Friday, July 22, 2011


Ever since civilization invented modesty, the fig leaf has created special challenges for artists.

One of Denis Zilber's typically fun solutions

The awkwardness of Durer's early efforts...

...eventually gave way to more natural looking solutions by artists such as Frank Schoonover, Harold von Schmidt, Al Parker and James Avati:

But the motivations remained the same: to make the censor's prohibition seem like a mere coincidence of nature.  Each artist lies to us, suggesting that our view is being obstructed only by a random spoon or a fortuitous branch.

Art succeeds by directing our curiosity, and sometimes even by satisfying it, but never by thwarting it.  That's why artists attempt to disguise limits imposed on them by the censor.

Below, illustrator Geoffrey Biggs tried using randomly flapping clothes to satisfy his editor's restrictions.  Like most efforts to appear spontaneous, this required careful planning.  Biggs studied the text of a story in which a woman impetuously removes her outfit and  throws it at a man; he then carefully designed a solution which was technically compliant, but which still looked a little too natural for the editors of the Saturday Evening Post.  They went back to the author and demanded that he rewrite the scene to put underwear on the woman, then returned to Biggs and instructed him to change his illustration to conform to the text:     

Before                               After
The mere act of concealing something often attracts our attention.  Viewers may devote as much creative energy to imagining what is behind the fig leaf as artists devote to concealing it.  Some artists take advantage of this human reaction, deliberately playing up the fig leaf with symbolism or colors or shapes.

In the 1950s Illustrator-turned-religious-painter Harry Anderson used a lion for a fig leaf in this painting of the Garden of Eden:

Talk about attracting the viewer's attention... I don't know a single male who doesn't grow uneasy about the proximity of that lion's teeth (which certainly distracts from Anderson's original intention for the painting).

The elements of a painting don't stand still.   We cannot simply place one inert shape in front of another with no visual or psychological consequences.  Objects are imbued with significance, and this is part of what makes our world such a wonderful place.  So we should be neither surprised nor disappointed if an object we employ to conceal something strikes up a dialogue with the thing we are concealing.


अर्जुन said...

You might like Flandrin's ~ Thésée reconnu par son père

But for a wisp of gauze ~ 5:10

Fine Art Storage said...

austin powers really set the mark for this one haha

kev ferrara said...

If I were to make one rule about these cover ups it would be "Thou Shalt Not Use Pictorial Elements like Black Censor Bars."

The way, in each picture, only the "naughty bits" are covered up and nothing else, fairly screams for attention to the naughty bits, as you say.

The Biggs, Anderson, and Flandrin are laughable in their precision censoring... justifying the comic skewering (from Mad Magazine to Mike Myers to zilber) which is already an old joke.

The art of this would be to present a situation where parts of the figure that aren't naughty would also be blocked out, and naturally so. The voyeuristic appeal of the picture would then not be dashed by the obviously placed censoring elements.

In looking at Von Schmidt doing his best Chabas or Parker's Degas... how much more demure and artful the originals without the censor elements.

The Von Schmidt, Parker and Biggs make me wonder about the editors of that era... if the eroticism of the nude is to be deracinated... why bother at all? You can't run a peep show and cover your ass at the same time. Did they really think that a well placed towel or palm frond would prevent a flood of complaint letters from stuffing the mail slot anyhow? Those looking to be offended are always the most feverish to find offenses. Even if it takes x-ray vision. A fully clothed girl in a skirt, well done by a Sundblom or Elvgren, can provide much more titillation AND editorial cover than these artificial attempts to show it all and take back half.

Tom said...

Hi David
Sex sells, or as the French say better the half then the whole. The promise of something you don't have (or don't see in this case) always feels like it will fulfill you until you have it. The repression of the nude body makes it all the more enticing even more sexy/desireable then the an actual nude body ever could.

Anonymous said...

I've had this "dialogue" before with an art forum moderator who insisted there was nothing wrong with nudity whatsoever. However, he felt there was indeed something very wrong with suggesting that he donate all his family's clothing to the Goodwill store. I'm no longer allowed to post on that forum.

John Paul Turnage said...

Thank you for another stimulating entry, Mr. Apatoff. I especially relate to this: "Like most efforts to appear spontaneous, this required careful planning."

MORAN said...

Harry Anderson listened to the artist formerly known as Prince (Gotta lion in my pocket and baby he's ready to roar)

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- I really enjoyed the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, but that is one weird painting. I don't recall any reason in the story for the gratuitous nudity, and i must say that the choice of a slab of meat on the dinner table to serve as the fig leaf suggests that Flandrin has issues.

Fine Art Storage-- I agree, that was a clever scene.

Kev Ferrara wrote: these artificial attempts to show it all and take back half."

I think your points are well taken. I suspect there was more than a little bit of brinkmanship going on here. These artists enjoyed the huge audiences provided by magazines like the Post (far more people saw their work each week than saw Picasso's art in the museums) but they must have chafed at the restrictions that are the price of reaching such an audience. I think many of these artists (with the exception of Anderson, who seems to have been clueless about the implications) liked to inch as clse to the line as they could, with the results you describe.

David Apatoff said...

Tom-- I agree with you about the role of repression (within limits, of course). One could argue that an artist can be judged by their sense of whether and in what places and for how long the petticoat should pause as it is lifted (metaphorically speaking).

Etc, etc-- I'm glad to hear that this is not the only place you stir up trouble. In case this is a sore spot with you, let me hasten to add that I take no position here on whether there is anything wrong with nudity or whether people should donate all their clothing.

John Paul Turnage-- Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

MORAN-- I very much doubt that Anderson was listening to Prince, although they both seemed to have a thing for lions.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,
As a great grandmother, my visual opinion of life was formed by these illustrators, Lucy and Ricky in twin beds! I agree that the imagination is so much better than exposure, todays viewers and illustrators agree, as we see the female and male "naughty bits" totally artificially reconstructed to what the imagination would like to see, now that exposure is the norm. Women (supposedly nude) wear their augmented bodies like a costume, they probably don't even feel nude as so much of it is not really them. Without their normal imperfections, the "new" body is like any clothing used to cover up what they don't want to expose and we don't want them to show us!
I have been attending life sessions since before you all were here, and I have to admit I am very fond of the unaugmented human form, in all it's glorious imperfections. Sadly, the augmented model is more and more the norm, even in life class....because that is what the public wants to see, we know it's not real and that actually makes us more comfortable looking at it!
Thank you for this blog, I read it often.

David Apatoff said...

Terry-- you may be the very first great grandmother to weigh in with an opinion here, and I am honored to have you visit. I can tell that you picked up a whole lot of wisdom on your way to becoming a great grandmother. Like you, I am a big fan of the "unaugmented" human form.

How funny that the parts of human anatomy we were cleverly shielding when you were born are the very parts we are spotlighting now. We see a lot of close ups now that shield us from what you call "normal imperfections" as well as shielding us anything that might involve human personality, complexity, etc.

Robin Cave said...

What i find funny is a lot of the guys doing 3d characters these days construct these ridiculously over-blown musclebound figures, but they have no genitals, not even a fig leaf, just nothing, well maybe the odd discreet bump sometimes.

I know it is guys doing it because all the women they model have equally insane proportions, giant breasts, wasp-like waist and hardly a skerric of clothing, even when swinging an axe on an ice planet.

Mr Stretchy pants

Is it shame or embarassment or they don't want to be caught tweaking male "naughty bits" when some one walks into their room?

Norman Lindsay usually didn't bother with any wispy gauze or plant life and that was way back early last century!
Some Lindsay etchings

Norman did lose 16 crates of paintings his wife had taken to America, the train they were on caught fire and as they were pulled out people realised what they were and they were subsequently burned as pornography...

Tom said...


nice film clip about Lucien Freud

Renee Graves said...

So very true, the art of creating the disguise draws more attention to what the artist is covering up. I do think that this is not just an issue of the artist working with censorship, but sometimes is a play on what the artist is highlighting. As a society our modesty can be seen through our art work. I remember the first time I saw Michelangelo's Statue of David I was at first embarrassed. I was a young teenager with a religious upbringing. I am glad as I have gotten older I can embrace the beauty found in art when the "naughty bits" are shown and equally when the artist playfully covers them up.

Christian Castro said...

Another great article! I recently had to deal with the same problem when making an illustration. Unfortunately mine wasn't as funny as Denis Zilber's )or so I would think. Here's a link to another my example:

Nonetheless great read! Thanks for sharing

David Apatoff said...

Robin Cave-- I suspect that the character models have been neutered for commercial reasons. Parents are not likely to buy a toy Hulk for their kids if he has a bulging Hulk penis. Norman Lindsay was of course quite famous for his disdain for all fig leaves. So was Ivor Hele. So is Ashley Wood. What is it with you Aussies?

Tom-- Thanks for the Lucien Freud clip. I really enjoyed it. Excellent.

Renee Graves-- Thanks for your interesting perspective.

Christian Castro-- I think your ice cream cone was a little more suggestive than Denis Zilber's spoonful of cereal...

Robin Cave said...

Yes David, I'm sure you are right about the commercial neutering, but it seems to go way beyond that.

A lot of the 3D character modelling I am seeing in the Zbrush galleries are so extreme in every other aspect. They are not for any commercial outcome, just the creators satisfaction of a job well done and maybe a few positive comments.

Even screaming cloven hoofed devils who should have hairy pendulous bollocks and sizeable members instead have a neat little package wrapped in a tasteful leather pouch.

It just like feels they are embarrassed to follow through their extreme exaggeration to the somewhat touchy area of "naughty bits" unless it is a woman and then they expand the breasts to the size of weather balloons and go to great lengths to get the arse cheeks visible wherever possible.

(I find it amusing and if I was better at the 3d modelling i would do a version that would push what was acceptable in these galleries, just for a laugh.)

I suppose the same thing has been going on in superhero comics for the last 50 years...

Michael McGrath said...

Loved the commentary and posts on this blog. I am a retired U. S. Navy Illustrator-Draftsman. I spent the last 16 years of my military career doing artwork for military publication/printing, besides doing a 8’ x 16’ mural for a base chow hall, and numerous other assignments that were art-related.

I have a BFA in Illustration from a local art college. While I was there, I developed my skills as a classically-trained sculptural illustrator, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a 3.892 GPA. I was the oldest student on campus at the time, and I wasn’t afraid to do artwork that displayed the nude figure, both male and female. Oh, you show have seen the faces of my fellow students, when I’d “unveil” a piece that I had finished for an assignment! Some of them were horrified. Some were shocked and angry. Some would start laughing. It didn’t matter to me. I was given an assignment, I did the assignment, and I usually got an “A” on that assignment. Nudes became my “thing.”

I find it comical how we are scared to death of the male dangly bits in our culture. Half of the world’s population has male dangly bits! What are we so afraid of? That they might bite us?!?! Jeepers. We’re adults. Let’s grow up and get over our phallic offense!