The BBC has just shown a program on the use of fig leaves in art, mainly sculpture but also some painting,(http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2011/02/fig-leaf-the-biggest-cover-up.shtml . Fig leaves, that is, that are used to conceal body parts that are considered unacceptable to the public eye. The early Greek sculptures prided in showing the whole body, often in an exaggerated form as a model of the best in humanity. This changed when Christianity came into force as a significant keeper of the public morality.‘And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they [were] naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.’ Genesis 3.7
Nakedness became generally unacceptable except where it was being shown in the guise of portraying the wages of sin: Orvieto Cathedral
However many artists ‘worked around’ this prohibition by minimally draping their statues and other simply ignored it.
This double standard on nudity in Western Art has continued to today. In some instances it is still followed and showing the penis or vagina is seen as taboo and a cause outrage, however, this has to be contrasted with the use of extreme eroticism in some advertisements (although often the body is thinly veiled). Nudity seems to be acceptable if it is seen as ‘Art’, and more so if it is beautiful but can still cause a furore if shown in a public place, if perceived as ugly or if seen as exploitative.
An example of this is in the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe (1946 – 1989). whose nudes were meant to be seen as beautiful but caused enormous controversy when first shown, and which can still appear shocking today.
This is a modern image (one of a series) that is posed in a very similar way to many of the ancient Greek statues, in that it is an almost naked statue of a famous athlete showing every muscle clearly defined. However in this case there has been a sop to the modern viewpoint in that pants are worn and the hands are carefully positioned to act as a ‘fig leaf’. This does have the effect of drawing attention immediately to the area that is ‘hidden’ which was presumably the intent of Mapplethorpe.
This picture, whilst not a complete nude, uses the clothes and the shadow to immediately draw attention to the pubis. In many cultures showing pubic hair is taboo. Hre it is made the focus of the piece and the face, usually the defining part of a portrait is covered.
In the photograph my model immediately posed like this using his hand as a shield even though he was aware that his face was not in the picture. The focus is on the hand and the curve of the torso.
It is clear from this brief summary that what is acceptable for public display of nudity has varied widely of the centuries and in various cultures. This need to be carefully considered when taking pictures of people to avoid alienating ones’ audience because of aiming for a ‘shock ‘ reaction when it is not required .