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Before there was a Detroit Institute of Arts, there was the Detroit Museum of Art. And before there was the Detroit Museum of Art, there was a Detroit Art Loan Exhibition [1]. It was in 1883 that the first major art exhibition was held in Detroit. The exhibition contained over forty-eight hundred items, including oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures, bronzes, prints and drawings by American and European artists displayed in twenty-six large rooms [2]. For ten weeks, from September 1 through November 14, “134,925 people paid twenty-five cents to visit the exhibit hall” [3]. The exhibition’s success proved that “the city of Detroit has taste and wealth enough to found and maintain an art gallery” [2,4].

Temporary brick building built to house the Art Loan Exhibition for 10 weeks in 1883. The building was subsequently converted into a roller-skating rink [4,5].

During the exhibition, a newsletter, The Detroit Art Loan Record, was published. The complete set can be found in The Detroit art loan record. One volume. September 1 to November 14, 1883 [6]. The newsletter hosted the (rather one-sided) discussion concerning the Nude in Art that appears interesting.

The work of art that provoked public discussion was Nymphs at the Bath by William-Adolphe Bouguereau [7,8]. The painting now known as The Nymphaeum (1878) [9] was created as an “exhibition piece” and displayed at the 1878 Universal Exposition in Paris. At present, the painting is in the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California (Location: Haggin Room) [10]. The Nymphs at the Bath were the part of the Hazeltine Collection and came to Detroit from Chicago [11]. A superb collection of thirty-one paintings “secured from the Art Department of the Chicago Exhibition” represented “more than $100,000 in priced value” [6] (p. 148). ($100,000 in 1883 equals to $2,331,817 in 2018 [12]). The Bouguereau was “held at $25,000”. Despite the fact that Bouguereau was considered as the great master, the acceptance of the “Nymphs” for exhibition was not easy (in contrast to another Bouguereau – “The Twins,” valued at $20,000). Three ladies from a women’s Organizing Committee were invited to Chicago in a hope to convince them that the picture “would not offend”.

The ladies gazed in disapproving silence until suddenly, looking at Bouguereau’s “The Nymphs at the Bath,” Mrs. Stewart exclaimed, “Why they are dolls. Life sized figures would be objectionable but when they are so small the effect is quite different.” Almost in relief the ladies agreed [11] (p. 160).

The size of the painting is 57 x 82 1/2 inches (145 x 210 cm).

The information about the reception of the painting at the exhibition is contradictory and unclear. Cheboygan Democrat from 8 November 1883 informed its readers that “Bouguereau’s painting of “The Nymphs at the Bath” was hung in an obscure corner and was quite neglected by visitors, who had heard it was improper” [13]. In The Detroit Art Loan Record, one can read that Room K, where the painting was exhibited, suddenly became “more of a resort for gentlemen than for ladies” and that “a room 30 feet square is constantly filled with admiring male gazers” [6] (p. 189).

The Record offered “the masterly, if not conclusive, argument of President Bascom”, who believed that the practice of nudity in art “violates the laws of propriety”.

The source of this practice is against it. It is Grecian, pagan, in its origin. Because the Art of Greece has kindled our own, it does not thereby follow that a Christian people are to adopt entire the Art of an idolatrous and licentious people. <…> The Grecians were accustomed to the naked athlete, and had a right, which our artists and critics have not, to know the nude human form. Our artists reach their knowledge second-hand or surreptitiously then flaunt it against decency. <…> The forerunner of nude Art with us ought to be nude life. <…> Facts are against this practice. The nudity of Grecian and Italian Art in part sprang from and in part occasioned the licentiousness of those communities. [6] (p. 185-186).

In her newsletter column, Mrs. Sara M. Skinner wrote the letters from “Bessie” to “Mollie”:

I can’t help thinking that if the influence of nudity in Art is good, its influence in reality would be good also. Now here is a problem for you to analyze: If 13 females on a canvas are so beautiful with no clothes on, that a room 30 feet square is constantly filled with admiring male gazers, why should 1 poor live female be so condemned when she appears on the street partly covered with clothes? If nudity is ennobling, “purifying” to the beholder, why do education and civilization put clothes onto people? I tell you, Mollie, as you know, that women, whether nymph-like or not, never bathe nudely in the presence of each other, and lovely woman is so much of a prude that she for one needs not the nude to “purify” her. (The last words of Bessie [6], p. 189)

Looking at The Nymphaeum by Bouguereau, one can indeed find 13 “stark-naked nymphs” with “impossibly smooth skins” and “harmoniously proportioned bodies” bathing “in a secret woodland grotto, with a satyr and Greek youth peeping through the bushes”, just a “pure fantasy, meant to transport the viewer from the day-to-day cares and boredom of modern urban life into a serene daydream of classical Arcadia” [10].

I think maybe Bessie was right,

if the influence of nudity in Art is good, its influence in reality would be good also.

The Nymphaeum (1878) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)

References
[1] Ardelia Lee, Before There Was A Detroit Institute Of Arts, There Was The Detroit Museum Of Art, Daily Detroit, Aug 21, 2016
http://www.dailydetroit.com/2016/08/21/detroit-institute-arts-detroit-museum-art/
[2] Bill Loomis, On This Day in Detroit History, Arcadia Publishing, 2016
https://books.google.com/books?id=AMA4CwAAQBAJ
[3] Arthur M. Woodford, This is Detroit, 1701-2001, Wayne State University Press, 2001
https://books.google.com/books?id=cVP055AfqNEC
[4] Jeffrey Abt, A Museum on the Verge: A Socioeconomic History of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1882-2000, Wayne State University Press, 2001
https://books.google.com/books?id=DSAj_yQRt9wC
[5] Art Loan Exhibition Hall | Detroit Public Library
https://digitalcollections.detroitpubliclibrary.org/islandora/object/islandora%3A148360
[6] The Detroit art loan record. One volume. September 1 to November 14, 1883, Detroit, H.A. & K.B.Ford, 1883
https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000247585
[7] William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William-Adolphe_Bouguereau
[8] Bouguereau, William Adolphe 1825-1905 [WorldCat Identities]
https://www.worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n85059001/
[9] William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – The Nymphaeum (1878). From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_(1825-1905)_-_The_Nymphaeum_(1878).jpg
[10] The Nymphaeum c. 1878 by Bouguereau, William-Adolphe – The Haggin Museum
http://hagginmuseum.org/Collections/WilliamAdolpheBouguereau/TheNymphaeum
[11] Alice Tarbell Crathern, In Detroit courage was the fashion; the contribution of women to the development of Detroit from 1701 to 1951, Detroit, Wayne University Press, 1953
https://archive.org/details/indetroitcourage00cratrich
[12] 1883 dollars in 2018 | Inflation Calculator
http://www.in2013dollars.com/1883-dollars-in-2018
[13] Cheboygan Democrat, 8 November 1883
https://digmichnews.cmich.edu/cgi-bin/michigan?a=d&d=CheboyganCD18831108-01.1.2

“In order to exploit the environment all organisms adapt their bodies to meet specialized environmental conditions,”

wrote Edward T. Hall [1], the anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, in his book “The Silent Language” [2], in which he analyzed “the many ways in which people “talk” to one another without the use of words”. He gives a few examples of adaptations:

“the long neck of the giraffe (adapted to high foliage of trees), the teeth of the saber-toothed tiger, toes of the tree sloth, hoof of the horse, and man’s opposable thumb”.

The adaptation of the body is not the end of the story. The author continues:

“Occasionally organisms have developed specialized extensions of their bodies to take the place of what the body itself might do and thereby free the body for other things. Among these ingenious natural developments are the web of the spider, cocoons, nests of birds and fish.” [italics added]

Fieldfare by Andreas Trepte

The man “with his specialized body” is not an exception. (The passage below is cited by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy [3].)

“Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body. The evolution of weapons begins with the teeth and the fist and ends with the atom bomb. Clothes and houses are extensions of man’s biological temperature-control mechanisms. Furniture takes the place of squatting and sitting on the ground. Power tools, glasses, TV, telephones, and books which carry the voice across both time and space are examples of material extensions. Money is a way of extending and storing labor. Our transportation networks now do what we used to do with our feet and backs. In fact, all man-made material things can be treated as extensions of what man once did with his body or some specialized part of his body.”

Farmer in rocking-chair reading The Progressive Farmer. “Farmer reading his farm paper” By George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931

This can be summarized in the table:

Function Body Body Extensions
Weapons teeth, fist atom bomb
Temperature control biological mechanisms clothes, houses
Rest, recreation, relaxation squatting, sitting on the ground furniture
Communication voice TV, telephones, books
Transportation feet and backs transportation networks

What I learned from this list is that one specialized extension of the human body stands out against the other developments. It is neither shameful nor illegal to squat or sit on the ground, to carry something on your back or to use your voice without touching the phone. But it is extremely undesirable to control your body temperature without clothes on even at comfortable ambient temperatures. It seems ridiculous, especially when one takes into account that the purpose of developing specialized extensions of the body is to free the body.

According to Edward T. Hall, “culture controls behavior in deep and persisting ways, many of which are outside of awareness and therefore beyond conscious control of the individual”. The rich experience taught anthropologists one thing, namely that

“culture is more than mere custom that can be shed or changed like a suit of clothes.”

References
[1] Edward T. Hall – Wikipedia
[2] Edward T. Hall. The Silent Language (Anchor Books, 1973)
[3] The Gutenberg Galaxy – Wikipedia

Recently I’ve read about an experiment in nudity, which was filmed by the BBC’s Horizon programme, “to test some of the scientific theories that explain why naked bodies make us so uncomfortable“. The first thing I’ve learned from the article entitled “Can people unlearn their naked shame?” which appeared some time ago on the BBC NEWS site (BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine) is that “a naked human is just that bit more naked than other primates“.  Some anthropologists believe “that evolutionary step towards nudity had huge implications for the human race“, because it helped human ancestors to cool quicker (“our ancestors’ unique ability to sweat“) and led to development of bigger brains and than “to culture, tools, fire, and language“.

In addition to explaining a very peculiar quirk of our appearance, the scenario suggests that naked skin itself played a crucial role in the evolution of other characteristic human traits, including our large brain and dependence on language. (see Scientific American Magazine: The Naked Truth: Why Humans Have No Fur By Nina G. Jablonski)

However, it is clear that “our nudity arose out of practical need, but that doesn’t answer why we’re so ashamed by it“. After a series of experiments, researchers have discovered that “we are not born with a shame of nudity. Instead we learn it, as an important behavioural code that allows us to operate in human society“. But what are the social benefits of a shame of nudity? A psychologist explains that adult humans need to form a stable pair because of “the long immature period of a young human“. Whereas “showing off a naked body sends out sexual signals that threaten the security of mating pairs“.

Of course, it is possible to give absolutely different explanations. For instance, the nearly hairless state of the human body may be explained by the so-called aquatic phase hypothesis according to which human ancestors have lost most of body hair and gained a layer of body fat under the skin because they spent much time in water (cp. Skin: A Natural History by Nina G. Jablonski). A shame of nudity, in its turn, may origin from the fact that from the early stages of human civilizations clothes – its style and design – used to symbolize the position (ranking) of an individual within a society (in a hierarchy). So, a lack of clothes may be considered as humiliating (a naked person is a person without a rank). Here nothing can be proved, since there is no verification mechanism.

Tired by Liz_D.S on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Tired by Liz_D.S on Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Have you ever attended a nudist beach or spent a week or two at a nudist camp? If the answer is yes, I congratulate you; now you are reckoned among those who carry out Strange Sexual Practices. At least, Hari Dutt Sharma, author of Strange Sexual Customs and Practices published in India (Pustak Mahal, 2007), is fully confident about that.

1903 - ZULU LAND in OLD AFRICA by Okinawa Soba on Flickr

1903 - ZULU LAND in OLD AFRICA by Okinawa Soba on Flickr

In Chapter 3 of his book entitled Strange Sexual Practices, without a moment’s hesitation, he places modern naturists alongside the Siberian Eskimos who, to this author’s knowledge, “exchange wives to confuse evil spirits” and unnamed New Guinea’s tribesmen and natives of New Hebrides, who “wear jewelry on their genitals”. One can have a great time reading about Masai women who “drink fermented cowdung to terminate unwanted pregnancies” and Norwegians who “share the same bed but avoid intercourse”. At last, on pages 36 and 37, just after those who “Exchange Sexual Partners” and before those who “Enjoy Sex in One-Night-Stand”, one finds the paragraphs about men and women who “Expose their Bodies for Health Reason” and “Don’t Mind Nudity”. Let me quote (the spelling of the original is preserved):

In many cultures nudity is regarded as an offence. But in a number of European and American countries, the position is different. They even arrange nudist camps where nudist can live and move about naked.
Participants in nude clubs feel that they can overcome their inhibitions and quickly get beyond superficialities if all physical defences are done away with.

Further on the author mentions “‘strip-tease’ and topless bars” and finally places the sign of equality between nudists and “a few backward tribes of Sudan and Brazil” where “complete nudity has been found”. The rest of the chapter is devoted mainly to “Strange Ritual Sex” and “Exchange of Wives” (I admit I didn’t read it through carefully to the end).

Mary's Harp concert at Nudie Rock posted by Cher on tribe.net

Mary's Harp concert at Nudie Rock posted by Cher on tribe.net

The reliability of the facts, gathered in the book written to amuse readers, raises doubts (at least some references should be provided). To be serious, in any case, I don’t welcome a flippant attitude towards peoples’ lifestyles and cultural backgrounds.