On Heroic Nudity

Heroic nudity is a concept  originating in classical (Hellenic) art whereby portraits and historical or mythical figures were portrayed nude. This is a common staple of true Western art which relates back to the golden mean and the concept of perfect ratios, how the parts of the body relate to one one another, and the whole body relates macro cosmically to other ratios in nature, as examples of perfect proportions. Though heroic ennobling nudity is depicted in many paintings, I will focus on sculpture to illustrate.

Idealising was the core magnificent concept of Greek culture that inspired Faustian man through successive empires and dynasties, in variation. There is a philosophy behind the nudity which resonates with European people, but can at first be confusing in our deracinated post-Christian morality and generally artless culture. The idealising of the human nude, beyond personality, into golden ratios and concepts from primordial tradition, attaining the plane of perfect reason (the exact opposite of chaotic Modernism) was the goal of statuary and paintings which have the fire of the classical ideal. Nudes were not celebrated in a lusty, juvenile way they might be today, nor depicted in a warts-and-all realist ugliness. Avoiding that obvious realism was the trick to ennobling attributes.

Hellenic nude men were depicted as fit, ready for war, but formularised to avoid any tawdry sexual aspect that takes away from that visual nobility. We can sense they are closer to demi-gods or titans by being powerfully aloof of worldly pleasures and distractions. Idealism is their plane of existence. This also answers the question, put to me in the most intellectual way imaginable by an acquaintance: ‘why did they give the statues all such small peckers?’

Same, and more importantly so, for the women. They are not voluptuously sexual, as Modernist nudes, nor realist-ugly – they are ennobled with the finer virtues. Portrayed nude, while beautiful, yet above sexual lewdness. Not an easy achievement with the dangerous beauty of European females. But they achieved it. The long torsos, roman noses, generally small breast, Euclidian proportions. The accentuated points of beauty are not the obvious, but the sense of weight in the figure, the naturalistic folds suggesting action of the flesh.

Focus on what would seem to the novice, the mundane elements, elevate the subject to the divinity of high art. These idealised females seem fertile, matronly, perfected and goddess-like. They inhabit metakosmia: empty spaces between worlds in the vastness of infinite space.

There was a general worldly lack of fear of nudity in the Hellenic world, naked wrestling, naked olympic games, and I have read accounts of hoplite warriors going into battle nude, as a symbol of their stark bravery, though more often in accounts of other European cultures of that time. It does suggest a total honesty: an open, frank expression of bared courage against the material world. That divine aloofness.