Ever since pre-historic times, when women were depicted as voluptuous humans with exaggerated breasts and wide hips in Venus figurines, the portrayal of the female form has been a hot topic in art, and it reveals cultural and societal changes throughout the ages.
Many early deities – notably females representing fertility, but also some male figures of regeneration – are given symbolically large mammary glands to nurture and suckle their followers. Examples include the Minoan Snake Goddess, Egyptian River God Hapi and the Egyptian Goddess Isis, who was worshipped as the ideal mother and wife. Not to mention the numerous Ancient Greek nude sculptures, including the famous Venus de Milo which can be seen at the Louvre.
However, later Greco-Roman culture began to cover up women in their statues and potteries, a modest move which was maintained throughout the Middle Ages. The nude form didn’t reappear in art until the Renaissance, when it was embraced with fervour, not least influenced by the classic Greek culture and endless studies of Venus. Raphael and Michelangelo were among the first painters to use live female models (previously boys would pose for the portrait and breasts were later painted on) and much of their work can be seen at the Vatican.
Nudes in art become more playful in the Baroque and Rococo periods, but this was short-lived. The subject matter soon gave way to the traditional portraits and landscapes of Impressionism and the Victorian era saw a prudish shift in attitudes, which prohibited nudity and revealing flesh.
As a direct backlash, modern artists prefer to shock with their use of naked chests. There is a very thin line between fine art and so-called glamour; tasteful images of topless models being sold at vast expense through galleries or auction houses, while the bouncing boobs of Page Three models are there for anyone to see in tabloid newspapers. American portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz continuously pushes these boundaries with her portraits of celebrities in various states of undress and exposure.
Lucien Freud was an icon of the Post Modernist era and his naked portraits revealed stark realistic images of his subjects in their birthday suits; one particularly honest series of paintings was with an obese female model.
Another breast-obsessed artist of the modern era is the late Norman Lindsay. This prolific Australian covered all manner of media, from etchings and pen drawings to watercolours and sculptures (as well as novels, cartoons and scale models), but it was his candid and curvaceous nudes for which he was controversially known. In a bid to protect some of his work, he sent numerous crates of drawings to America during the Second World War; sadly they were discovered on the train, impounded and burnt as pornography. His former home in Faulconbridge, New South Wales has been turned into the Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum, where a large body of his work can still be seen.
Alternately, you can visit the Blanco Renaissance Cultural Museum in Ubud, Bali, which is the creation of the late Spanish artist Antonio Blanco; after feasting your eyes on the beautiful gardens and stunning aviary, you will be treated to his collection of paintings of local topless women.
The Musee d’Orsay in Paris has one room devoted to photography, which celebrated the nude in an exhibition called, The Confusion of Genres at the end of 2013. The Jeu de Paume is another Parisian art gallery featuring Nude Studies by French photographer Laure Albin Guillot.
Nipples at the Met is a website dedicated to the various sightings of female nipples in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Alternately you can view over 80 bare breasts on location in the city, and read the fascinating stories behind them, in Jordan Matter’s book Uncovered.
Many indigenous African tribes still wear traditional dress, which is bare-breasted for both men and women. Any art exhibition capturing these cultures, and in particular any festivals or celebrations, will feature naked torsos without prejudice, simply as part of daily life.
Plenty of mammary-motivated media has sprung up in support of breast cancer: the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida had an exhibition celebrating naked boobs for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness month; likewise the Leyton Art Gallery in St John’s, Canada displayed photographs in November 2013 by Malin Enstrom, depicting the battles 12 Newfoundland women have had with breast cancer, bravely baring their chests, scars and all. The Keep A Breast Foundation also uses art to promote breast cancer awareness and has developed a participatory sculpture of a white cast of the female bust, which is then individually customised by a range of artists. The finished pieces are sold or auctioned to raise funds for the charity.
Nowadays, with society all-but-numb to the crass display of female flesh, artists have tried to return to a time when bosoms were celebrated and appreciated as orbs of beauty, rather readily-available cleavages to be lecherously lusted after. Modern studies have idolised the exquisite differences of breasts, focused on the life-sustaining function of the bosom or drawn attention to disease through images of damaged torsos.
by Lucy Ellis
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