When Pope John Paul II presented his Theology of the Body and addressed artists directly, challenging them to portray the human figure ‘naked without shame’ and in such a way that the beauty of the human form would be revealed in an ordered way it caused quite a stir.
Here was a Pope, now saint, it seemed, who was putting his intellectual weight behind the artistic tradition of painting the nude and not only excusing it, but promoting it. Finally Catholics who fancied themselves as arty and cultured could hold their heads up high at dinner parties amongst their sophisticated, non-Christian friends and happily say that although there were some puritanical elements in the Church, those who were uncomfortable with nudity were just narrow minded philistines who didn’t really understand Catholic culture. It inaugurated the creation of a wave of contorted Theology-of-the-Body nudes that, the artists told us, communicated human sexuality ‘as gift’ by gesture.
I didn’t get around to doing the paintings, but I did believe for a long time that JPII was a Catholic apologist for the Sixties, who could see the good at its heart and was able to distinguish, deftly, between those elements that were disordered or and those that reflected an ordered view of the human person. I also believed that the study of the nude was essential in the training of the human body.
Then I read the Theology of the Body and attended an atelier in Florence in which I did figure painting or drawing every afternoon. Now I am not so sure.
First, I no longer believe that the study of the nude is necessary in an artist’s training. The method I studied relied on training the eye, not anatomy. In fact we were told not to think deeply about the structure of what we were observing. Moreover, there have been great naturalistic artists who were masters of the academic method and did not train with the nude, such as Velazquez and his contemporaries in the Spanish school of baroque naturalism. I understand that even today, the Russian school of academic art in Florence, Italy does teaches today to the highest level without painting the nude.
Also, my understanding of JPII’s writing has changed. What I see now in his writings about art and nudity, which include the ToB, is someone who understands the differing traditions in art very deeply and who is conservative by nature. (Read More)