The 100 best nonfiction books: No 27 – The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art by Kenneth Clark (1956)

Kenneth Clark: 'His ambition was to restore the human body in the public mind as an object of myth and wonder.' Photograph: BBC

To Private Eye, he was, immortally, "Lord Clark of Civilisation", an accolade that probably made this patrician art historian better known to the British public than any other contemporary critic in any genre, a household name to stand alongside Fry, Gombrich and Pevsner. The epitome of the Great and the Good, equally at home with princes, patrons, and prime ministers, Clark was also a scholar with a showman's instincts, who kept a beady eye on his audience. He relished provocative observations, and began this controversial study by opposing the naked ("huddled and defenceless") with the nude ("balanced, prosperous and confident … the body re-formed"). Appropriately, this pioneering history of the depiction of the human body, which began with the 1953 Mellon Lectures, was largely written in the home of Bernard Berenson, the art historical master to whom it is dedicated.

In the context of its time, the mid-1950s, Clark's account of the nude in the history of art, from the Greeks and the Romans to Picasso and the postimpressionists, is a wide-ranging, secular celebration of an important classical tradition. In ancient times, the nude had been used to express fundamental human needs, for instance, the need for harmony and order (Apollo) versus the need to sublimate sexual desire (Venus). Writing in postwar Europe, Clark's ambition was to restore the human body in the public mind as an object of myth and wonder, not (as it had become in the 30s) the tool of fascist brutalism.

Clark starts using a kind of language no art historian had explored before

Clark, the most refined and sophisticated of critics, was also surreptitiously advancing a very British kind of popular paganism through his acknowledgment of the power of Eros. In hindsight, The Nude can be identified as a turning point for the incipient sexual revolution of the 60s.

Probably no one would be more surprised at this suggestion than Clark. His own indifference to what would later be identified by his many critics as "the politics of vision" makes him an unlikely radical. In his writing, the former academic historian aims to celebrate and admire the sensuality of the naked human form, expressing himself elegantly and without over-complication. As it happens, he is only partly successful.

In The Nude, the transition from the male nudes of Michelangelo, via the great Venuses of Giorgione and Titian, to the female nudes of Rubens and Ingres, sponsors an irruption of excitement into Clark's narrative. He starts using a kind of language no art historian had explored before:

"The Venus of Giorgione is sleeping, without a thought of her nakedness. Compared with Titian's Venus of Urbino, she is like a bud, wrapped in its sheath, each petal folded so firmly as to give us the feeling of inflexible purpose. With Titian, the bud has opened… replaced by renaissance satisfaction in the here and now."

François Boucher's portrait of Louise O'Murphy: 'Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed.' Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Having broken the taboo, Clark's prose becomes decorously, but never deliriously, liberated. Describing François Boucher's portrait of Miss O'Murphy he writes:

"Freshness of desire has seldom been more delicately expressed than by [her] round young limbs, as they sprawl with undisguised satisfaction on the silken cushions of her sofa. By art Boucher has enabled us to enjoy her with as little shame as she is enjoying herself. One false note and we should be embarrassingly back in the world of sin."

After two world wars, Clark was at pains to renew the classical contract between order, coherence and human imagination

Throughout the composition of this remarkable monograph, Clark was not merely battling his own inhibitions, he was having to find new ways to sustain his narrative line. As he admits in his preface to The Nude: "I soon discovered, that the subject is extremely difficult to handle. There is difficulty of form; a chronological survey would be long and repetitive, but almost every other pattern is unworkable. And there is a difficulty of scope; no responsible art historian would have attempted to cover both antique and post-medieval art."

Clark's solution was to devote three long chapters at the heart of The Nude to the themes of energy, pathos and ecstasy, corresponding to classical (athletes and heroes), Christian (crucifixions and pietas) and finally some bacchanalian and gothic nudes. Throughout his narrative, Clark is fully alive to the ironies of his analysis, especially as he probes the depiction of the medieval nude:

"During the long banishment of the body there arose one symbol of pathos more poignant and more compelling than all the others: Our Lord on the Cross. Nothing in our subject shows more decisively the ideal character of the antique nude than that, in spite of the Christian horror of nakedness, it was the undraped figure of Christ which was finally accepted as canonical in representations of the Crucifixion."

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Strangely, for a critic whose work was contemporary with Picasso and Matisse, and especially Henry Moore, Clark has much less of interest to say about the nude in the 20th century. After the chaos and barbarism of the two world wars through which he had lived, the art historian was at pains to renew the classical contract between order, coherence and the human imagination. He concludes his narrative with the suggestion that "The Greeks perfected the nude in order that man might feel like a god, and in a sense this is still its function, for although we no longer suppose that God is like a beautiful man, we still feel close to divinity in those flashes of self-identification when, through our own bodies, we seem to be aware of a universal order."

An instinctive quest for our civilisation and its towering humanistic values was never far from the core of Clark's writing. The success of The Nude in the 1950s and 60s, before the sensational success of Civilisation, and before the critics, led by John Berger, turned on him, possibly indicates the deep and unconscious imperatives behind the Anglo-American passion for culture.

A signature sentence

"In antique sarcophagi the nereids who balance on the tails of tritons must have been studied from nature for they are in exactly the pose adopted by their modern daughters in Italy who occupy an equally precarious seat on the pillions of motor scooters."

Three to compare

Bernard Berenson: The Drawings of the Florentine Painters (1903)
Kenneth Clark: Civilisation, a Personal View (1969)
John Berger: Ways of Seeing (1972)

The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art is currently out of print


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