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A milestone in art history,
In 1956 this was the definitive work on the subject, and it is difficult to understand the way the portrayal of the unclothed human form was considered in Western art history until recently, without reading it. It is an easy, graceful read, well-written and amply illustrated with black and white photos inset in the text. This review is of the original edition, without the additions by Charles Saumarez Smith
Clark takes the classical world as its starting point, and then relates it to traditions from the Renaissance on. "Apollo" is the archetype of the rational male intellect, portrayed as a young athlete. "Venus" he distinguishes in the Western tradition both as the Celestial Venus; a portrayal of the female as something beyond the fleshly, and as Natural Venus, more human, accessible and sensual. "Energy" is the title he chooses for his discussion of figures in action, displaying speed, strength and agility in an idealised way. The chapters on "Pathos" and "Ecstasy" address both classical imagery and that of Christian iconography.
Chapter 8, "The Alternative Convention" is the first to really move away from the Mediterranean. In the Northern Renaissance, even artists like Durer had trouble with the human form; Clark says Durer could not understand that the solution was an attitude of mind, not some simple set of geometric parameters. Unclothed men and women, in northern art, look more like ordinary people caught unawares, not icons of the ideal. This is one of the more interesting chapters, because it highlights the fact that Clark's state of mind is itself rooted in the Mediterranean tradition, while modern treatments of the body are far more in the Northern mould.
In Chapter 9 Clark takes us forward to what he regards as "modern art" - chiefly Matisse, Picasso and Henry Moore. Having dealt with later 19th century painters such as Manet and Renoir in the chapter on "Natural Venus", he is concerned mostly with the matter of abstraction, and seeks to find a consistent philosophy to end the book on. I did not find this convincing, and felt that his decision not to address the later 20th century developments in the work of Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon and Stanley Spencer, which proved the forerunners of art such as that of Ron Mueck and Cindy Sherman, was significant.
What Clark omits is interesting. Two artists who are now well-known for pushing the genre beyond its classical limits, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, receive no mention. He sees the northern (realist) tradition as a problem with achieving the Mediterranean ideal, rather than a quite different project in which the unclothed form is treated to a different kind of humanism; one which permits tenderness, compassion and an honest eroticism. Nor does he recognise the objectification of the body, especially the female, which is at the core of the classical tradition. In his discussion of Manet's Olympia, he explains that it shocked because it presented the subject matter in a realistic rather than idealised setting, and that we have now got over it and are able to appreciate it on its merits; he fails to see that the painting still has power precisely because the artist is challenging that objectification.