The Nude Body in Art: Sexuality, The Archetypal Feminine and Transformational Examination / by Sam Abelow

Ferdinand Hodler's 1890 painting,  Night  caused immense scandal for its "lewd" imagery. He was inspired by reading Sigmund Freud, who revealed the immense sexuality latent in the repressed European psyche.

Ferdinand Hodler's 1890 painting, Night caused immense scandal for its "lewd" imagery. He was inspired by reading Sigmund Freud, who revealed the immense sexuality latent in the repressed European psyche.

American culture, which values beauty, youthfulness and appearances incredible highly, conditions an attitudinal outlook that shapes people’s interactions. If a culture emphasizes beauty alone, then it becomes two-dimensional, and those experiencing it, extremely limited. The fascination with dazzling facades acts as a barrier to humanity and intelligence.

An individual who dresses wonderfully, or has stunning features, can be treated as a window into their soul and mind, rather than a flattened image to click “like” on.

In order to access the transformative effects of beauty and its association with erotic energy, there must be a deeper understanding and a willingness to move past transfixed, unconscious marveling.

This is equally as true in the creative arts, where each individual artist, as well as viewer, carries a wide-ranging quality of perspective towards what appearances, body and beauty mean.

Culture and the Individual

The current #MeToo movement is a heated, watershed cultural moment, that I hope results in a reconfiguration of views and treatment towards women, and between the sexes. Social movements are pivotal to human development, and along with collective movements, there is a need for an internal revolution of attitudes and understanding. This is the realm of psychology that I focus on.

Late works by Pablo Picasso, such as this  Mousquetaire et nu assis  (1967), were rife with erotic imagery, which for the artist was often tied up with themes of aggression and machismo.

Late works by Pablo Picasso, such as this Mousquetaire et nu assis (1967), were rife with erotic imagery, which for the artist was often tied up with themes of aggression and machismo.

In a previous essay on Paul Gauguin, titled The Dark Stage of Alchemy, I examined the how unconsciousness and a giving over to instinctual forces, allows a man to depend on the objectification of a literal muse relationship in order to spark his creativity, ambition and fantasy life. Artists such as Gauguin and Pablo Picasso sought to reclaim an unrestrained sexual energy, albeit with an adolescent disregard for the humanity of their lovers.

The discovery of repressed sexuality by Sigmund Freud has contributed to a contemporary culture obsessed with the sexual body. The ascent of a scientific worldview and industrialization has corresponded with rampant materialism. We can critique capitalism, or the media, but equally so, we can look internally. Each of us can examine the ways in which our relationship to sexuality, beauty, sensuality, in general, is a limiting fixation without any meaning.

Carl Jung prompts us all to come to reconcile our instincts and morality, avoiding undue repression as well as unabated giving in to lust.

“The erotic instinct is something questionable, and will always be so whatever a future set of laws may have to say on the matter. It belongs, on the one hand, to the original animal nature of man, which will exist as long as man has an animal body. On the other hand, it is connected to the highest forms of the spirit. But it blooms only when the spirit and instinct are in true harmony. If one or the other aspect is missing, then an injury occurs, or at least there is a one-sided lack of balance which easily slips into the pathological. Too much of the animal disfigures the civilized human being, too much culture makes a sick animal.” [1]

Sexuality in Art

A work of art that features the nude body or erotic imagery is an opportune vehicle towards observing one’s relationship to sexuality, instinctual energy, and the associated archetypal forces.

Mira Dancy's  Red Garden/Pink Repose ( 2016) exemplifies the  artists attempt to express  and explore unintegrated aspects of the archetypal feminine.

Mira Dancy's Red Garden/Pink Repose (2016) exemplifies the artists attempt to express and explore unintegrated aspects of the archetypal feminine.

Currently, people in the art world are debating whether or not a male artist “Can Paint the Female Nude?” If we are ever to reach a holistic, integrated relationship to sexuality and the feminine, a blanket rule banning certain artistic depictions based on gender is no solution to past and present injustices. Instead, we can look at historic, or contemporary art and ask ourselves, however challenging it might be, why an artist might depict the nude in that particular way. In tandem, one may introspectively discover how one relates to the nude, and what qualities of emotions or thoughts that representation evokes.

If individuals are afraid of a certain depiction, based on a rule, and reactively disregard it, we create a repression, and therefore a “shadow.” This is what Jung means when he mentions the “sick animal.” 

Diving into the uncomfortable nuances of human sexuality and femininity is far more difficult to examine, but is necessary for growth. It is necessary to confront these matters internally so that all people (regardless of sexuality or gender) can eventually cultivate a healthy relationship to sexuality, women and femininity.

Transference With the Art Object

Oftentimes an artist’s intentions may be superficial. We must use our honest discernment to identify artwork that is authentic — meaning that the artist’s creation transcends their own personal intentions, background and worldview. Additionally, but not in all cases, if a painting elicits a strong emotional impression, whether negative or positive, this an indication that it is impacting the unconscious. Both of these situations imply that it is worth examining further.

The process of recovering lacking values in the psyche includes several steps. Merely being fascinated by images produced by the archetypal feminine is insufficient. For example, the ancient Greek culture produced countless artworks of idealized feminine forms, but completely lacked integration of these values, exhibited by their failure to treat women with equal respect and dignity.

Breaking this historic pattern requires objective understanding of the psyche. This process includes several steps.

First, we had to identify a form that evokes a strong emotion or has intellectual significance. Secondly, acknowledge the image as existing within the human mind, as an archetype, or theme that has been felt and lived by many people. Thirdly, notice how the initial emotion may shift and evolve, increasing nuance, as we pay closer attention to it. Finally, we are tasked with bringing this developed understanding and quality of emotion in personal consciousness, with the shift in worldview, values and attitudes implied.

Carl Jung explains: “Our task is not, therefore, to deny the archetype, but to dissolve the projections, in order to restore their contents to the individual who has involuntarily lost them by projecting them outside himself.” [4]

Gaston Lachaise,  Standing Woman,  1912-1927. Bronze, 70 5/8 × 28 1/2 × 19 1/8 in. Edition 4/4. Photo from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Gaston Lachaise, Standing Woman, 1912-1927. Bronze, 70 5/8 × 28 1/2 × 19 1/8 in. Edition 4/4. Photo from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Oftentimes artists create from, and viewers indulge in, a collective externalization. They remain entranced by the projection and do not bring the significance of their art into their daily lives. The pain of historical oppression, and the twisted stories behind many paintings, may cause people to deny the fundamental image beyond the messy context. Only through examination can we dissolve these patterns and bring about a salvation of balanced, inclusive, holistic values.

The work of modern sculptor, Gaston Lachaise, gives an opportunity to explore this topic further. In order to demonstrate the psychological progression that can occur through self-inquiry, we will explore two commonplace examples.

In the first case, an individual encounters one of Lachaise’s voluptuous figures and, like a hormonal teenager, cannot help but greedily gawk. In the second, we can imagine someone who feels disgusted and offended by such exaggeration of the female body. Because expressions and the use of erotic, sexual, feminine body, functions psychologically on many levels, it is possible to discover deeper meaning from these starting points.

For the first example, the image of the sensuous woman activates intense instinctual desires. The curves evoke the basic, primitive level of the psyche: strong sexual desires that lack responsibility or specific attention to who that would be shared with.

With further reflection, the viewer may find that related to intense feelings of erotic excitement is the longing for connectedness. The initial lust can open up into feelings of love, with the nuances of respect and relatedness. In other words, the idealized form energizes a base kind of libido. Through the act of contemplation, that same energy can be transformed. The idealized form may become a symbol of the nurturing and healing aspects of connection — sexual or otherwise. With this realization, the viewer can bring this discovery into their lives.

In the second example, the viewer sees the statue as ridiculously idealized and becomes stuck on the artistic intentions, understanding the work in only one way: an erotic fetishization. The statue is seen as grotesquely exaggerated, because it is taken literally. This reaction is often a defense mechanism, keeping the mind away from scrutinizing its own reaction by blaming the artist, or avoiding the power of such an image. Any time there is a powerful avoidant or disgust emotion, there is an indication of some repressed idea.

By tolerating this initial reaction and asking themselves what the statue may represent symbolically, the viewer may see that such an idealization is not merely superficial. It is rather that the full-figured body and iconic stance is impersonal, and therefore akin to a deity, an archetype. She represents the attributes of woman, throughout all time. Lattices’ vision of the female body reminds the viewer of the ocean, of mountains, hills and rivers; through this nude, the viewer is connected with their own instinctual connection to the earth, and the mystery of nature’s functions.

This leads the viewer to an appreciation of their own body and, equally so, a respect for the bodies of others. Although, the average person may not be so perfectly proportioned, everyone is connected to the feminine, through their biological mother, and communally inhabits the earth.

In Jungian terms, this would entail a development of eros, or understanding of the archetypal feminine. As individuals discover this aspect of their psyche, their relationship to their own identity, as well as to other people and the planet shifts.

Transformative Conclusions

Through this example we can see how paying attention to nudes in art, especially that which offends us, can lead to deeper understanding of the archetype of the feminine, and its relationship to sexuality. A deepened connection to this realm shifts attitudes and relieves undue social conditioning, reshaping our society and world.

Through examination and consciousness wounds and lacks of the individual and collective psyche can be healed. If in the process we painfully shed undeveloped attitudes and opinions, we will be the better for it. Additionally, any inauthentic artistic expression will be left behind, and the deepest expressions valued for their transformative power and edifying effects.


1. Quote attributed to Carl Jung, in The Psychology of the Unconscious