On the importance of vintage playboy magazines for a cultivated perception of the nude

The variety of words to describe the act of seeing is an indicator for the importance of this activity in our daily life. Watching, seeing, observing, scrutinizing, sensing, pondering, looking or even hearing, for all these activities our eyes are responsible. With the advent of photography this sense though underwent a radical change. With the commodification of the image – overly present and accessible – our seeing has been forced into filtered matrices. No one image we’re presented with can be perceived without undergoing a mostly unconscious process of subjective filtering and interpretation. How we perceive an image is therefore linked to our personal cultural acclimatization and socialization, both clearly connected to the educational framework we’ve been exposed to throughout our whole lifetime. With the rapidity of image consumption in social media networks there has been a step further into an ever growing decrease of tolerance with images that fall out of our cultural heritage and educational framework. The photographic representation of nudity is one of the most prominent sacrifice and has nearly disappeared from public. Why this kind of censorship is reserved especially for the representation of female bodies and bodily details, is a question I was fortunate to briefly investigate during a short stay in Milan. I was invited by Francesca Interlenghi, aka @the_dummys_tales, to attend the exhibition ‘Pleasure Garden’ at Pierre Andrès Podbielski’s Gallery. You may find a short introduction where she shared her poetic view on the photographic exhibits.

The naked or stripped and often debunked body and pose is one of the recurrent themes since the early days of photography. It always was intended as an exploration of the commonly hidden details and unseen angles of the human body. Some early photographic research summoned an auratical, invisible essence of the framed body. It was assumed that through the act of photography we could capture a non-tangible part of the portrayed, something ephemeral, not visible to the eye. 

Besides evoking naive fascination, the images representing nudity can be the object of analytical research and the photographic content attributed to four main categories: information, pornography, art and commodified nudity. When confronted with nudity, these four categories should help to introduce a correct reaction. In a subsequent moment, when we try to understand the photograph, we need to dedicate time to the object of interest. The first reaction given by the perception of nudity though is often a very unconscious one. 

Even in the context of an art fair, “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals”, noted Kenneth Clark in 1956 (The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form). 

In most western societies, where the faculty of “being aroused” by something or someone turned into an obligation to act against the state of arousal – it could be an indicator of unconventional and uncontrollable instincts in a overtly psychologized society – we felt, that it was right to intentionally ban nudity from public spaces and stigmatize the authors with unlawful behavior. As a consequence our perception of nudity has been deteriorating and it became clear, that this stigma, forced upon the representation of nudity, brought us to associate every hint to it with an openly sexualized request and offense. We restricted our intellectual possibilities to the reaction coming from the most ancient part of our brain: the brain stem or ‘reptile’ brain. Since this part of the brain is also responding to stimuli that trigger the primary reproductive instinct, the untrained observer could easily feel his ‘heartbeat’ accelerating and the imminent need to procreate arising. In our short conversation Francesca Interlenghi pointed out, that especially female performers in contemporary art, when they expose themselves and their art through their bodies to a vast audience through the commodified social networks, the casual male ‘drive by’ viewers reaction is that of on overt sexual offer. It looks like the achievements of Hugh Hefner, to contextualize female bodies into a cultural and intellectual framework are slowly disappearing from popular culture. Hefner juxtaposed nudity and art, literature, music, lifestyle in his unique fashion. The outcome signaled to the reader, not only male they were, the importance of time dedicated to either content, be it the images, the texts, or the haptics of the paper. The presence of nudity in public spaces was (!) a cultural achievement since humans were able to represent bodies in paintings or in sculptures. It is time to revive the link between culture and bodies to enhance their inherent beauty and create a balance to the constant stream of images violence and war.

Francesca Interlenghi: Pleasure Garden https://podbielskicontemporary.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Testo_Francesca-Interlenghi.pdf

Lord Kenneth Clark The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form by, first published in 1956

Eck, Beth A. (2001). “Nudity and Framing: Clayssifying Art, Pornography, Information, and Ambiguity

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