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Is it okay to show nudes on the tube?

March 8th, 2008

Dr Petra

Tonight I’ll be on BBC 2’s Culture Show talking about Cranach the elder’s Venus. This portrait is featuring in a forthcoming exhibition of Cranach’s works at the Royal Academy of Arts and has been used to advertise the show.

Which has led to some controversy. Transport for London initially banned the image from the Underground. It’s unclear whether this was a pre-emptive strike to protect commuters’ eyes from a wisp of a veil and a sight of some boobs, or whether there was a complaint from a traveller.

That’s led to some interesting discussions around free speech and censorship. Cranach’s picture is over 500 years old, and yet still has the capacity to raise a storm. The Underground’s initial objection was based around the picture supposedly breaching their advertising guidelines which do not allow images of men, women or children in sexual poses or “display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context”.

Anyone travelling on the tube on a regular basis is confronted with adverts that often sail quite close to the wind when it comes to TFL’s advertising regulations. We’re often travelling in close proximity with people reading mainstream magazines or even the free papers given to commuters all of which feature images that would most definitely breach TFL’s guidelines were they formal ad campaigns.

Cranach’s Venus is most definitely a nude designed to arouse. It was entitled Venus presumably in some effort to make it seem more respectable and less raunchy, but be in no doubt the image is most definitely comparable to a modern day pinup or centrefold.

It fascinates me that a 16th Century painting still gets a reaction from us. Perhaps that’s because Cranach uses a number of devices to get us going. The model is pictured against a dark background while she is pale skinned; she’s slightly sideways on but her body is still facing us. She’s not looking at us confrontationally, but she is definitely holding our gaze through her lowered eyelids. She holds a veil (or what barely passes for one) across her body to bring attention to her pubic hair, or when your eyes travel upwards, to her breasts.

Pictures often arouse when we don’t see everything. Cranach’s picture is certainly explicit, but aspects of the model’s body still remain hidden. No doubt we would have a stronger reaction to an image showing genitals or penetration, but a picture that leaves us to imagine what’s going on can linger longer in the mind. Interestingly in studies where people are shown images that are graphic compared to images that are hinted at tend to recall the hinted at images as more sexual – because they’ve filled in the gaps themselves.

We like to think that we’ve invented the raunchy photo in the past century or so, but Cranach’s work shows us that we’ve known how to use the nude to excite and interest us for many centuries. It’s not exactly erotic painting by numbers, but there is a tried and tested format that works for us.

So tune in tonight for this discussion on the Culture Show, and if you’re able go and see Cranach’s work at the Royal Academy. In an era where we’re faced with an increasingly formulaic approach to the nude in lad’s magazines and porn, it’s wonderful to see such an early piece of art still stirring our senses and breaking with modern conventions.

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