, unrealistic female bodies. From this, it takes little mental effort to grasp the ways the western art tradition has conspired against women.

And yet it is simplistic, I think, to talk about the “objectification” of women in nude art as inherently wrong or undesirable.

To most men, I think it’s not too controversial to say, a naked female body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see. When a naked body becomes the object of desire, male or female, it is, by definition, “objectified.” But great nudes do the complicated work of “objectifying” in different ways. They frame or inflect desire differently.


A nude by Egon Schiele is very different from a Renoir nude. A Degas bather or Manet’s “Olympia” makes us negotiate sex, curiosity, and desire in ways that are very different from Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.”

That all these nudes are in dialogue not only with the subjects they depict but with one another adds glorious nuance and complication. And of course, this is exactly what Salter was driving at when he celebrated Europe for teaching him “how to look at nakedness.”

The Western nude expresses so many different philosophies, so many emotions. But as a tradition, what it proposes is the idea that desire can not only be aroused and intensified in art, but also contained, controlled, and ennobled, and that this may be preferable to denying and repressing it.

Setting aside the question of showing courtesy to foreign guests, those, like myself, who love the Western tradition of the nude might think it a shame to box up such wonderful statues. And anyway, President Rouhani, just as your own Persian and Islamic heritage offers up some of the greatest wonders in the whole history of art — wonders we cherish, respect, and wish to see more of — there is, as I’m sure you know, a wonderful saying: When in Rome. . . .

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.