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The nude, as a form of visual art that focuses on the unclothed human figure, is an enduring tradition in Western art. It was a preoccupation of Ancient Greek art, and after a semi-dormant period in the Middle Ages returned to a central position with the Renaissance. Unclothed figures often also play a part in other types of art, such as history painting, including allegorical and religious art, portraiture, or the decorative arts. From prehistory to the earliest civilizations, nude female figures were generally understood to be symbols of fertility or well-being.
In India, the Khajuraho Group of Monuments built between 950 and 1050 CE are known for their erotic sculptures, which comprise about 10% of the temple decorations. Japanese prints are one of the few non-western traditions that can be called nudes, but the activity of communal bathing in Japan is portrayed as just another social activity, without the significance placed upon the lack of clothing that exists in the West. Through each era, the nude has reflected changes in cultural attitudes regarding sexuality, gender roles, and social structure.
One often cited book on the nude in art history is The Nude: a Study in Ideal Form by Lord Kenneth Clark, first published in 1956. The introductory chapter makes (though does not originate) the often-quoted distinction between the naked body and the nude. Clark states that to be naked is to be deprived of clothes, and implies embarrassment and shame, while a nude, as a work of art, has no such connotations.
One of the defining characteristics of the modern era in art was the blurring of the line between the naked and the nude. This likely first occurred with the painting The Nude Maja (1797) by Goya, which in 1815 drew the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. The shocking elements were that it showed a particular model in a contemporary setting, with pubic hair rather than the smooth perfection of goddesses and nymphs, who returned the gaze of the viewer rather than looking away. Some of the same characteristics were shocking almost 70 years later when Manet exhibited his Olympia, not because of religious issues, but because of its modernity. Rather than being a timeless Odalisque that could be safely viewed with detachment, Manet's image was assumed to be of a prostitute of that time, perhaps referencing the male viewers' own sexual practices.