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2 Essay

The Art of the Nude:
Artists Explore the Human Form

John Wilson, Guest Curator
Newport Museum and Art Gallery
July - Sept 2008.

Curatorial reflection: 
John Wilson

The Art of the Nude 

Artists Explore the Human Form

"Art can never exist without naked beauty displayed" | William Blake

"The body always expresses the spirit whose envelope it is. And for him who can see, the nude offers the richest meaning" | Auguste Rodin

"I was trained as a painter. I'm very familiar with the nude body, masculine and feminine. I do, I suppose have a soapbox position, and I want to be certain that the human body is in the center of the frame." | Peter Greenaway, Film- maker.

The genre of the nude is perhaps surprisingly well represented in the Newport Museum and Art Gallery collections from academic studies to modernist departures, and provides a useful point of departure for exploring the history of art and art education. 


The life class was the mainstay of British art education. The importance of the life room at Newport college of art - from the 1920s to the 1970s - is highlighted in interviews with prominent Newport Art College staff Stanley Lewis and Anthony Stevens ( - interview transcripts are available in Art and Society in Newport: Documenting the Twentieth Century, Newport Museum and Art Gallery, 2000; see The Art and Society in Newport Series). Here are some of the initial thoughts for this exhibition:

  • We may note that Stanley Lewis received an extra twelve-month's scholarship at the Royal College of Art in the 1930s when his diploma work, a life study, was adjudicated by Augustus John. Then in 1937 Stanley stole the show when his full length figure study The Welsh Molecatcher (and study here) was awarded painting of the year at the Royal Academy Summer Show. - We may also note that Stanley Lewis acknowledged the mentorship of the Head of Pedagogy at the Royal College of Art, Frederick Charles Richards, likewise a product of the Newport College of Art.

  • The controversy over the purchase and public display of Sir Gerald Festus Kelly's Nude Study in the 1940s & 50s focussed press and public attention on the Art Gallery Committee's collecting policy, and proved a cause celebre that brought 20,000 people streaming into the Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
  • Thomas Rathmell's The Picture Wall (1977) is a freshly painted and informal study of the nude in the artist's studio; and represents the artist's reflection on the practice of life-painting ( - with a reference to the history of art in the series of figure studies hung on the wall, including a seated male nude to complement the main seated female figure). - Through the 1960's & '70's Newport College of Art enjoyed an enviable British reputation, wth Thomas Rathmell at the helm as Head of the School of Painting and an academic rigour centred in the life-room that fed a stream of students to the Royal College of Art. - A healthy plurality of practices was achieved under the Headship of Anthony Stevens during the art college boom years of the 1970's; and less well known is the way in which disciplinary departures at Newport College of Art such as sculpture, photography and performance owed much to this academic grounding, exploring the materiality of the body in space. - Thereafter the life room fell out of fashion; although there are recent signs of its revival in British art colleges.

Hence Sir Gerald Festus Kelly's  D.D. V (a) (Nude Study) and Thomas Rathmell's The Picture Wall - both "artist's art" in their informal studies of the nude in the artist's studio - have provided a useful point of departure for our exploration of the genre of the nude and the history of art and art education in the permanent collections of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery. 


Framing the nude: Academy, avant garde, Internet



THE ART OF THE NUDE exhibition explores the artistic genre of the nude in the permanent collections of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery, and was on public display July - September 2008. 

The exhibition made for sensationalist headlines in the UK daily press when it opened in July 2007 as a result of the "Newport Nude" controversy that continues to surround Royal Academy President Sir Gerald Festus Kelly's 1924 study of a nude model in the artist's studio:

  • for the extensive press coverage see news archive 

  • listen to BBC Radio Wales The Newport Nude, which probes the story behind the sensationalist headlines. 

The genre of the nude provides a fascinating thread through the history of art, and we may reflect upon:

  • art education: the study of the nude formed the basis of the post-Renaissance academic tradition of "Western Art";
  • the modern artist: whilst the departures of modernism and the avant garde likewise saw a persistence of the nude as a vital genre for the artist's exploration. 
  • the nude on the screen: Whither the nude in today's world of CGI and the Internet? 

Collecting the Nude: Newport Museum and Art Gallery


A review of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery collections highlights the nude as a lively artistic genre and in our final selection we ended up with a large-scale exhibition of 85 works comprising 28 drawings, 12 prints, 39 paintings and 6 works of sculpture. 

Our selection brings together a diverse body of  works with a lively conception of the subject of the nude, and includes the following prominent artists: 

Auguste Rodin, Henry Gaudier-Brzeska, William Blake, Sir Edward J. Poynter, Sir Gerald Kelly, Sir William Russell Flint R.A, Peter Blake, Allen Jones, Sir William Goscombe John R.A. , Ceri Richards, Merlyn Evans, Thomas Rathmell, Harry HollandAngelica Kauffman R.A, Dame Laura Knight R.A. , Elinor Bellingham-Smith and Gerda Roper.


We may reflect upon:

  • the central place of the nude in the history of art
  • the nude as a highly productive genre for the artist's exploration
  • the sometimes controversial role of the nude as a mediator of aesthetic taste and cultural mores across the generations.

Viewing the Nude: Revisions in Art History and Art Education


The nude occupies a central place in the history of art and has persisted as an absorbing subject for the artist from the Classical to the Renaissance, Modernist and Post-Modernist art worlds.


In recent decades, revisionist art historical studies have unmasked and re-appraised the nude as a genre of art - critically, raising issues of visual representation, gender and social power; and positively, re-connecting with a history of artistic innovation through this abiding genre of the art school and the artist's studio.

In recent years the nude and the life-class have experienced something of a revival in British art colleges, notwithstanding the post-60's “Crisis of British Art”, radical art politics and a rejection of the life-room. | Read more: Links - the nude in art history and culture.

Framing the nude as art: Sir Gerald Festus Kelly's nude study


We may note the sometimes controversial role of the nude as a mediator of aesthetic taste and cultural mores across the generations. The nude has been a constantly negotiated category of "art" and "taste" occasioning its periodic cause celebre of controversy, with a tendency for yesteryear's provocation to pass into silence as today's passée.  


The study of the nude provided the mainstay of the academic practice of art, a central preoccupation of art school training and the professional artist's studio. Whilst the Academy regulated the nude as a category of "art", this was of course not without its controversies over the years. 

Newport has been no exception, for the controversy surrounding "The Newport Nude" by leading Society portraitist and Royal Academy President Sir Gerald Festus Kelly in the 1940s & 50s made it the most infamous painting ever displayed in the Newport Museum and Art Gallery. With a petition launched for its removal as an affront to public morality and a headline in the Daily Mirror newspaper, Festus Kelly's feisty nude study caused a flood of some 20,000 people to view it when it was purchased from the Royal Academy Summer Show and exhibited at Newport Museum and Art Gallery in 1947. The aesthetic conception of the artist was simply in excess of acceptable taste for the Newport public. The case of Festus Kelly's nude study and its reception in Newport highlights the fact that public reception is the critical agent in the manufacturing of controversy. / Read more: THE NUDE | Case study: Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, D.D. V (a) (Nude Study) (1924).

THE NUDE | Case study: Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, D.D. V (a) (Nude Study) (1924)

Regulating the Nude: From the Academy to the Internet   

ArtNewport YouTube

As we approach today's hypermedia universe of the Internet, technology pushes the boundaries of culture and taste as ever. Traditionally regulated by the art academy as an aesthetic category of "art", the nude has been under constant pressure with the evolution of modern communications technology and media from the advent of the age of photography, of film, and now the digital communications revolution and the Internet.  


The nude has an abiding presence across these modern communications media as successive generations explore and exploit the often uncertain boundaries of "art" and "commercial entertainment". Yesteryear the art academy provided a vital forum for framing the nude as "art" and negotiating its status as a signifier and arbiter of aesthetic taste. Browsing through the advertisements section of the annual Royal Academy Illustrated nowadays, one may well be surprised at the apparent cult of the nude (- during the period of the Festus Kelly Newport Nude controversy). Visual imagery of the nude is ubiquitous in today's world of commercial advertising, spectacular culture, and the new Pandoras box of the Internet in which we arrive at the nude on the screen. In this new flow of imagery we encounter a new excess of both the spectacular and the quotidian, with a blurring of the lines of amateur-professional and private-public into a new cultural imaginary of the nude. 


An anthropologist might observe that the role of the world of "art" as arbiter of acceptable taste- the academy, the art critic, and the press - has now devolved in our digital world to that of content filtering software as we navigate today's screen-based information environment. Such as for example the default settings for a Google image search (eg. Moderate SafeSearch is on); whilst effective content filtering has provided a strong selling point for ISP's. 


Note: Digital literacy & safety online 
See Google Search Preferences and SafeSearch filtering   

Explore "the art of the nude" online:

  • Search - visualization tools view the search options (screen, page, video, etc) for "the art of the nude" here (Viewzi broswer). 
  • Specialist art library services - Bridgeman Art Library: "nude" | Visual Arts Data Service (VADS): "nude" (online database with over 100,000 images covering the visual arts, which are free for use in education)
  • Photos - search tags for "art nude" in flickr hive mind (and here) 


art_newport on flickr 
explore tags

Back to the life-class 



The case of Newport Collge of Art offers a vivid instance of the changing trends in art education over recent decades:

  • Academic art tradition:Through the 1960's & '70's Newport College of Art had earned an enviable British reputation, wth Tom Rathmell at the helm as Head of the School of Painting and an academic rigour centred in the life-room that fed a stream of students to the Royal College of Art.

  • Modernist departures: Less well known is the way in which disciplinary departures at Newport College of Art such as sculpture, photography and performance owed much to this academic grounding, exploring the materiality of the body in space. A healthy plurality of practices was achieved under the Headship of Anthony Stevens during the art college boom years of the 1970's.

  • Media arts: From the late 1970's a radical rupture occurred from the college's academic tradition and plurality of practices, the response both to institutional restructuring and the “post-modernist” departure in the art world and art education at large. The new “Roy Ascott regime” at Newport focussed upon technology and media arts, likewise assuming a wide reputation and in its turn sending a generation of graduate students to the new media arts programme at the Royal College.
  • Back to the life-room: I'm recently informed that the new building for the Newport School of Art, Media and Design that's earmarked for a downtown, west bank location on the River Usk will include purpose-designed provision for the life-room. “A return to the acknowledgement of technical skill in art education is something that's to be welcomed”, to paraphrase a senior member of staff, “students in graphics, fine art and animation are strongly encouraged to enrol in the life-class”. Whither the nude in today's world of CGI and the Internet? | Read more: Towards a new social and cultural geography of Newport (Postscript June 2008).


 New Uskside campus: image source here

LINKS: The Nude in the History of Art and Culture

Bridgeman Art Library | Search for: "nude"
click on image to enlarge 

Some links to explore the nude in art, history, culture.


The Nude: History of Art and Culture 

Locating the nude as a central category in the history of art


  • the history of painting | The Renaissance is said by many to be the golden age of painting. Roughly spanning the 14th through the mid 17th century. In Italy artists like Paolo Uccello, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Filippo Lippi, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, and Titian took painting to a higher level through the use of perspective, the study of human anatomy and proportion, and through their development of an unprecedented refinement in drawing and painting techniques.
  • hierarchy of genres | The British painter Sir Joshua Reynolds in his Discourses of the 1770s and 1780s  (... ) At the summit reigned history painting, centred on the human body: familiarity with the forms of the body permitted the mind of the painter, by comparing innumerable instances of the human form, to abstract from it those typical or central features that represented the body's essence or ideal. | Until the middle of the 19th century, women were largely unable to paint history paintings as they were not allowed to participate in the final process of artistic training—that of life drawing, in order to protect their modesty. They could work from reliefs, prints, casts and from the Old Masters, but not from the nude model. Instead they were encouraged to participate in the lower painting forms such as portraiture, landscape and genre. These were considered more feminine in that they appealed to the eye rather than the mind.


  • The History of Ideas Vol 4: The Nude | There are four principal philosophic perspectives on "The Nude" in Western culture. (...) | Renaissance philosophers retrieved and reframed the classical definition as epitomized by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), who identified "Man as the measure of the Universe" and envisioned "The Nude" in his Vitruvian Man (1492; Gallerie dell' Accademia, Venice). | The modern position is predicated on the liberation of "The Nude" from the boundaries of mythology and religion during the Enlightenment, and finds its fullest expression in Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World (1866; Musée D'Orsay, Paris). | See also Scholarship of "The Nude"
  • art historyGriselda Pollock's (and) Rosalind Krauss' [ psychoanalytical and feminist studies] (...) [have] strongly informed the reframing of both men and women artists in art history.


The Nude: Popular Culture, Internet, Re-Mix Culture


The Art of the Nude | explore tags
The nude and art collections online now enter the visual remix culture of the web, as images flow through the new cultural imaginary and stream of consciousness that is the world of photo- and video-sharing websites, blogs and so on. The hyperlinked and hypermedia universe of the Internet transforms the linearity of traditional cultural forms; so that "the art of the  nude" as data enters a constantly changing kaleidoscope of links, tags and content aggregation websites. Radiohead's recent departure in digital music production comes to mind, nude remix, a celebration of sonic remix culture. Derivative works of visual remix remain an open possibility. Explore for example: 
  • Video sharing culture: video enters the massive copy/paste engine that is the web. The nude has been a theme of endless humour in popular culture; a quick video search highlighted these uploaded clips: The Art Museum (- "Marge and Homer take the kids to an art museum. After Bart ogles a nude painting while Lisa plays with an ancient vase. Marge realises that the children are not old enough to appreciate fine art"); and mr bean art class draws nude woman (You Tube).
  • Search engine & visualization tools: view the search options (screen, page, video, etc) for "the art of the nude" here.  
  • Tags & folksonomy: explore the tags "art nude" in flickr hive mind (and here), "a search engine as well as an experiment in the power of Folksonomies"; a visualization tool that mines the metadata contained in the tags for photos on the photo hosting and sharing website flickr to deliver a "hive mind" snap-shot of its global photo database (see Thoughts on the hive mind).