Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


H.R. Rookmaaker - On Nudity

To Mr B, on nudity and art

March 9, 1961
Dear Mr B,
I am grateful to have received your letter and I shall try to formulate
an answer to it here. I believe I can already read the answer in a
well-composed framing of the problem.
First then Genesis 3, the fall into sin and its aftermath. Adam and
Eve saw that they were naked and were ashamed. It is difficult to discern
precisely what that means, difficult in part because for centuries people
read that passage under the influence of the Greeks, who viewed the
corporal, the sexual as lower and base. What does it mean? Could it not
be that what they saw was not so much their nakedness in the sense of
being undressed as it was their frailty, their being unprotected – in
contrast to the animals that had fur – but even deeper their being
unprotected, their nakedness, their being separated from the Lord.
They were ashamed. This expression also has two meanings in
our language.
God then clothes them. Being dressed gives people a sense of
self-confidence, and our clothing has become fully part of our personality.
The extent to which this is so you can find in a humorous yet deep way
in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, where he discusses the absence of clothing.
Yet I believe we must also hold onto the idea that the nakedness and
shame bear some connection with the sexual aspect. I sometimes feel
that God made people that way for their own protection. Is the feeling
of shame not a protection for a girl in our day as well, and is male
timidity in this matter not its counterpart? But we must keep in mind
that nakedness and shame in this sense are always connected with the
most directly sexual.
It is good to reflect on these things. To say precisely what naked
means in a generally valid sense is not even possible. That is a matter of
custom that can change from period to period and people to people.
Consider that girls as they walk around here in Holland are shameless in
the eyes of the Balinese, for whom a woman may never expose her legs
although there they all go around with their upper bodies exposed.
Nevertheless, nakedness and shame are something that you find
amongst all peoples, even the most primitive, but then only in
connection with the pudenda, the ‘private parts’. It is typical that with
many primitive peoples a man may feel free to show his member but not
the phallus, which is much more directly connected with the sexual
aspect – at celebrations in antiquity and possibly also with feasts of
primitive peoples this was possible, but then we are talking about fertility
rites, and then the taboo on these matters is only suspended for these
special occasions.
Thus our conclusion is provisionally that shame is connected with
the most primary sexual aspect, and the pudenda (the things about
which people are ashamed) are in fact the genitals themselves (thus not
a woman’s breasts); and further that shame is connected with our
frailty, with our being unprotected in an everyday but also in a deeper
religious sense.
That shame is directly related to the sexual, or perhaps one could
better say to the erotic aspect, is clear from both practice and Scripture.
A woman may show herself undressed to a physician, but there too there
is usually a room where one may disrobe. Photographers’ models too
come on the set entirely naked, for it is not their nakedness but the act
of disrobing that has a much more directly erotic significance.
Remember that the height of shamelessness is the striptease, which is
directly intended to arouse. Scripture accordingly says that men are not
to uncover the shame of a woman whom they may not have, that is, to
remove her covering. What the general practice was in those times is
hard to know, but in many periods, such as the Middle Ages, when nude
images were seldom made and the erotic aspect was far from having the
central place it is given in our day, nakedness had a matter-of-fact place
in everyday life, as in bathing or in the home – people slept naked and
with many in a room. The subtleties of such matters, the connection of
the erotic aspect with disrobing, we may perhaps infer from our own
customs: a girl may appear wearing very little at the swimming pool or
beach – in some countries she may even be entirely naked – and no
erotically arousing significance is attached to it, while the same girl if she
had to adjust her stocking while fully dressed, would turn away or dismiss
herself although revealing less no doubt than at the beach. It would be
shameless however if she were not to do that. The same applies to
holding down one’s skirt while bicycling.
The pudenda, that is to say the parts which it would be shameless to
show or exhibit, are thus in fact only the genitals or those parts of the
body that because of the erotic implications one does not uncover in
company where people are dressed. If we proceed now to consider
sculpture and painting from this vantage point, we can establish several
things. First, people have complied with this in practically all periods.
Female nudes have a small cover over the primary sexual characteristic
or simply do not have that feature – think of Greek statues and the
statues of all eras, really, before the late nineteenth century. Then we
witness the abrupt appearance of greater realism, which is to say that
pubic hair and the like are painted or sculpted, whereupon the meaning
of the images is also seen to have changed such that the objection based
on Genesis 3 becomes operative. Shameless for example are some of
Hodler’s paintings, but not Praxiteles’ Venus. The same is true of male
statues. Naturally there is always a suggestion of the male member, but
always very modest and with little emphasis. Here too one will encounter
exceptions, but these are virtually always vulgar and unpleasant in their
effect. The phallus is very seldom depicted in art – and when it happens,
always either directly pornographic or else with a view to special
circumstances, such as fertility rites with satyrs in antiquity (although
even there people often exercised a certain reserve).
With respect to the nude we can add the following. There are two
kinds, in principle, namely where the nude appears in frailty, as in the
Middle Ages (remarkably enough with an indication of the pubic hair of
the female figure); and there is the heroic, glorifying nude that we find
in the works of the Greeks and a fortiori in the Renaissance, with Rubens,
and so forth. Our time, with its downfall of humanism, can scarcely
indulge such glorification any longer, and we therefore see, since the
late nineteenth century, the realistic nude that is a direct representation
of the reality, including the pudenda, without any reference to the idea
of frailty in the Christian sense. Such figures often have a crude impact
and people experience them as an insult to human dignity. Yet
sometimes people in our century do endeavour to uphold old and
deeply seated norms in these matters, for example with nude
photographs, and so retouch them in order to remove especially the
pubic hair – unless we are talking about the photography of nudists, thus
of people who want to give nudity a place in normal social intercourse
(which usually comes across however as quite unnatural). Nudism will
perhaps become acceptable at the beach or a swimming pool, and I do
not believe that that has to be prohibited if custom would start to allow
it, but that is quite a different matter from ordinary social activities such
as volleyball and the like. And if nudity would become allowed in
instances where one is now wearing bathing suits, then the distinction
between chaste and shameless will remain valid, just as girls can happily
move about shamelessly in bathing suits and the like.
Now, you write that it is not permitted to glorify the body. Certainly,
for in art that usually means glorifying human being. In that case
however our argument is not directed at the nude but at this
glorification. The question in art must always be not ‘Is it nude?’ but
‘What does the artist say with that nude?’ Michelangelo’s David of 1504
is a shameless statue, not because of its nudity but because with this
nudity such a forthright confession is made of man’s greatness, of the
Renaissance spirit in its most profound sense, that of the emancipation
of humanity from God. Michelangelo no longer has any notion of frailty.
A Venus by Giorgione, by Titian, a female nude by Rubens, for example
in the Rape of the daughters of Leucippus, have nothing to do with violating
the idea of Genesis 3 in the sense that nakedness should be covered but
rather they extol human nature in its erotic aspect, in its warm humanity,
in its fundamental aspect of relations between the sexes.
A discussion of these paintings must thus address the
question whether these aspects may be extolled in this way without
reference to humanity’s fallen situation, but on the other hand we may
not say that people must always hide these things and never occupy
themselves with them because the sexual is per se sinful. That is a
Victorian viewpoint and it is unbiblical. Do not forget that the Bible
contains the Song of Solomon and that men are advised in Proverbs to
be aroused by their wife’s breasts [Proverbs 5:19: ‘may her breasts satisfy
you always, may you ever be captivated by her love’].
You go on to say, correctly, that with these nude figures much more
is expressed than simply that which is purely sensual, or to put it more
sharply, the purely primary erotic aspect. Much more, for they are about
human being in the fullest sense. The male-female relation in marriage
is certainly not as in the case of animals purely and solely sexual, but
there is a great deal more going on in the love relationship between a
man and a woman. Also, a nude figure may even be entirely lacking in
erotic implications, for instance when it is a metaphor for Truth.
Nude figures that may accordingly be judged entirely unobjectionable
from a biblical standpoint, that on the contrary can be judged very positively,
are Rembrandt’s Danae and Bathsheba. They are songs about the joy that
has been given to us in the man-woman relation, including the directly sexual
(but not restricted to that) without any exaggerated glorification of humanity
accompanying it.
Thus we must always ask what meaning a nude has, what is said with
it. Many eighteenth-century nudes, such as those painted by Boucher,
are gallant nudes, nudes directly connected with adulterous erotic play
(very refined but adulterous nonetheless), with flirtations and
mistresses. They are idealized images of the courtier who passes his time
making ‘conquests’.
And now Rodin. He stands close to the Renaissance, although he is a
typically nineteenth-century figure in his emphasis on the psychological.
His Kiss strikes me as entirely responsible, as an interpretation of a
profound human value, although I am drawn more to Rembrandt’s
Bathsheba, which in essence seeks to express the same thing. In contrast I
regard L’éternelle idole as highly questionable. As woman is glorified in it as
an object of enjoyment, I find the content of the work vulgar and
therefore reprehensible; if the woman is declared a deity in it, I have
every objection to that for reasons that need no explanation.
I have two additional comments. The fact that an image has a
stimulating effect on us can certainly be subjective; it may be attributable
to a variety of circumstances, but in general we will be able to figure out
whether that is due to something in the image or something in us. In my
lecture I also discussed this subjectivity, which differs from person to
person, in connection with the need for self-discipline – in this respect
there is freedom. Secondly, we must look at art with a view to what it says:
the Rape of the daughters of Leucippus depicts an old myth, selected by
Rubens in order to sing in a lofty rhetorical way about passion, desire,
heroism, the greatness of life, the central place of the woman in this, and
so on. He was certainly not all that enchanted by the story as such (although
the classical element had a different emotional value in his day than in ours),
yet it is also not simply a pretext for painting a crude kidnapping in a nudist camp.
Here the theme is part of the rhetoric and the glorification, which also lifts it
more into the realm of principles and values than that of actual everyday
life. A late nineteenth-century painter simply makes a kidnapping of it:
a naked woman is carried off on a horse by two soldiers whose intentions
are questionable. It is precisely the dropping away of real human values
in the man-woman relation and the exclusive concentration on a randy
story without further depth that renders the painting vulgar and
degrading. But that brings us close to pornography, defined by D.H.
Lawrence as ‘to throw dirt on sex’. There the woman is an object of lust.
This surfaces already with Ingres, who painted odalisques, and later on
with Picasso. Perhaps there are people who carry on that way, but it makes a
difference whether one violates a norm or lives without norms!
In conclusion, a final comment: this ultimately all has very little to do
with clothing or the lack of it. The sex bombs used on magazine covers
to catch the eye, with a hint that more may be revealed inside, are usually
well dressed, but in their purely sexual effect or titillating intention they
are violations of Genesis 2. This is shamelessness, separating sensuality
from the rest of our humanity in its normativity and values.
These are a few thoughts. I went into them extensively because I
regard the problem as very important for us, twentieth-century Calvinists
who must emancipate ourselves from a Victorian past without sliding
into the normlessness and shamelessness of the Freudians, and also
because I believe that in this way we can come to understand better what
art does and how it can express its message. I think it is instructive as well
because when dealing with nudity in art we come into contact in such a
direct way with the cultural-historical and current problem of the loss of
a sense of norms and of insight into the worth of human values. I have
also written it all out at such length because I hope eventually to use it
in a little book that I am writing about Christians and art. I would be
pleased if I could cite your letter and my reply, without mention of the
name or circumstances. In that regard I would like to receive your reply,
together with any additional questions, comments or objections you may
have. I want to thank you already for that.
Yours sincerely,
H.R. Rookmaaker
April 11, 1961
Dear Mr B,
I am grateful to have received your letter. I had not forgotten it but
was so busy that I put it aside for a while. I hope you do not find that too
bad. I believe you probably no longer needed it for your paper.
Here then is a short answer to your questions. Kuyper, I believe,
contradicts himself. The distinctive service of Calvinism is that it
emancipated art from ecclesiastical ties. So it is not correct to say that
Calvinism did not have an art of its own, for precisely our seventeenth-century
art, for example a still life, reflects a typically Calvinistic view of
reality. May I leave it at that? Art style and lifestyle are to my mind
closely connected. I can no longer recall what K. Schilder wrote about
this, but I cannot concur in general with what he had to say about the
theme of culture.
I do not reject common grace. It is an interesting theological
construction, but I believe it proceeds from an entirely incorrect
framing of the problem. I do not reject it because doing so would
quickly draw me into these theological discussions. I simply believe that
the entire debate skirts reality. It is a piece of scholasticism. As I see it,
we are most easily finished with an answer in these matters if we say that
the non-Christian lives in the same world, created by God, that the
Christian lives in and that one can never step outside this world, not
even through suicide. If we accept the theological framing of the
problem, we always end up at such a theory of common grace or
something similar but I just do not believe we should think in this vein.
Then the questions about the nude. The story of Noah I find
difficult to apply in this matter. What were the customs in that time? Was
it so terrible that a son saw his father’s nakedness? Or was the bad thing
rather that he mocked his father for his drunkenness and lack of self-control?
I do not believe that we can conclude from this or other passages that it is
wrong for children to see their parents naked. I think the direct family relationship
and living together as a family make things different in this case.
In the matter of uncovering, I will stick with my opinion for the moment.
I do not believe that bathing naked in company as that occurs with many
peoples has anything to do with glorification. It is instructive to notice that in
the time that people began to glorify the human body, the Renaissance,
nakedness as an everyday phenomenon disappeared. That sort of interested
looking evoked the shame, but more importantly the ideal could not bear the
confrontation with the sober reality. Titillation need not and will not
come from an ordinary situation of nudity in a swimming pool (but we
are unfamiliar with such a normal situation and so can have little feel for
it) any more than from a normal clothed situation. It is instructive too
that titillating magazines and the like seldom show full nudity – the
partially clad is much more arousing. And a girl with a lovely figure can
always have an arousing effect on a man, but that depends primarily on
how she moves and behaves.
Rodin is a problem apart. His influence as I see it has not been very
great. His psychologically oriented art was relatively unique in the visual
arts, and so in that respect he stands much closer to the literature of the
day than he does to his fellow artists, the painters and sculptors.
I hope that the above may in some way have helped you further.
Kindest regards,
H.R. Rookmaaker
Published in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker: The Complete Works 4, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.