Nudity in Early Cinema, or the Pictorial Transgression


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Nudity in Early Cinema, or the Pictorial Transgression
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Corporeality in Early Cinema: Viscera, Skin, and Physical Form
Robert Valentine
Indiana University Press
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This chapter analyzes the early cinematic disclosing of the naked body. Nudity emerges in early cinema using a pictorial alibi. Models posing in the artist’s studio are a key topic, but tableaux vivants, namely films, which reenact paintings, are a privileged site for filmed nakedness. Series such as the Biograph Living Pictures (1899-1903), Pathé Scènes grivoises (1897-902), Gaumont Vieilles Estampes (1907) and Aktskulpturen – Studienfilm für bildende Künstler (Oskar Messter, 1903) constitute our field of investigation. These films reflect a fascinating ambivalence between what Kenneth Clark distinctly termed “nakedness” (associated with the illicit and obscene exposure) and “nudity” (identified as an artistic category, addressing ideal beauty and legitimate contemplation). On one hand (the “naked” one), a pornographic quality characterizes these films. Their exhibition of a naked body, in motion, transgresses the Victorian boundaries of modesty and reopens the censorship debate which has been raging in music-halls about staged tableaux vivants. An exalted voyeurism (using devices such as mirrors or revolving pedestals allowing a comprehensive vision of the bare body) directly links this first cinematic nakedness with contemporary pornographic photography. On the other (“nude”!) hand, these films reproduce paintings, claiming (more or less sincerely) the artistic quality of the portrayed body. Strategies are combined with this pictorial imitation in order to idealize the nude body, from the covering and smoothing flesh-colored leotard to the graceful posing and slow motion of the model. On the basis of the prolific ambiguity of Jonathan Auerbach’s concept of “early film body”, referring as much to the filmed body as to the “body” of film, we will finally question these naked “incarnations” as a way of asserting early cinema as a transgression of painting.
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