Throughout the canon of western art the nude has developed a distinct role and even genre. When found in the context of war art, the nude’s role is further complicated and can represent a wide variety of functions greatly removed from that of the traditional reclining female nude of western art. In war art the boundaries between nudity and nakedness are distorted to the point that many of the cultural constructs developed to allow nudes to be socially acceptable are non-existent. This makes for unique, challenging and often controversial depictions of nudity in war. From the Greek heroic nude to the forced and shamefully naked, this essay will explore the variety of different roles that the nude has played in war art.
The concept of nudity is complex and subject to great variation depending on its context historically, culturally, and individually. Nudity in itself is a neutral and universal state, but through cultural, religious, and historical appropriation it has acquired new connotations. These connotations include sex, innocence, savagery, crime, violence, power, exposure, and shame. In biblical terms nakedness signifies the ultimate exposure to the gaze of God under which one could be deemed honorable or sinful. The public exposure of one’s body is often equated to criminality, perversion, and mental illness. Within a violent situation nudity can be seen to determine power but can also expose lack of power. It has further contradictory associations with innocence on one hand and promiscuousness on the other.
In regards to art, the state of undress has developed a distinct set of principles. The English language even created a word to accommodate for the growing separation between nakedness in art and nakedness in society: the nude. There is a great linguistic, and in turn, social separation between the naked and the nude. Where the naked is ashamed and vulnerable in its state of undress, the nude is an enlightened, desirable thing to look upon completely devoid of such embarrassment. In war and conflict art however, the use of undressed figure can be both nude and naked, carrying with it both societal and artistic connotations of nudity. For this reason, the nude in war and conflict art is a highly complex subject with has been used for a multitude of objectives.
If the beginning of the canon of western art is traditionally based in classical Greek society, than perhaps the story of the nude in war and conflict art should begin there as well. The curious part about beginning the story in Classical Greece is that the Greeks also represent the greatest diversion from the traditional feelings about the shame of nudity. The legend goes that during the 15th Olympics in 720B.C. the loincloth fell from waist of the great athlete Orsippos. Orsippos went onto win that fateful race, along with many other events that day and nudity became an immediate fashion necessity in the athletic world. Certainly the birth of the Greek nude wasn’t as romantic and instantaneous in reality, but through literature and art it can be determined that it was every bit as fashionable and widespread as Orsippos’ story suggests. The phenomenon was coined the ‘heroic nude’, and its presence in art history has persisted until the current day. Widely used during the renaissance and baroque periods, the heroic nude’s influence has been immense.
The barbarians they fought laughed at Greek nudity in battle, but the Greeks themselves thought highly of their dress choices that they saw to be aligned with their philosophical beliefs. It was seen that through complete bodily exposure, Greek athletes and warriors were given the opportunity to demonstrate their complete power over their bodies. ‘If an athlete went naked to the Olympic games his intellectual sophrosynê would be as much subject to scrutiny as his athletic arête.’ There was a definite issue of sexual arousal caused by nudity in the athletic arena, as certain ‘weaknesses’ of the body could no longer be concealed underneath loincloths.
In Greek-Amazonian battle art (fig. 1), Greek warriors are depicted in the nude alongside clothed female warriors. Within these works, the ‘heroic diagonal’ was founded. The heroic diagonal was an active compositional technique employed by Greek artists at the time. It depicted the warrior in an active stance following a diagonal in the composition. The heroic diagonal has been replicated throughout history and is demonstrated effectively in The Battle of the Nudes (1465-1475) by Antonio Pollaiuolo (fig. 2).
The nude in war art is a complicated and polarized subject. Leaping from the heroic Greek nude to the 21st century, the chilling images of the horrendous abuse of the Abu Ghraib prisoners depict an entirely different nude in the canon of war art. Figure 3 shows a female American soldier posing behind a pile of naked prisoners forced to create a human pyramid for the perverted entertainment of their guards. The prisoners wear bags over their head, and the expression of the grinning woman behind is that of the gloating trophy hunter next to her prey.
Art theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that the nude torture images of Abu Ghraib prisoners are a type of ‘war pornography’. During the War in Iraq beginning in 2003, American personnel photographically documented a series of human rights abuses that they committed against the detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison. Jean Baudrillard suggests that the abuse was analogous to the American excess of power, where it no longer knew what to do with itself. The images themselves represent a parody of violence and war, as the prisoners are stripped and humiliated. Baudrillard describes forced nudity as a rape in itself, and if according to writer Elias Canetti, the aim of war is not to win or lose but to abolish the enemy, than these American soldiers have met that aim. Baudrillard suggests that pornography is the ultimate form of the abjection of war, where the pornographic nature of these images stems from the graphic abuse of power and the nakedness of the prisoners.
These nudes are about as far detached from Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510) or Skopas’ Battle of the Greeks and the Amazons as they could possibly be. These men are fighting within a very different war against a very different enemy. War art is often created to document war, however the authors of these photographs served both as documenters and active participants. The photographs depict the shamed, abused, and defeated nudes in war. Examples of this variety of nude can be found in many historical depictions of war such as Goya’s Grande hazaña! Con muertos! from Los Desastres de Guerra (1810-1820).
Colombian artist Fernando Botero responded to the Abu Ghraib images in a series of 87 paintings and drawings between 2004 and 2005. Botero was horrified by the abuse in Iraq and was driven to create his highly controversial series. Botero has translated the figures in the Abu Ghraib photographs into his characteristically large, stylized nudes. Abu Ghraib 2004 (fig.4) appears to be referencing figure 3 from the series of photographs of the Abu Ghraib prisoners. The composition is constructed by the same pile of bodies, but in Botero’s painting the men are more loosely arranged, their hands and feet are bound, and there is no grinning solider posing behind them. The viewer finds itself filling the role of the American soldier gawking at the humiliated men through the metal bars of their cell, while other works from the Abu Ghraib series place the viewer on the other side of the bars alongside the suffering detainees. (Fig.5).
When Botero set out to make this series, he saw no point in copying the existing images, but instead sought to ‘visualize what was really happening there.’ The nude in Botero’s Abu Ghraib series is painted in a deliberate manner, the compositions are harmonious and the forms are closed and contained. This harmony and simplicity is in stark contrast with the chaotic violence that is taking place within the scenes. In the translation from photograph to painting the viewer sees the evidence of Botero’s time studying and understanding the original photographs. ‘Art is important in time,’ Botero says, ‘It brings some kind of reflection to the matter. We have analyzed this thing from editorial pages and books, but somehow this vision by an artist completes what happened. He can make visible what's invisible, what cannot be photographed. In a photo, you just do a click, but in art you have to put in so much energy. This concentration of energy and attention says something that other media cannot say.’ Through the paintings, Botero has re-packaged, but not censored the horror and gives the viewer a means in which to enter into the scene without being instantly repelled by the violence of the photographs. Botero uses nudity in these works to create discourse about the uncensored reality of the events within the Abu Ghraib prison. ‘Art is important,’ says Botero, ‘because when people start to forget, art reminds them what happened.’
Another variety of nude found in war art is the ‘innocent nude’. Not unlike the ‘shamed nude’ from the Abu Ghraib images, the innocent nude is depicted as the victim of war. The difference is in the removal of the shame involved with nudity, placing the innocent nude of war art closer to the traditional shameless nudes of western art. A highly iconic, Pulitzer Prize winning representation of the innocent nude is found in Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl (1972). The photograph was captured during the Vietnam War during the bombing of the girl’s village, Trang Bang. In the photograph Kim Phuc is seen naked, screaming as she runs towards the camera away from her burning village. She has ripped off her burning clothes, and her nudity combined with her young age evokes great pity and empathy in the viewer. The innocent nude strongly opposes the glorification of war, and demonstrates the power of the nude to inspire deep empathy and feeling for the subject.
Pablo Picasso has also been known to lend his distorted classical nudes to the canon of war art. Through his association with the French Communist Party, Picasso painted Massacre in Korea (1951) to protest against the Korean War and the involvement of the United States. The work strongly echoes Francisco Goya’s Third of May (1808) in theme and composition. Massacre in Korea depicts a line of nude soldiers aiming weapons at an opposing line of nude women and children. The work is uncharacteristically clear and unambiguous lacking Picasso’s distinctive heavy symbolism. The French Communist Party however was unhappy with Picasso’s work as they felt the anti-American message was ineffective due to the lack of identification on the nude soldiers.
In Massacre in Korea the role of the nude is varied and unusual. Innocent women and children as well as the violent executioners are depicted in the nude. The nude plays multiple roles in Picasso’s work. The women and children in Massacre in Korea seem to play the innocent nudes, whereas the role of the nude soldiers is more complicated. The stance and situation may have suggested a heroic nude in an earlier century, but in this instance, the executioners of the women and children act more as mass-produced tools of war rather than individualized heroes. Their nudity lends them a sense of vulnerability, which is strangely out of place given their actions and roles as executioners in the painting. Picasso’s work shows that the removal of clothing and visual signifiers can also remove a figure’s ties to specific nations or ideologies. Massacre in Korea demonstrates the power of the nude within war art to separate the individual from the mass nature of war.
The nude in war and conflict art is a highly complex, varied, and often controversial subject. The distance between Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl and the photographs of the Abu Ghraib detainees is immense, yet they are connected by war, horror and nudity. Similarly, the superficial resemblance of between the Greek heroic nude and the soldiers in Picasso’s Massacre in Korea is undermined by their roles within the work and motivations of their creators. The refined linguistic term the nude seems to be an exceedingly inappropriate label to attach to these figures living within the horror of war. Furthermore, the set of rules separating the traditional female nude from societal perceptions of nudity don’t seem to apply to the nude within war and conflict art. The nude has the unique power to expose the most intimate experiences of its subject. In war and conflict art, this exposure can often allow an audience to connect and empathise on a deeper level with the horrific realities of war. The nude plays a varied, complicated and greatly important role in in war and conflict art.
 Barcan, Ruth. Nudity a Cultural Anatomy. Oxford: Berg, 2004.
 Clarke, Kenneth. "Energy." In The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.
 Arieti, James R. "Nudity in Greek Athletics." The Classical World 68, no. 7 (1975): 431-36. Accessed March 4, 2015. http://www.jstor.org, 431.
 Ibid, 435.
 Ibid, 436.
 Ibid, 435.
 Clarke, Kenneth. "Energy." In The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960, 3.
 Ibid, 121.
 Baudrillard, Jean. “War Porn.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 2, no. 1 (2005).
 Baker, Kenneth. "Abu Ghraib's Horrific Images Drove Artist Fernando Botero into Action." SFGate. January 29, 2007. Accessed May 13, 2015.
 Lovelace, Angie. “Iconic Photos of the Vietnam War Era: A Semiotic Analysis as a Means of Understanding.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 1, no. 1 (2010): 44.
 Keen, Kirsten Hoving. "Picasso's Communist Interlude: The Murals of 'War' and 'Peace'" The Burlington Magazine 122, no. 928 (1980): 464-70. Accessed March 30, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/880052, 465
 Ibid, 66.
Arieti, James R. "Nudity in Greek Athletics." The Classical World 68, no. 7 (1975): 431-36. Accessed March 4, 2015.
Baker, Kenneth. "Abu Ghraib's Horrific Images Drove Artist Fernando Botero into Action." SFGate. January 29, 2007. Accessed May 13, 2015.
Barcan, Ruth. Nudity a Cultural Anatomy. Oxford: Berg, 2004.
Baudrillard, Jean. “War Porn.” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 2, no. 1 (2005).
Clarke, Kenneth. "Energy." In The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.
Keen, Kirsten Hoving. "Picasso's Communist Interlude: The Murals of 'War' and 'Peace'" The Burlington Magazine 122, no. 928 (1980): 464-70. Accessed March 30, 2015.
Lovelace, Angie. “Iconic Photos of the Vietnam War Era: A Semiotic Analysis as a Means of Understanding.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 1, no. 1 (2010): 35-45.