Do You Dare Take On the Challenge of Nude Self-Portrait?

By in Art And Culture


The self-portrait has long been absolutely central to Western art. It’s a genre that has been dabbled in by seemingly every celebrated and less-celebrated artist, from Sir Anthony van Dyck and Joseph Mallord William Turner to Lucian Freud and Louise Bourgeois.

In short, self-portraiture is the genre that, in its very limitations, can often seem limitless.

However, many self-portraits can also be less than revealing of the artist depicted, which begs the question – what happens when they are stripped of even their clothing? Is the subject ‘revealed’ in more ways than one? And if so, is it a form of self-portraiture that you should try out for yourself?

Clothes don’t always ‘make the man’… or woman

When setting out the composition for the typical self-portrait, you will almost certainly need to consider what you will be depicted wearing, and what implications your chosen clothes have for the viewer. Are they supposed to reflect the ‘real you’, or instead some kind of disguise?

Some of those artists to ask such questions have ultimately found that they can express the greatest poetic freedom through no clothes at all.

The tragically short-lived Francesca Woodman, with her hypnotic, ghostly self-portraits that seem to belong to another time, may be the most historically renowned practitioner of nude self-portraiture. However, there are many more examples that we could cite, from Egon Schiele and Gwen John to Stanley Spencer and Richard Gerstl.

But what forms are nude self-portraits taking now?

The current age – one dominated by increasingly intense discussions about celebrity nude photo leaks, ‘revenge porn’ and the seemingly ever-blurring boundaries between the public and private – seems to be bringing fresh and interesting possibilities to nude self-portraiture that far transcend the ‘sexy selfie’.

There is Erica Simone, for example, whose arresting naked poses for her “Nue York” project in New York City were borne out of her idea of questioning society’s relationship with fashion, including how clothes can sometimes be said to signify a certain social standing.

Or what about Philadelphia native Sarah R. Bloom, who posed naked in old factories, shopping malls and an abandoned mental institution as part of her exploration of “the weight of aging, how it feels to get older and how it feels to be left behind”?

Polly Penrose is one of the many female nude self-portraitists that have helped to take the genre far beyond the usual hyper-sexualised notions. Placing herself into highly obdurate places and positions has enabled Penrose to express her post-childbirth anxiety and mental health battles and, in the process, help to liberate women who have often felt ashamed about their bodies.

Japanese photographer Noriko Yabu, meanwhile, completely avoided the stark confrontation with the body that often seems obligatory for both men and women engaging in nude self-portraiture, by masking her shots with water for much more cryptic and abstract results.

As for the men, one of the most famous practitioners of the nude self-portrait of recent years is no less than former US President George W. Bush, who admitted to creating a painting of himself in the bathtub “because I wanted to kind of shock my tutor.”

Are you ready to start creating nude self-portraits?

That is, of course, a big question, and you should never feel forced to ‘dare to bare’. However, if you do decide to disrobe for your own artistic purposes, it helps to bear in mind a few key principles and tips.

These include not presuming that your body must only be depicted in a sexual fashion – as Penrose has said of her own body, “[it’s] not spectacular; it’s not fat, it’s not thin, it’s just quite a normal body. So you don’t look at my body and go ‘oh my god, look at that body’, you go ‘look at that body in the space’.”

But it’s also a good idea to be as resourceful as possible in your search for compelling settings – it’s not just you who will be in your shot, after all. There’s also something to be said for simply getting on with it, rather than allowing yourself to become too overwhelmed by technical matters.

Some of us can be prone to procrastination – so instead of being overly drawn into perfectionism, why not just slip your clothes off, get out a camera or mirror and some art materials, and proceed? You may be shocked at what you ‘reveal’ about yourself that even you hadn’t truly appreciated before…

2 comments for “Do You Dare Take On the Challenge of Nude Self-Portrait?

Michael McGrath

April 23, 2018 at 7:17 am

I’ve often done nude self-portraits, and want to continue doing them, however, our western prudery, ESPECIALLY here in the States (I’m from Upstate New York and now live in the Colorado Rockies), squelches ANY artwork that has male body parts in it. A few years ago, when attempting to get my work into John Fielder’s Gallery in Denver, John’s gay gallery curator looked through my portfolio and said, “The female nude is art, but the male nude is pornography.” I closed up my portfolio (which, BTW, had only a small handful of works of art depicting the nude male form), said, “Thank you for your time. Have a good day,” and walked out of that gallery, never to step foot in it ever again.

I consider my nude works of art, especially those depicting the male figure, as part of my emotional/psychological healing from the abuses I suffered as a child at the hands of my abusive parents. I refuse to allow others to determine what I should and shouldn’t do, when it comes to creating art. The problem expands itself into the public, though, where I have been censored from 3 shows – 2 of which were on campus at my alma mater (Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, Denver, Colorado, USA), and the third was in a public recreation center in Wheatridge, Colorado. In the latter, I had to get the National Coalition Against Censorship involved, mainly because the curator approved ALL the artwork I had put into the solo show, but when one woman didn’t like the fact that a tiny refrigerator magnet I had made out of polymer clay, which depicted a nude male backside with one testicle showing between his legs, and, which she wanted removed from the exhibit, was actually removed without asking me. When I saw that two of my pieces had been removed, I called the curator and she said that someone was offended by the two pieces of art, and that she removed them because of that person. I told her that if she had asked me personally to remove them, I would have done so out of respect for both the person who was offended and for the curator. However, since she hadn’t afforded me the opportunity to make my own decision, and had arbitrarily pulled the two works of art from the show without asking, I contacted the National Coalition Against Censorship. Their lawyer contacted the City of Wheatridge and demanded, under Constitutional law, that the pieces of art that had been removed be placed back into the show, until said time as the City of Wheatridge could revise their display policies. As long as there were no existing regulations governing what could or could not be displayed in a taxpayer-funded venue, ALL works of art approved by the curator MUST remain until the show closes. No exceptions. IF the City decided that only PC artwork can be shown in certain venues sponsored by tax dollars, only THEN can the City determine what remains in an art exhibit in one of their spaces. And, said decision had to be written into City law and put into writing before ANY artwork could be refused.

That was a difficult thing for me to do, namely because I knew the consequences – that no nude works of art by ANY artist would ever be allowed again in any venue sponsored by the City of Wheatridge. On the one hand, I won a battle, but on the other hand, I lost the war.

I would like the opportunity to show my work somewhere outside the United States, mainly because of our cultural prudery here. People here are scared to death of men’s dangly bits! And, I am sick of it. Men’s body are no less works of art than women’s bodies are! Period. I loved this article and the artists whom the author represented in his article. Thank you.

Gilbert Hannon

April 10, 2021 at 2:10 am

I’m in a wheelchair, and would like to do a nude painting of myself. I have posed nude for a group here In Ireland. But the Irish people are very prudish

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