A WORD IN THE HAND: NUDE
How nude went from noble to naughty and back
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
The word “nude” has taken on sinister connotations of late, but nude was not always a form of currency. Nowadays the first thing that springs to mind when anyone says “nude” is an unclothed photograph sent via social media, which enables the recipient to commit indecent acts of blackmail or bullying on the sender.
There are many words that squander their potential in this way, starting off with a bright future only to descend into depraved ignominy. Nude follows in the footsteps of passion, which used to mean a burning desire until it was downgraded to a mild interest; nice, which originally meant foolish but now means pleasant; and silly, which began as a synonym for blessed until it was appropriated by fools.
In the same way, nude fell from noble to naughty. It is still used in an artistic context to describe paintings of naked people, but even that is a fairly recent development. Artworks of unclothed humans go back to the very first cave paintings and sculptures, but they became known as nudes only about 150 years ago.
Long before that, nude was a word found only in legal documents. From the Latin nudus, meaning bare, it slipped into English in about the 1530s, when it was used by lawyers to mean “not fully supported” (in some cases this might be because the legal practitioner had not passed the bra exam).
Legal terms have a way of insinuating their way into common speech (just look at dolus eventualis) and it was not long before the man in the street began using nude as a substitute for plain and simple.
“I can’t bear all this fancy French cooking,” an Englishman might have said at the time. “I prefer my food nude.”
Then, in the 1600s, the artsy establishment got hold of nude. Calling sculptures or paintings of naked people merely “sculptures or paintings of naked people” did little to elevate artspeak above common lingo, so they became known as nudes.
To be fair, the intention was probably not only to sound pretentious but also to justify the hanging of pictures of naked people in galleries, at a time when those of a more prudish sensibility might have burnt the creators of such offending objects at the stake.
There was, however, no social media in the 1600s, so it took another 300 or so years for nude to catch on as the universally accepted term for a painting of a naked person. To differentiate art from real life, in the same way that erotica divorced pornography, nude disowned its embarrassing sibling, the “nudie” – a naughty picture of no discernible artistic merit. Nudes were there to be admired with the mind; nudies to be snickered at in public and panted over in private.
Or at least that’s the theory. A recent debate about gender equality has peeled off the thin layer of respectability worn by nudes to reveal the lowbrow, snicker-inducing nudie-ness that lurks beneath.
In a bid to redress the imbalances of art history, the UK’s Royal Academy of Arts has demanded more sculptures and paintings of naked men. At the moment they are just talking about an exhibition of Renaissance nudes – their point being that there are always far too many undressed women at these things and not nearly enough men in the buff – but who knows where it will end.
For the moment, curators are tasked with digging up whatever buck-naked chaps they can find that were painted or carved between 1400 and 1530, because it has been decreed that out of the 85 works in the exhibition, 50% must be male and 50% must be female. Given that 85 is an odd number it will be interesting to see how they deal with the one artwork that falls between the cracks, so to speak.
On that point, is the academy not way behind the times? Have we not moved beyond dualistic notions of male and female? Language has embraced the use of “they” as a genderless pronoun. Perhaps the art world should similarly shed its gender bias and accept that a nude is just a naked person, plain and simple.