Nudity in Art – Naughty or Nice? (NSFW)

Marvin Chan, Jerat Jasad, Oil colour, Resin on Canvas, 106cm x 91cm, 2014.

“I have no problems with nudity in art. The human body form is incredibly complex,  intricate and expressive; and has been the subject of great artists throughout the centuries.”

Nudity in culture isn’t a modern house of thought, stretching way before the Renaissance. Ancient carvings and sculptures of deities, leaders and heroes of the age usually depict their champions bare. Then, as we proceed into modernity, it co-exists with what society deems “modest” or “decent”.

So how do we draw that line in the sand – the one that determines which nude piece is art and which isn’t? Nudity has to have meaning to be construed as “art”. Nudity for nudity’s sake – devoid of a meaning or purpose, and is exploitative in nature – will not cut it. It’s how we separate The Birth of Venus from pre-2016 Playboy, despite sharing the same “content”.

“There is a line that separates nudity in art from pornography. It’s hard to describe or define that fine line … but you can always tell the difference when you see porn and when you see art.”

Suffice to say, nudity in contemporary culture has become a sort of a hairy topic to broach. In Western and more liberal circles, this may not be an issue at all, and is in fact, appreciated, as evidenced by a recent Modigliani work fetching a whopping US$ 170.4 million.

Phuan Thai Meng, Solution, Acrylic and oil on canvas, lingerie, 91cm x 122cm, 2009.

However, our local society (predominantly more conservative, no matter the religion) isn’t quite as open to the concept. Some would see it as a gateway to sin, and some would question the lack of “decency”.

That said, just because one society is “liberal” does not mean that nudity isn’t able to stir controversy. L’Origine du monde (“The Origin of the World”) by Gustave Courbet is one such piece, depicting just the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman. In fact, a quick Google search will give you tales of nude art being opposed just as much as it is celebrated.

That said, there are people who have indeed looked past this, producing and collecting nude art. One of them is Dr Tan Loke Mun, an architect who has been in practice for 30 years. He was also a Past President of the Malaysian Institute of Architects.

He also happens to be quite the collector.

“I’ve been collecting art for more than 20 years. It came naturally with my profession, work and passion. It has been said that Architecture is the mother of all Arts as its more than 2- and 3-dimensional and one can experience and literally live and experience the art of architecture.”

What kind of art does he collect? “My collection centres around modern and contemporary artwork in any medium from oil paintings, works on print, sculpture and installations. I also have a small bias towards contemporary figurative works. Currently I am narrowing my acquisitions to more significant exhibition grade pieces whilst at the same time supporting younger local and regional talent.”

Shia Yih Ying, What about now, Oil on canvas, 139cm x 101cm, 2015.
Zelin Seah, Lying figure in bed, Oil on linen, 180cm x 158cm, 2012.
Chong Siew Ying, Imaya Wong, Oil on canvas, 175cm x 150cm, 2011.
Ali Mabuha Rahamad, Purple Night #1, Oil on canvas, 76cm x 122cm, 1988.

His collection is spread out over multiple locations, with only a selection of pieces being exhibited in his house and offices, while the rest are kept in storage in a secured warehouse facility. The pieces in his home are available for both private and public viewing, as there are regular visits by people to study its green features (it’s a GBI Platinum rated house).

So far, his guests have no complaints. “I have not had any negative response from visitors who have viewed nude works in my collection. They can see that it is Art.”

When it comes to nude art, does he have any preference towards gender? “No specific preference. Both male and female. I do not particularly go out of my way to seek such works… but when I come upon a significant piece then I will acquire it.”

I asked him about the perceived controversy generated by nude art, and this is what he had to say. “Significant art is often provocative. It stirs emotions and must evoke a response or a debate and creative criticism. Art should not be restricted into pockets of conformity and acceptability as that is the complete opposite of what the Arts are all about. Many spend months and years looking to break out and break through … to find a personal expression in their art. To take their talent and craft into the level of art. “

Lee Xuan Guang, 24, Chinese ink, acrylic & color pencil on paper 150 x 86 cm 2016.
Marvin Chan, Medan Pertempuran, Oil colour, Resin on Canvas, 106cm x 91 cm, 2014.

With that general framework of knowing that nude art is just that – art, he opines that art catalogues should not be censored at all. “I find it quite ridiculous and even condescending to find censored and blurred out images of body parts in some recent Art Auction catalogues. If we are promoting and standing up for the Arts … then please do it without fear or favour! Being afraid of what others say or think is the greatest pitfall for artists and the arts. Let’s not add further confusion to the confused.”

You may disagree with him, but he does have a point. I’m inclined to agree with him as well – but considering our societal norms, I think it’s best to educate first, and expose later.

So, nudity in art – is it as controversial as we say it is, or are we making mountains out of molehills?

Depends on the eye of the beholder.

Featured pic: Marvin Chan, Jerat Jasad, Oil colour, Resin on Canvas, 106cm x 91cm, 2014.

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About Andrew Yew

Storyteller. Doodler. Gamer.

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