Hailing from Hong Kong, New York, and on the outskirts of Paris, these three female artists reinvent nude art in unique ways as they reference history and tackle different social issues with the human body—unclothed, in its most natural form.
From Michelangelo’s world-famous marble sculpture of David (1501–1504) to the much later Egon Schiele’s masterfully enchanting Lying Woman (1917), the naked human figure has been an enduring subject in Western art for thousands of years—if not longer. As for non-Western depictions of the nude form, Katsushika Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814) and India’s infamous Kama Sutra by Vātsyāyana (400–300 CE) are but a couple that comes to mind.
Today, the naked body remains a popular and controversial subject in contemporary art. But what is it about nudes that fascinate us so? Is it because “sex sells”? Or is there something profound to this seemingly innate desire to eye the bare skin? I reach out to three female artists from all over the globe, each distinctive in their own right, to inquire into their artistic use of nude bodies as subjects.
“What better depicts the beauty of nature than the female nude?” asks Mathilde Brunelet, an artist based in Patin, a suburb on the edge of Paris in France, who works with an approach similar to action painting. She describes naked bodies as allegories as she works through these “imprints and vestiges of fossilised journeys through time”, drawing inspiration from moments, settings, and feelings. “Nude art should be a celebration of the beauty of the human form,” the artist remarks.
Instead of seeing the imagery as a passive subject, Brunelet believes that the naked body has always reflected the significant changes in cultural attitudes regarding sexuality, citing the sexually explicit temple sculptures of India in the 10th century and their importance in a time where the artistic portrayal of erotism was an essential part of the cultural philosophy. Throughout different eras, the artist contemplates, “The nude returned the gaze of the viewer rather than looking away.” In one of Brunelet’s abstract series, she renders women in Japanese onsens, where natural sources of water purified and invigorated the body and spirit of patrons. These almost mystical sanctuaries allowed the complete exposure of nude bodies to exist without judgement.
Based in Queens, New York, the contemporary figurative painter Elisa Valenti, who illustrates women almost exclusively, has a fundamentally similar outlook as her work celebrates the imperfect beauty of the naked female form. “She has been judged, scrutinised, and misrepresented as subpar through the lenses of male artists and viewers for generations,” imparts the painter, who finds the most inspiration from the Venus of Willendorf, which stands out in a sea of unrealistically sleek and sculpted bodies in the Greco-Roman era. Why, you ask? “Because her body resembles my own.”
Valenti’s journey of self-love didn’t begin until she started painting bodies that looked like hers—authentic, ample, full-figured nudes of women who seek radical worthiness in a society that neglects, ridicules, and marginalises them. Not only does she paint these naked bodies to pay homage to the Venus of Willendorf, but they also serve as a looking glass for those with physiques underrepresented by modern and contemporary art. “My paintings create a place for bodies to just exist.” Valenti continues, “The figures in my paintings are the protagonist of this ongoing story of emergence and growth. She is you; she is me. She is anyone who needs to see themselves in a new light, who need to be reminded of who they are and not what the world wants them to be.”
In the vein of self-acceptance, honouring the many different facets of the human body is Alyssa Tang—a Hong Kong-based artist whose Canadian-Chinese upbringing and education in architecture influenced her exploration of identity alongside the intersection of culture and design. Unlike the two artists mentioned above, whose practices are somewhat motivated by the unclothed human form in art history, Tang’s nude paintings tell the story of a much more modern problem.
“I created my first life-sized nude painting at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The artist divulges, “As the outbreak spread to Western countries, we witnessed a rise in hate crimes towards people of Asian descent. I contemplated the irony: how our skin, the largest organ in our body which protects and insulates us, became the target for disapproving glances, racial slurs, and even physical attacks.” Disheartened by anti-Asian racism, Tang painted a naked body gently touched by multiple hands. “Hands are like faceless portraits,” she elaborates, “from the lines and wrinkles to the calluses, they can reveal layers of stories without facial expressions.” In having these hands surround the body, the artist wishes to remind the viewer they are not alone in this fight and that there is comfort to be found in one’s community during times of crisis.
To conclude these artists’ uniquely fascinating portrayals of the naked body, allow me to quote art historian Kenneth Clark: “The nude takes the most sensual and immediately interesting object, the human body, and puts it out of reach of time and desire; it takes the most purely rational concept of which mankind is capable, mathematical order, and makes it a delight to the senses.”