Painting the nude in early 20th century Canada

The human body is one if not the most complex subject an artist can deal with.  At the same time, the public's reactions to the body, particularly when it is unclothed, are just as complex.   Yet artists, since the beginning of times, have represented the nude body and have never ceased to submit such images to the acceptation or rejection of their public.  Throughout the years, in the relation between artist, images of the nude and the public, it has been impossible to assign a definite meaning to this subject for the simple reason that it can be approached from an aesthetic as well as several other points of view.   In the exhibition: The Nude in Modern Canadian Art, at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, we have to assume, since we are dealing with works of art, that there is, at all times, an aesthetic concern even in cases where the nude represented is not conform to our idea of classical beauty, what ever meaning we give to the term «classical».  

Sketching nude models has been, and is still, an essential part of an artist's training.  Its purpose is the pursuit of fluent lines and gracious forms.  We note however that in its systematic study of lines and forms, the representation of the nude has sometimes neglected or simply done away with the facial features of the model.   Several works in the exhibition fall into that category, yet Bertram Brooker's Torso of 1937, would be, in my opinion, a finest example of a modern approach.  Modern, it shows an abstract arrangement of forms inviting the viewer to reconstruct what was omitted, thus giving the whole image a mysterious quality.  Just as abstract in the arrangement of curved lines is Lionel Lemoine Fitzgeralds's Nude of 1929.  The exhibition also shows a whole series of sketches in the pure academic tradition in which the body is at times truncated or shown from the back, most probably in order to remain within moral standards.

The exhibition, as a whole, and its accompanying catalogue help us to understand the difficulty faced by artists who sought to make of the nude an accepted genre in their society.  They had to face censorship and or the rejection of their modernist approach of the subject.   The fact is that, like many countries of the New World, in the early part of the 20th century, Canada was facing an identity crisis.  In the arts, in painting in particular, this identity could only be expressed through images of the vast and savage territories.  To come to turn with such an idea, artists have inventively placed nude figures in nature suggesting a mean to humanise the landscape.   Others, outwitting the critic of modern expressions, have resorted to idealised images that bring the pleasing emotion of purity and satisfy a desire for beauty, while hinting to some signs of modernity in the model's hairdo, its make-up or again in details of its environment.

It's no secret that the nude has regularly been subjected to the fact that breaking religious taboos was considered distasteful, if not condemned by society.   This is particularly true in North America where the Catholic Church and often radical Protestants have viewed flesh (generally that of a woman) as evil.  This idea seems to prevail again today in some sectors in spite of the fact that many human activities and social behaviour have been submitted to more liberal controls.   The fact is that we are in a confused value system where seeing harmless bodies can be disturbing while is accepted as entertaining the violence on such bodies displayed on TV and in movies.  

Generally, people are offended by nude figures because, in certain cases, the lack of clothes seems to imply nakedness and thus sexual intentions.  This was the case for the 1933 Nude by Lilias T. Newton although the model looks timidly away from the viewer and hold her right arm against her chest in a gesture that, even if it does not cover her breast, is very much like that of Greek goddesses, thus associated with an ideal nudity. On the contrary, the group of men showering in the nude in Georges Pepper's sketches and painting seem perfectly acceptable, expressing even the idea of cohesion in military combat units.

There are many questions raised by this exhibition.  However, like in all debates, people have to keep an open mind and train themselves to consider the work in its various aspects before making any judgement.  One must realise, for instance, that in representing a nude figure, the artist's intent can be to convey inner meaning rather that appearance.   I would say that, as an observer, the painting Femme Brune (1936) by Prudence Howard is to me more than the portrait of an individual woman.  With no sexual appeal in spite of her nakedness, she appears to be the expression of an admission of defeat just like Louis Muhlstock's Eva pregnant of 1947 seems to be that of a promise.