Vibrant works of art prove the eternal popularity of nudity in this lavishly illustrated collection of essays.
Gathering his columns from the nudist magazine Naturally, the author explores the social, cultural, and aesthetic significance of nudity in societies around the world as evidenced in the visual arts (pornography not included). It’s a wide-ranging tour, visiting prehistoric cave paintings, the Egyptian fad for spoon handles shaped like naked women, clothing—or, usually, the absence of it—in ancient India, nude figurines from pre-Columbian Mexico, the surprisingly widespread tradition of nude baptism and worship in Christianity, and Lady Godiva’s family tree. LeValley (Naturists, 2017, etc.) devotes much space to the Western tradition, from the Greek enthusiasm for nude athletics and nude everything else—he discusses eight styles of naked Aphrodite statues, including “Aphrodite of the Beautiful Buttocks”—to modern and postmodern art. The erudite chapters are thematic, some surveying whole eras and civilizations, others examining particular themes and genres in artistic nudes, like the Christian church’s campaign to clean up racy art by affixing fig leaves and wisps of cloth to offending genitalia or the naked boys at swimming holes that used to decorate middlebrow American magazines. Included are hundreds of vivid, full-color reproductions, from nude icons like the Venus de Milo and Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe to obscure gems. There’s a pronounced naturist perspective in the author’s commentary, which notes the wholesome moral associations of nudity with innocence, holiness, truth, independence of mind, and revolution. He rhapsodizes that nudity in anti-slavery art reminds “us that a person can throw off his chains like throwing off unwanted clothes, and can burst forth in a more natural and healthy freedom,” and he muses that “a return to simple, honest, athletic nudity” might “lessen some of the corruption” in the modern Olympics. LeValley’s breezy, engaging prose keeps the nudist propagandizing unobtrusive while regaling readers with plenty of intriguing historical lore and sharp-eyed, aesthetic appreciations (Michelangelo’s David “is not David the relieved victor, but David anticipating battle—with the figure’s left side tense and alert, but its right half relaxed and confident”).
An absorbing, browse-able art study that’s a feast for the eyes and the brain.