I imagine I have your attention now.
The nude in art is, according to art historians, an almost exclusively Western phenomenon. Ancient Greeks made statues celebrating the physical perfection of their male athletes, but artistic nudes go back even further to prehistoric times, or so the “Willendorf Venus” would suggest.
Female nudes were infrequent and taboo, particularly with the rise of Christianity. Adam and Eve could be nude, as well as depictions of sinners in hell, but few others could. Later on, nudity was permissible, indeed, even expected when depicting biblical subjects or classical myths or the evocation of a lost Golden Age.
Even through to the nineteenth century, nudes were acceptable within the realms of fantasy, or “Fairy” art. One of the foremost artists in this arena, John William Waterhouse, was considered a respectable and upstanding artist even though his fantasy paintings, such as his depiction of Circe in 1892 or his (in)famous Hylas and the Nymphs in 1896, showed the viewer a fair amount of bare skin.
The nude in art is, today, hardly worth raising an eyebrow at. Despite Western culture’s longstanding prudishness towards the subject, it is fairly well accepted that an advanced art class will consist of a group of earnest students circled round a live nude model.
So what about modern fantasy art?
Well, since most modern fantasy art is commercial in nature, the inclusion of nude figures leaves the genre open to accusations of sexism and pandering to the lowest common denominator. There is a fine line between art and pornography and modern science fiction and fantasy art tends to straddle that line like a stripper straddles a pole.
I make no secret of my love for the artwork of Frank Frazetta. He is, without a doubt, the greatest modern fantasy painter. He is also famous (or infamous) for including nudes in his fantasy art.
We can debate whether the nudity in Frazetta’s work is warranted or gratuitous until we are blue in the face, the fact is, it’s there. Cave girls, sorceresses, temptresses of all kinds, Frazetta’s work is lousy with nudes, both male and female, yes, but more conspicuously female.
Here then is where the crux of the debate can be found as to whether Frazetta’s work is art or merely commerce. Are the nude figures a necessary part of the artistic vision or are they merely meant to titillate the libidos of teenage (and older) boys and separate them from their pocket money.
Boris Vallejo strode bravely in Frazetta’s footsteps through the 1970’s. His work appeared on the covers of various magazines — Eerie, Creepy, Weird Tales of the Macabre and Heavy Metal to name just a few – and the covers of many a fantasy or Sword & Sorcery paperback.
Male figures flexed their pecs in these early Boris offerings, and the women were, for the most part, bare-ass naked, or as close to it as the individual markets would allow. And it was certainly for the market. There is no pretense of art here. His technique may have been classically “old master” type painting, but his subjects were strictly commercial.
At least that was true of early Boris. His later paintings had a somewhat more artistic pretense (some have called it pretentious), nevertheless, Boris no longer needs the market in order to do what he does.
A BEVY OF BARE-BREASTED BARBARIAN BABES
Modern fantasy art is varied by style and subjects, but a specific subset of fantasy art, Sword & Sorcery or Heroic Fantasy gets a lot of attention and a lot of it is negative. These are some of the pieces that have generated much of the controversy surrounding fantasy art and naked bodies abound within those pieces.
There is a strong element of the “male gaze” and these pictures. Like I mentioned before, there is a fine line between art and pornography, and much of this fantasy art gets mistaken for it. Indeed, some of these images are racy and a young man would be forgiven for hiding a publication sporting such covers behind a safer, more “respectable” periodical.
Depicting the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E, Howard has always been a bit of a dodgy business. For all the far-flung adventure and sense-of-wonder prose, there is no getting around the fact that Howard’s, Burroughs’ and many other fantasy writers’ characters spend much of those adventures running around in the equivalent of their underwear or even less.
Artists try to convey a sense of that adventurous spirit in their illustrations, but it is usually the bare breasts and bottoms that get most of the attention, and almost all of that is negative. Sanjulián, Ken Kelly, Gerard Brom, Fastner & Larsen, Alex Horley and Simon Bisley are masters at conveying that sense of otherworldly adventure, that overwhelming sense of wonder. In order to do so, however, there is no getting around the fact that their subjects are naked.
Well, I know that some of you may take offense at the pictures that I have shown you. But I am talking about art. I’m not dragging you a seedy part of town and steering you into a crowded club serving cheap spirits and promising “NUDE GIRLS” in garish neon. Not at all.
Don’t believe me? Take a look again at the images I have chosen to accompany this epistle. Have I shown you anything that would get slapped with an “R” rating? Even an “R14”? No, sir/madam, I have not. These images are “PG” at best. Some of them are almost wholesome.
So before you bring that sexual harassment suit against me, before you drag me into HR with a #metoo hashtag, think about what it is that I have shown you and said in this post. I do not pass judgment, I merely illuminate an aspect of fantasy art that is controversial, yet seems to be ubiquitous.
We can tut-tut all we want, but the nude in fantasy art is there and undeniable, just as it is in all art.
Have I walked the line? (cue Johnny Cash). Yes. We have taken a little stroll close to that fine line between art and pornography, but I have not bade you cross it. I merely point out that it is there. Pretending that it isn’t — closing one’s eyes to it — does not make it go away.
So, here we are, back in the “respectable” part of town and here I leave you. Don’t worry. You’re safe and will come to no harm.
Until next time…