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Naked at a London Art Gallery

The Renaissance Nude

We have come a long way since the Renaissance. This period from around 1400 is the beginning of our modern preoccupation with ‘media’. Gutenberg printed the perfected the printing press in the year 1450, although in a story familiar with new technology today, his attempt to set up a printing shop led him into debt in 1452. This may well be the reason that he took to the profitable printing of church indulgences around 1454 (documents purchased from the church used to seek the forgiveness of sins).

Wikipedia says about the impact of this technology “the relatively unrestricted circulation of information—including revolutionary ideas—transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class”.

To print images an artist needed to engrave a copper plate – not superseded until the invention of photography. Consequently the books were a rare commodity, but in the exhibition we were treated to some wonderful examples of hand written illuminated books. I am always fascinated by the use if gold leaf and the bright colours that still light up the page hundreds of years later. Of course the text was in Latin and so incomprehensible to me.

Images – paintings, engravings, drawings, sculpture – were a key way of distributing ideas before the printing press. The exhibition shows the change in Western art in this period from purely religious representations to more naturalist and realistic representations of the human body, including the rise of the nude, which abounds today. Whereas the modern scientific approach, which began in this period, sought to understand the world as it is (and without supernatural intervention), the depiction of the human body, particularly in its naked form, has had a strong thread of idealism incorporating notions of beauty. This has unfortunately led many humans to dislike their own bodies as they do not match the ideal. I read somewhere that cats do not refuse to go out because they have a bad self image. Indeed as a cat owner I am convinced that they do not recognise their own image in the mirror. Our sheep by contrast assumed that mirror images were aggressive interlopers and kicked the mirrors in our summer house to pieces!

So we are obsessed with our own images and I find naturists particularly so, although maybe for different reasons – we like to show we are part of the ‘club’, we like to tempt others to join in, we like to shock (if gently). I found it very interesting to read about some gorillas reared in captivity who mimic humans by standing up on two legs in the background whenever their human carers were taking selfies!

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While I was driving the other day I heard an old story by David Sedaris. If you don't know him, he has "become one of America’s pre-eminent humor writers ... a master of satire" and he broadcases on Radio 4 from time to time.

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In his book 'Naked' the author describes visiting a naturist trailer park. The story can be found here . In a funny twist he describes being fearful of a knock on the door as he was afraid not to answer the door naked in case he was thought odd and so having to undress very quickly (he did not take to the nudist life and was clothed in his trailer). However, the relevant quote to this article is that he finishes the story on returning to 'normal' life in New York he sees the absurdity of the fashions that people wear and observes that people cannot hide from him as 'I know what you really look like naked'.

I just have to finish with this quote: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” ― Mark Twain

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