For centuries, nudes in art were chiefly perceived as an homage to the sensuality of the naked human form – usually female. The standard idea was that of the masterful male artist painting a beautiful woman. But throughout art history, we find courageous women artists who contradict this one-sided view.
While life drawing and painting was regarded as a normal and necessary part of a male artist’s academic studies, this field was closed to their female contemporaries.
From 1890, women artists in France were able to participate in mixed life drawing classes. In Germany, however, the field was considered the sole preserve of men, and women artists were long denied access to nude subjects. Systematically barring women from nude classes meant that for many years they were unable to fulfil a central requirement of a professional art education.
Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, the femme fatal of art deco, was celebrated during her lifetime for her coolly distanced yet sensually erotic female portraits. But Natalja Gontscharowa, icon of the Russian avant-garde, had to answer for her modernist female nudes in court after they were seized by the police.
Surrealist Leonor Fini played with conventional gender roles by portraying powerful, clothed women sitting above, or atop, naked sleeping men.
Austrian artist Maria Lassnig created unconventional self-portraits with her “body awareness” paintings. Over an active period of six decades, she explored her own body in probing, unfiltered nudes – long before the rise of feminist body art.