The Nude

The Cultural Rhetoric of the Body in the Art of Western Modernity

Richard Leppert

First Edition • January 2, 0007 • 336 pages

Print ISBN: 9780813343501 • $50.00 USD$57.50 CAN


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The Nude explores some of the principal ways that paintings of the nude function in the conflicted terrain of culture and society in Europe and America from the fifteenth through twentieth centuries, as set against questions about human sexuality that emerge around differences of class, gender, age, and race. Author Richard Leppert relates the visual history of how the naked body intersects with the foundational characteristics of what it is to be human, measured against a range of basic emotions (happiness, delight, and desire; fear, anxiety, and abjection) and read in the context of changing social and cultural realities. The bodies comprising the Western nude are variously pleasured or tormented, ecstatic or bored, pleased or horrified. In short, as this volume amply demonstrates, the nude in Western art is a terrain on whose surface is written a summation of Western history: its glory but also its degradation.

Richard Leppert is Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor in the department of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. His numerous books include Art and the Committed Eye: The Cultural Functions of Imagery, The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation, and the History of the Body, and, most recently, Essays on Music, an edition of selected essays by Theodore W. Adorno.

Introduction: The State of Being without Clothes—in Art
Outlining the Territory
Seeing and the Social Practice of Making Sense
Seeing to Know; Knowing to See
Limits of Engagement
What’s Nude?
Who’s Got the Look?
Needing to See
Deception and Erotic Desire
A Perplexing Sight

The Female Nude: Surfaces of Desire
Originating in Sin
Cold Comforts
Representing Girls
Innocence?—Over the Edge
Recalibrating the Moral Compass
Naked Girls—Bluntly
Turning the Tables (1)
Figments of an Imagination
Colonizing the Body
Inviting Revenge
Nude as Prostitute
Looking Back
For the Self

The Male Nude: Identity and Denial
A Perplexing Sight
Saintly Looks
Claims and Contradictions
Body Reversal?
Innocence and the Future
Phallic Delight
Youth, Death, and Sanctioned Desire
Genital Confrontation
The Bath
Measured Difference: Matters of Black and White
The Evil Other
Turning the Tables (2)
Anti-Narcissism and Zones of (Dis)Pleasure

The Matter of Looking
Naked Transgression
The Body and Photography
Bathed in Desire

Written in plain, everyday language but filled with sophisticated ideas derived from critical and feminist theory, The Nude examines how Western art of the past half millennium has taught us to love, hate, fear, admire, envy, and desire the naked human body. Richard Leppert makes good use of a friendly, almost conversational style, with occasional humorous asides, to keep his analysis lively and engaging. Sensibly dividing a vast and potentially cumbersome topic into three main subject areas—children, women, and men—he uses an excellent array of examples to show the many diverse ways that artists, and the societies they represent, have “clothed” the naked body with ideology.

—David M. Lubin, Charlotte C. Weber Professor of Art, Wake Forest University

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