What is it with nudity? Aside from people with no mirror in the bathroom, we’re all familiar with it. God allegedly didn’t have a problem with it, and none of us was born with clothes on. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have become an issue.
Don’t get me wrong. I like clothes. They’re decorative (if you’re careful about what you pick out of the wardrobe in the morning and you don’t do too much of your shopping in Lidl), they keep you warm in the winter, and they keep you from getting sunburn if the sun ever bothers to put his hat on. Equally, taking them off isn’t a big deal. In the absence of alarming tattoos and piercings, there aren’t many frights and surprises under people’s clothes. Okay, one might be embarrassed by what God, genetics, a fondness for buns, and a repressive education have left one with, but if other people aren’t, what’s wrong with letting them get on with it? If someone started suggesting loudly that they were uncomfortable looking at big ears, or nasal hair, they’d be locked up faster than you could say ‘all mouth and no trousers’. Instead, the ‘naked rambler’ got jailed for eleven months for wearing only boots and socks (and a hat, to judge from the news photos). I enjoy walking, and the nearest I’ve seen to a naked rambler was a woman in a black bikini (and no hard hat) riding a horse on the South Downs. I doubt that letting the naked rambler get away with it would have changed things enormously, given the British weather. And even if he were to start hanging about in Morrison’s (or Waitrose), I can’t see that it would catch on. Clothes are fun and practical.
There’s even a hierarchy of what sort of nudity is acceptable. From the bottom up, we have a live nude (such as the naked rambler) as the most upsetting. Above that is a video, then a still photograph, and least despicable, a painting. Of course, it’s possible to upset people with a painting, and for a live nude not to upset anyone (much), but by and large, that’s how it goes. And if nudity’s so terrible, why are there so many paintings? I’m not an art historian (or any sort of historian), but I have in my time been both painter and model. As a model, I earned a crust, got to meet people (most of whom kept their clothes on), and learnt what it was like to be on the other side of the easel (uncomfortable, because you have to sit still for so long). As a painter, I learnt how hard it is to get it right. Classical nudes were mainly impersonal and remote, but modern nudes from Manet’s Olympia onwards are generally much more human (think Egon Schiele or Lucian Freud). It’s harder to hide when you’re naked, and it’s hard for the painter to get the right balance of honesty and exposure, but I always felt I owed it to my model to make him or her look beautiful, even when he or she wasn’t, especially.
Some of them were people I knew, and some of them were people I’d never met before, but I did my best for all of them, and quite a few asked me if they could have the paintings I’d done. I gave them away, with the rider that if I ever got a retrospective at the Hayward, I could borrow them back. The Hayward looks less and less likely to be staging my retrospective, but never mind. I hope the paintings have brought pleasure to the people to whom I gave them.
Somewhere above the painted nude in the harmlessness chart, you might expect to find the nude in prose. However, it seems that even the nude in prose (with bared flesh only in the reader’s head) can upset people. Mrs Strange taking her clothes off in Flying Lessons to go swimming, for example. There aren’t any descriptions of her nakedness, except that her face and hands are the only parts of her body that are tanned, and that she has an appendix scar. What appears to have been the issue is that she took her clothes off in front of Swann. He wasn’t even particularly interested.
Nudity has nevertheless contrived to pinch the bottom of the mainstream. The Women’s Institute calendar, and the stream of similar naked charity calendars that followed it. Naked bike rides, Spencer Tunick, and the delightful Naked Vegan Cooking blog. I took my clothes off to protest against the threatened closure of the casualty department at West Cornwall Hospital. That’s me at the back on the right, next to the woman with red hair. It really isn’t a big deal. Wrap yourself in your burka if you wish. Wear a wimple or a veil. But if the naked rambler wants to be cold and wet, just let him get on with it. If I ever meet him, I’ll smile, and if he’s not too shy, I’ll shake his hand. Maybe he’ll admire my linen jacket.