In The Worm in the Bud, Ronald Pearsall suggests that “a thesis could be written on the effect of pubic hair on Victorian sexual thinking”. This paper is not an attempt at that thesis, but instead an examination of why something so natural like pubic hair affected Victorian sexual thinking. Perhaps it is because from the classical period to the present art has idealized the human form to the point that it no longer reflects the flawed human being. Art constructs a new standard for the human being to live up to: perfection.
In extreme circumstances, such as the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, art actually replaces the human. The creation itself, however, is not based upon real life, but artistic ideal. The depiction of the nude in mid-nineteenth-century England helped set up the artistic climate for such a movement to exist. The representation of the nude in art and literature during this time was socially acceptable to examine as an object of study. A curious dichotomy of Victorian aestheticism was adopted in the century. In Erotic Art, Richard Bentley observes the following:
While, for example, it was considered impolite to suggest that women had legs, it had become fashionable and ‘respectable’ to put skirts round the legs of pianos! At the same time, when visiting the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, men and women were expected to admire marble statues of nude women, always provided that these conformed to what were considered classical canons of art.
The nude as a feature of the canon authorized appreciation. Certainly there was a taboo against overt sexuality, but art allowed an outlet for sexuality, both in the private sphere with the decoration of piano legs or the possession of prints and photographs, and in the public sphere during a Royal Academy exhibition. Art provided a way to explore the human body without necessarily having to touch it. Under this guise transgressions could safely take place. The nude of the nineteenth century, therefore, was a clever way to propagate aesthetic pornography, a new aesthetic in its own right.
Fashioning these images as modern adaptations of canonical works allowed artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Lord Frederick Leighton to create socially acceptable art. Personalities such as Oscar Wilde also worked to create a cult of aesthetic pre-eminence by creating new ideals in pornographic writing by presenting homoeroticism within the construct of traditional and heterosexual desire. Art in the nineteenth century promoted this aestheticism by manipulating the old canon to suit the desires of the artist. The bold changes in visual art allowed literature to make a similar transition elevating pornographic writing into the realm of literature.
Aesthetics, the philosophical investigation of art, considers whether there are objective standards for judging it. In Kenneth Clark’s 1956 study The Nude, he argues that there is an implicit ideal of beauty, but “no individual body is satisfactory as a whole. The artist can choose the perfect parts from a number of figures and then combine them into a perfect whole”. Ideal beauty is not the average found in natural creation, but is an amalgam of images which co-exist in the mind of the human creator. William Blake expresses this idea explicitly: “All Forms are Perfect in the Poet’s Mind but these are not Abstracted or compounded from Nature, but are from the Imagination”.
The ideal is not found naturally; instead, it is a joint effort between what already exists in Nature and the mind of the creator. Almost a century later, Walter Pater reiterated Blake’s claim, for he “believed it was with ‘imaginative reason’ that a percipient viewer apprehended the aesthetic quality of a work of art; beauty was not comprehended exclusively through the intellect or senses”. The ideal of beauty exists within the consciousness of the viewer who is potentially also a creator.
One of the key ways to avert sexuality away from the female nude was to frame her in a classical setting. This seems an odd arrangement, however, because the Greek myths of desire are highly libidinous, and their recreations by artists indeed reflect this carnal quality. This contradiction provided the perfect atmosphere to exploit the nude and indeed eroticize her. In theory, “associations with the Antique helped divorce the nude from any implication of sexuality,” but it is not hard to imagine that this appeared the very vehicle for sexuality.
Frederick Lord Leighton’s Venus Disrobing for the Bath both revitalized the classical nude, but simultaneously sexualized her. On the surface, Leighton’s Venus appears the model of virtue and indeed was critiqued as such in the nineteenth century. This is not Venus present in a narrative which traditionally depicted her with a lover, but is a Venus in her own private chambers. She was naturally hailed as the embodiment of the classical ideal by critics who vied for a return to chaste classicism.
She is not an overtly pornographic naked figure, but her nudity beckons the viewer to call attention to her body. This is not a Venus emblematic of motherhood, with a “fuller waist and proportions” who is a “model for ‘natural’ womanhood,” but a Venus who appreciates leisure and narcissistic indulgences. While she seeks her own pleasure, however, she still exists for the viewer seeking his own pleasure he will achieve by gazing upon her sensuousness. Her very contortions, in fact, provoke desire; Venus is on display for the male viewer. Read more in this article.
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