Tag Archives: Art theory

Nude or Naked? Art or Kitsch?

Pigeonholing female nude and naked in a practical way that may revitilise your next gallery visit. 

The debate about nude and naked has been raging on since Kenneth Clark said 60 years ago that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”

Try to feed this line to a feminist today.

Fifteen years after Clark, John Berger summarised the distinction between nude and naked: being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic context is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.

John Berger believed that Western art had been predominantly about female [self] objectification, in the sense that while women had always been presented as goods for male consumption, they were taking an active part in this process themselves. It’s difficult to argue with this: popularity of Instagram selfies like the ones below is a living proof that not much has changed since the Ways of Seeing was first shown on BBC.


It is perfectly ok. Girls are doing their best to look attractive to boys. Boys appreciate it by following their accounts, writing sleazy comments, and fantasizing in ways I don’t want to talk about. Instagram owners whistle all the way to the bank.

All I am saying is that consumer preferences still centre on the flirtingly erotic presentation of the female body, but a modern-day classic reclining nude painting would be deemed a horrible kitsch fit for the likes of Donald Trump or seedy strip clubs.

So, the question is: what kind of paintings of nude or naked bodies are not kitsch or a mindless repetitions of past masterpieces? Which of them have value?

As a collector and art history enthusiast, I needed a simple classification system for nude paintings that would show me their “ideological” value whenever I come across one. I say “ideological” because my decision to buy something is based first on whether a painting says something new about portraying a nude or naked body and then on whether it is, in my subjective view, a good painting in its own right, in terms of composition, colour, et cetera. If you read this blog, you know I often go so analytical about deconstructing paintings that it raises suspicions if I wanted to be a autopsist as a kid and my parents wouldn’t let me.

My system is simple. It is a matrix made by two questions:

  • Is the model aware of a male observer?
  • Does the model care about the male observer?



The definition of “nude” and “naked” becomes pretty much simple:


And art history of the female nude can be briefly summarised:


To give you a few examples (yes, now you have to click on it):


You can see that some paintings like Picasso’s D’Avignon ladies or Rembrandt’s bathing nude can’t be easily pigeonholed to a single box, but represent a transition from one box to the next. These “transitional works”  represent valueable moments  when artists were searching for new ideas in portraying the unclothed human body.

Today, “progressive” thinkers view most of nude art of the past as chauvinistic garbage (with Renoir being one of the most hated artists). the art world gravitates towards the right side of my table. Indeed, the three “naked” boxes represent the contemporary territory.

What’s disturbing is that all the attempts to fill in these boxes with art have produced very few masterpieces, with loads of ideologically “right” but ugly artworks. Of course, when I say “ugly” I mean something disgusting for me personally. There are people who find Carroll Durham or Sara Lucas beautiful, but I find comfort in knowing many smart men and women who side up with me.

Sara Lucas, for instance, is mostly working in the “is aware – doesn’t care” box with her cigarette butts:


Well, it is definitely more provocative than Matisse’s Dance, but is it more inspiring? Not for me, but the art world seems to have appreciated her effort.

She also tries to work in the bottom box (“model knows she’s not watched and doesn’t care”) by doing toilet selfies, but as her intention to appear uncaring reveals her pathetic desire to be seen and liked, I can’t say the attempt is a success.


As an art history guy, I love the nude left side of my chart.

The top left box, the most “basic” one, is, in fact, a vast territory in its own right. There are segments of “authentic shyness”, “fake modesty”, “shameful resolve”, “indignant sale”, and a host of others.

Some of the segments are filled to the brim with art and some still stand pretty empty.

And the transitions between boxes remain almost unexplored.

Which is one of the reasons why I bought this nude last weekend:


If – as I believe – she covers her face in shame, she falls in the traditional top right box with all the Titians, Manet, Ingres, and countless others.


She refuses to collaborate with the artist to model fake modesty of a girl who pretends to be ashamed being caught naked. She is ashamed, but she’s not putting on a show of it. She also doesn’t want to watch back the male observer of the painting. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes, she doesn’t want to be the object of his desire. She surrenders her rather voluminous breasts (take them if you please) but not herself, as a person.

This, in my view, is a very interesting turn in the old debate about women taking an active part in their own objectification.

The Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders in art can be seen as a curious reference here.

Almost all artists would represent Susanna as shyly trying to cover her body while facing up to the two men:


Susanne and the Elders by Ottavio Mario Leoni

In the vast majority of this type of paintings Susanna is presented in a seductive pose to make the male observer want her. Artists believed that an aroused observer would feel the same kind of feelings like the elders and, knowing the two ended up dead for their attempt to extort sexual consent from the woman, would learn a moral lesson. Maybe artists pretended to believe it, of course, as an excuse to paint a seductive nude woman (sex sells).

Artemisia Gentileschi was the only artist (perhaps because she was a woman, with a relevant personal background) who turned Susanna’s face away from the bastards with her body language signalling that she doesn’t want to listen to their sex extortion proposals, and she doesn’t want to see them, just like my face-covering girl.


You see, a true depiction of shame is very unique in this genre.

Now, the painterly qualities of my nude.

Look at the shadows and tones, because the work is done with almost the same colour. She is lit, as if by a flash that went off above her. The hand movement is blurred as if she barely had time to raise her arm. The frontal flash of light stands very well as a symbol of the rush of attention of the male observer whose eyes take in the body as a whole, not seeing, skipping the details (like the bellybutton or nipples) at first.

Oh, the artist behind my nude is Victor Dynnikov. Click on his tag at the bottom if you want to see more of his work.

Print out my nude/naked table and take it with you next time you go to a gallery. It can be fun putting paintings into boxes. If you are a couple, talking about art may never be the same again!

Brevity is the soul of wit

110813_1454_Ithasbeenay3.pngOnce, I used this chart to explain three cornerstone requirements for an artwork to be appreciated by the public. It must grab attention, be easy-to-understand, and send across a relevant message that will switch on neural processes in the mind of the viewer leading to the appearance of memories, thoughts and ideas, which are to be followed by an emotional arousal.

Shakespear believed brevity was the soul of wit. Perhaps, in the written language this is so, but in the visual arts brevity is first of all the trigger of grabbing attention. A modern man is getting too much information to want to be distracted by unnecessary detail.

Graphic artists strive to minimise the number of colour areas and to simplify lines, mercilessly wiping out superflous details.


We don’t need to see everything to construct the required image in our mind. There are only 2 black forms in the drawing below, but they produce a complicated image of a face.

You also may notice the main black form resembles a big-nosed guy paying a large saxophone. It is very likely that was the artist’s intention.

The same principle applies to photography, especially its graphic, black and white category.

Look at this photograph by Billy Brandt dated back to 1952:


In graphical terms it took him 4 black smears or shapes/forms to define the picture, and, perhaps, he could get away with using just three.


In 1958, Billy Brandt used just A SINGLE black form to tell a story:


The main difficulty here is to identify (and exclude) details that are unnecessary to arrive at an image capable of sparkling viewers’ personal associations and keep or magnify details that are important.

A modern viewer doesn’t like too much detail: they are, perhaps, relevant to the artist, but hardly to an average gallery visitor. The complete absence of detail makes a work of art too general, and hence, not able to pick at the viewer’s personal “strings of the soul”, or, to be more precise, networks of neurons in the brain.

It is a very fine balance between creating an image that would be too generalised and hence empty of personal associations (“a woman”, “some woman”) and arriving at a depiction of something so detailed (“this is a man I don’t know, and no one I know wears a watch and tie like this”) that it also becomes a bell that can’t ring.

This Head of a Girl by Victor Dynnikov is a very good example of generalising the concept of a little girl who is over-cared by her mom (or grandma) and is – most likely – not happy about it:


Original at Expo 88 Gallery

The necessary detail: the striped hat, the puckered lips.

Brevity: our brain builds the striped hat out of stripes. The hat itself if not shown. There are only THREE large colour areas (besides the hat’s stripes). The girl’s hair and the collar of her coat are merged into a single shape.

I have seen a very personal resonance of this image with people in Russia.

Does it talk to you?

Among Dynnikov’s graphics works I have seen recently, I especially liked this brevity-is-the- soul-of-wit piece:


Original at Expo 88 Gallery

Two women and a man. This drawing is composed simply, but offers a lot of storytelling, with only a few shapes and very limited detail.

Can you gess to which woman the man in the middle is closer related?

I plan to share a few more “brevity is the soul of wit” images – in the meantime, let me know if you especially love any of this kind of images, send me a link, and I will have it referenced next time.

PS There is a strange kind of kinship between the graphics above and this photo:

третий лишний


Yes, windows make artists’ lives easier. People love visual images that have a conflict inside, because they are the ones interesting to watch. And a window is the easiest way to create a conflict in a photograph or painting.

Inside vs. Outside

Light vs. Dark

Dull vs. Cheerful

If you don’t know how to create a conflict, paint or photograph a window. Make sure though that there’s at least some difference between the inside and the outside of the window that could be interpreted as a conflict.

In this photograph, for instance, there’s a window, there are flowers, there’s a bag from a jazz festival, but there’s no conflict. It is just a nice photo relevant to my memories of a beautiful summer.


Let me show you two artists who were able to make the conflict just right, with one of them being rather positive, and the other… it is better you see it for yourself.

In this painting (of which I made a photograph) the artist created a conflict between the night outside and the electrical light on the lilacs from the inside. The flowers are made alive by artificial light, very much like Frankenstein. It is a very nice pic, but somewhat disquieting at the same time.

The artist, Valery Secret (that’s his name, I know it is borderline between funny and awkward) is a very good colourist. Fortunately, he is very much alive and active. London will become this painting’s home in February.

The next artist, Igor Obrosov, who died about a decade ago, used to paint flowers and windows as well, but he was repeatedly getting visions of the land of the dead rather than beautiful meadows seen through cottage windows. There is nothing obviously surreal in this painting, but it is eerie and frightening.

It is a great work that opens a window to the world of shadows. Live flowers are dead like Vladimir Lenin in his mausoleum. Two flowers fell down to the table, like eye-balls in a horror flick. Sickly scary, isn’t it?

I understand why Obrosov was a very good artist, but I will never have his work at home.

You see, there are many ways to see flowers on the windowsill.

Sometimes I think that painting takes more time & effort but it is so much easier to paint a conflict than to take a snap of it.

This post was meant to celebrate Valery Secret’s Flowers, which fit the weekly photo challenge much better than my own pic.

Drop me a comment whose paintings (Secret or Obrosov) you may want to see in a greater detail, please, and we’ll keep going!

To sample this blog, click on About at the top. It has links to some of my best or typical posts. There’s an Art & Fun shelf if you feel like in need of a laugh.

Authentic curiosity, painted

In my previous post, I promised more paintings by Victor Dynnikov.

Victor Dynnikov. The Curious Crow. Oil, carton. Ars Longa Gallery

Why is this Curious Crow good Art?

Read the comments 1-2-3 to understand why.

There’s nothing of interest in the corner into which the crow cornered itself. A less gifted artist would be tempted to paint something above the crow to indicate what the crow is curious about.

In the painting below, the artist couldn’t avoid the decoy of obviousness: he added a butterfly, killing the drama of not knowing what causes the ape’s curiosity. The result is a cute pic, but not really a great artwork:

Back to the Crow: If you are interested in colour conflicts: think about the area occupied by dark, heavy, and light-weight colours and try to figure out why the crow does not tilt the painting. Why is the painting in the perfect balance, while the crow is strained?

Claude Monet’s reflective paintings

What is so great about Monet’s water-lily paintings? He painted dozens of them; he didn’t paint anything else in his later years, he kept painting water lilies when his eyes betrayed him; he made the Water Lilies panoramic set a gift to the state when he died.

When you are in front of any of his lilies (and I assume many of you have had the experience), do you ask yourself, “gosh, what is really great about’em?” Not a singe visitor to The Musée de l’Orangerie which houses the most giant of the series can be seen wishing the 10 euros paid for the ticket could be spent in a wiser fashion.

I don’t say one needs to know the answer to the greatness question to enjoy the paintings. Some years ago, I was coming to the National Gallery in London each time I was in town just to see the Lily Pond. Were I asked then what was so great about the painting, I might try to give an answer, but it would be tall tales spin-yarned into a baloney pullover of meaningless adjectives.

Now that I have my thoughts a little bit more organised, I can outline a hypothesis about the workings of Monet’s lily paintings.

We need to step back though, to Velazquez, an artist who had a great influence on Manet, who – in his turn – influenced Monet, although in a different way.


Velazquez painted this Venus with a Mirror sometime around 1650. The viewer can’t really see the face of Venus. It is blurred on purpose: the beauty of a goddess, the Ideal or Ultimate Beauty, can’t be painted because no one has seen it, and even today Venus is not known to post selfies on Instagram. The Ideal Beauty is in the mind of the beholder. This blurred image activates those neural networks in the brain that house individual associations with beauty, memories, created by myths, books, movies and Playboy mass media.

Were it a particular face, the mind would react to it similarly to a meaningless portrait of an unknown celebrity of bygone times. It still would be attractive, primarily catering to people whose idea of beauty was congruent to the shape of the buttocks that are so close to the viewer one might be tempted to slap them.

Likewise, some 250+ years later, Monet was painting a refection of nature, but in a way that it couldn’t be attributed to any particular tree, sky, or flower.

His lilies – any and all of them – represent the Ideal Beauty of Nature, and for many they’ve grown to become a representation of the Ideal Beauty of Life itself. Not because they show some mind-boggling beauty of tender lily flowers blossoming against the green surface of a water reservoir – but precisely because they don’t show it.

I will use the painting that a friend of mine took in Vienna – and sent to me a few days ago.


It is known these paintings stay in memory. Somehow. Many people are known not to like them, but they remember them, though they can’t say what were the colours, the shapes, or the lines in them.

Wassily Kandinsky wrote of them,

“Until then I knew only naturalist and, to tell the truth, almost exclusively Russian naturalist art…I believed that no one had the right to paint so imprecisely. I vaguely felt that the object (the subject) was missing in this work. But with astonishment and confusion, I observed that not only did it surprise, but it imprinted itself indelibly in the memory and that before your eyes it recomposed itself in the smallest details. All this remained muddled in me, and I could not yet foresee the natural consequences of this discovery. But what clearly came out of it is the incredible power, a power I had never known, of a palette that outstripped my wildest dreams. To me the painter seemed gifted with a fabulous power. The object used as an indispensable element in my work unconsciously lost some of its importance to me. In short, there was already a little bit of my enchanting Moscow on this canvas.”

I don’t like this style of art writing: too many adjectives. “Fabulous”, “incredible”, “gifted”, etc. Adjectives that don’t explain anything. Why was the power of Monet “incredible” or “fabulous”? Yet, Kandinsky registered the important facts:

  • the paintings stay in memory (even despite the vague sensation there’s nothing in them, at least nothing of real importance)
  • the painting fire up [neural networks storing] personal associations (like Moscow for Kandinsky)
  • the combination of colours creates a conflict that makes even those who dislike the paintings to get involved into watching them.

Indeed, his greens and violets can be found on the opposite sides of the colour wheel, and thus they create a colour conflict – we do not normally see these colours in their pure form at the same time. It makes the brain go “wow” without us registering it. There is nothing subconscious in this though, the brain starts scanning the painting to understand what the heck is going on – and the viewer does not necessarily register it either.

But there is even a bigger conflict that goes on in the mind of the viewer.

We are used to this:

A real 3D scene ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene in the viewer’s mind.

Monet’s Lilies work differently:

A real 2D scene (the mirror of the pond) ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist (which bizarrely seems 3D, because of the difference in brushstrokes) ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene… BUT WE KNOW IT WAS A 2D SCENE TO START WITH!

And this is when the mind goes off thinking, remembering and associating in its own, very individual ways, some of which the mind’s owner does not register consciously.

Contemporary art is often differentiated from all the other types of art because it transfers the conflict from a painting or a sculpture into the mind of the viewer.

Instead of appreciating the drama that Michelangelo wanted people to live through their exposure to David, a contemporary artist wants to stimulate the viewer into creating his or her own drama, their own conflict, and live through their individual hell.

Monet used traditional colour conflict and innovative 2D-3D play with the mind of the viewer to CREATE A DRAMA OUTSIDE OF THE PAINTING, BUT INSIDE THE VIEWER’S MIND.

In this, he had become a true contemporary artist in his later years. He started the collective impressionistic revolution in visual arts that everyone noticed, but he then overturned visual arts single-handedly, in ways more radical than Cezanne could even imagine, and long before Picasso.

if there’s any painting that is more about individual reflection, I’d love to know about it.


Rhythm and Blues

In my yesterday’s post, I was talking about this dramatic landscape by Ivan Shishkin, that he “invented” to represent the depression he suffered through because of the death of his young wife in a year after their marriage.

I asked three questions at the end:

  1. There is rhythm in this painting that makes the viewer’s eyes scan it vertically and horizontally. How is it created?
  2. What did the artist do to add authenticity to this imaginary landscape?
  3. How did the artist show he was lost and disoriented?

My amazing readers (Olga Brajnović and Anna, ) came back with insightful answers – thank you! As usual, I doctored the image to explain Shishkin’s methods.

1. Creation of rhythm


Shishkin uses dark “markers” proportioned and positioned in a way that the eye is following. I’ve marked a few in this picture to better illustrate the concept.

It is important to paint those markers in a way that would not be too obvious. A casual observer won’t realise the markers are there until they are pointed out.

To understand the vertical rhythm, I’ve maxed out contrast in this picture.

SS2I am sure you can see the trick without any help now, but still:


Shishkin uses interchanging wedges of light and shadow that thin out towards the horizon to create the vertical rhythm and depth.

The play of light and shadow on a relatively flat surface of the plain is justified by the skies, with its own wedges of clouds and clear skies (to better see it, I’ve killed brightness in this picture):


And these are the wedges that get “reflected” on the ground:


It is not enough to know the compositional trick, for the choice of colour value, its intensity is just as important. A less gifted artist would make this composition too obvious, and hence less believable.

2/3. Authenticity and disorientation

Most landscape artists in the 19th century used to paint something notably beautiful at the foreground, to whet viewers’ appetite for watching and studying their painting. It would look theatrical and untrue, just like in this typical work of a Dutch artist:


The plants at the foreground of Shishkin’s painting are NOT beautified in any way. In fact, he makes some of them quite withered, and thus opposed to the oak, which is lonely but full of green vitality.

Withered plants

This group of plants represents blooming, withering and dying, and is linked to the artist’s emotional state as well. The road that leads nowhere and disappears in the folds of the ground is the main symbol of Shishkin’s disorientation, a simple representation of the feeling of being lost.


A few years ago, in a field near Neuchâtel, Switzerland,  I slammed on my brakes because I saw a lone tree in a yellow field. The tree, half-dead and half-alive, was hanging to dear life as Harold Lloyd to the minute hand in this iconic image. I thought about Ivan Shishkin then, and his most emotionally powerful painting.


This is the painting, named after a popular poem at the time, “In the midst of flat dales”:

Ivan Shishkin, 1883,

Ivan Shishkin, 1883, In the midst of flat dales

It was 1883, the time of a suicidal depression for the artist. He was in his 50s. In 1880 he married one of his students, from the first female class in the Russian Art Academy. She died a year later, leaving Shishkin alone and devastated.

For most of his life, Shishkin was painting or etching forests (mostly Russian) in a way no one could. He was a documentarian, who loved painting from nature.  His typical painting would feature Tchaikovsky’s rhythm through a play of light, unbelievable depth, and authentic plants in their authentic state, given the season and time of day.

Like this “Oak Grove”, painted in 1887, when he recovered from the depression .

A sample of “typical Shishkin”: Oak Grove, 1887

Unlike most his other work, the lone oak tree he painted was done from imagination. Art historians believe the oak was painted from memories or sketches done during Shishkin’s trip to Switzerland.

I am sure it was a different oak (from mine), but they just felt the same not only because of their nationality.

Is it a landscape? Technically, yes. Philosophically, no. It is a self-portrait of a strong man in crisis, who believes he has enough vitality to survive and weather through it.

Given that Shishkin could make even an imaginary landscape look 100% authentic, it is one of the most convincing anti-depression paintings I know.

If you’ve been reading my blog before, you might be interested in answering these questions (I will answer them in a day or two, here, as an update):

  1. There is rhythm in this painting that makes the viewer’s eyes scan it vertically and horizontally. How is it created?
  2. What did the artist do to add authenticity to this imaginary landscape?
  3. How did the artist show he was lost and disoriented?

Thank you, the Daily Post, for the perseverance idea!