The top 10 backs in artMan Ray's violin woman, a masterpiece of Japanese erotica and David Hockney's most liberating pool painting ... check out these choice rear views
Thursday 29 May 2014 17.32 BST
Thursday 29 May 2014 17.32 BST
Last modified on Tuesday 1 July 2014 16.01 BST
Kitagawa Utamaro – Lovers in an Upstairs Room (1788)
|A kimono-clad Shunga masterpiece ... Lovers in an Upstairs Room by Kitagawa Utamaro (1788). |
Photograph: The Trustees of the British Museum
This is a masterpiece of the Japanese erotic art genre known as Shunga. A woman with her lover has her back to us, clad in a kimono. With this subtle and sympathetic pose, Utamaro lets us into a private moment while also intensifying the mystery and self-possession of the woman with the gracious back.
Man Ray – Le Violon d'Ingres (1924)
This classic Surrealist photograph is a joke about the painter Ingres, whose nudes have dramatically violin-like proportions. Man Ray got his famous model Kiki of Montmartre to pose naked, except for a turban – like one of Ingres' orientalist fantasy women. Then, through the magic of the darkroom – actually just a paintbrush – he turned her back into an actual violin.
In this study for his unfinished painting The Battle of Cascina, the young Michelangelo lets his eyes dwell on every ridge and valley of a muscular model's naked back. For him, this scene is more complex and suggestive than any landscape. He loses himself in its mighty contours. It is a back pulsing with power, determination, and tensed energy, and Michelangelo is in awe of it.
Degas – After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself (1890-5)
Degas is a passionate voyeur in this intense, ecstatically coloured pastel. We picture him watching and sketching as the model dries herself, delighting in the shape, textures, and proximity of her naked body. Yet it's not that simple. Degas has in fact based this drawing partly on a study of a male back by Michelangelo. So what we see is the artist's heightened fantasy of a beautiful back.
David Hockney – Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool (1966)
This is one of Hockney's most liberating paintings, a frankly joyous picture of Peter Schlesinger emerging from a swimming pool. The water sets off his nudity, the warm air seems to caress him and us. It is an idyll in which the artist is happy to take the role of voyeur, enjoying this vision, preserving it forever.
Courbet – The Spring (1868)
When Courbet painted this rear view of a naked woman in a raw, natural setting, it was conventional to picture nudes as smoothly proportioned allegories. Courbet, prophet of the "real" in 19th-century French art, instead takes an awkward view of her back and makes plain by this rude perspective that he is painting a real woman, not some imagined nymph.
Giulio Campagnola – Woman Reclining in a Landscape (1508-9)
This Renaissance print uses an effect called "stippling" to capture the softness of skin and grass. It anticipates pointillism, the modern art movement, by viewing nature as a field of dots. Campagnola, a Venetian contemporary of Titian and Giorgione, lavishes his technique on a rear view of a woman lying in a meadow to create a monumentally sensuous nude.
Thomas Eakins – Thomas Eakins and J Laurie Wallace at the Shore (c 1883)
The American artist Thomas Eakins painted masterpieces of realism that include his terrifying, moving medical scene The Gross Clinic. He also took photographs of the nude. He himself is one of the men showing us their backs in this powerfully objective, almost clinical picture.
Salvador Dalí – Figure at a Window (1925)
This painting shows why Dalí was destined to become a surrealist. Painted at home in Spain before he made contact with the Parisian art movement, it is apparently a coolly observant, patiently traditional figurative painting. But there's an unmistakably sexual frisson, a provocative sense of the artist mentally undressing his model, which is all the more troubling as she is his sister.
Canova poses his "nymph" on her front so the viewer looks down on to her naked back. He therefore puts us in the position that was traditionally occupied, in western art, by satyrs creeping up on sleeping nymphs for a close look at their nudity. Canova has in other words broken the frame between art and reality. He dares the spectator to interact with his model by becoming aroused – or to hide behind the myth of the sexless artistic nude.