The one common thread, particularly before the 1950s, is that the female nude has always been depicted looking generally flawless - smooth skin and definitely no hair down there! This notion that pubic hair is somehow too offensive to depict continues in many mainstream nude representations today and general audiences tend to find realistic nudes a bit too indecorous to hang on their walls.
British art historian, Kenneth Clark, wrote a well-respected book on the history of the nude in art in 1956 The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form, in which he made the distinction between the naked body and the ‘nude’. Clark noted that nakedness related to being without clothes, with connotations of embarrassment and shame, whereas the nude in works of art are considered ‘high art’, above the usual embarassment and self consciousness that surrounds the raw state of nakedness.
There are however a number of classical statues that do show decorative pubic hair and others were painted on in brown, long since faded. Curators of centuries passed, chose not to restore these in the interest of the public.
The Renaissance is probably most often associated with the traditional versions of the female nude we are accustomed to seeing – think Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (1486) painted for the Medici family, which shows a highly idealised nude Venus coming out of a clam shell. She is very white and pure, reminiscent of a classical marble - smooth, flawless, hairless and beautiful, the perfect ideal of 15th C feminine beauty in the acceptable form of a goddess.
Men remain depicted as heroic mythological and biblical figures showing strength or suffering, such as Hercules and Samson, and the female nude mainly continued to represent goddesses and mythological figures.
Numerous religious works depict very violent and bloody scenes, where nudity is used to highlight the moral compass of the day as well as man’s dominance over women.
And yet, in 1797 Goya painted The Nude Maya, which was shocking in that it was not a nude glorified by a historial or bibilical setting, but a real life model, depicted as herself, nude and with her pubic hair showing. Moreover, as she reclines seductively, she gazes directly and unashamedly at the viewer. Gone are the modest, averted gazes of her predecssors with their diluted sexuality.
This was a period of revolution in the depiction of the nude, which perhaps culminated with Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World from 1866, which shows a naked female from mid-breast to the top of her thighs, legs open and exposing a full growth of pubic hair – this is the source of all mankind, showing the true nature of a naked woman, hair and all and utterly exposed.
When it comes to modern art in the 20th century, the nude has gone through many metamorphoses depending on the school of art in which she was depicted. The Cubists created deconstructed, geometrical forms and Picasso revolutionised distorted abstraction. Egon Schiele painted dark, intimate and sexualised images of women in exposed positions.
Mid-century, Lucien Freud’s works abandonned all sense of idealisation, shopwing floppy breasts and later working with obese models whose bodies were imperfect, realistic and revealing.
Brett Whiteley’s curvy and sensuous nudes of the 1960s were revolutionary in Australian Art, and while he abstracted the female form, he was not hesitant to include pubic hair for both male and female nudes and several of his explicit works of copulating couples show the influence of the early Japanese erotic ukiyo-e. Whiteley happily embraced the primal sexual urge and sought to record sex and sensuality in his art.
In 1981, he wrote as part of an art exhibition dedicated to the nude: Filtering down through civilization is the urge to show this glimpse of beauty, where invention and skin become one, and the history of art marries the whole history of one’s sex. Mistress, mother, lover, whore, obtainable –unobtainable, it is the wonder of a perfect distortion.
Richard Larter’s 1970s and 80s works turned modern art on its head, with his photographic collages and pop-art paintings considered by some to be blatant pornography – these works leave little to the imagination and the women are highly sexualised.
In fact, pubic hair remains a widespread taboo in art today as well as social media. Although moral standards have changed considerably over time, particularly with the advent of photography, cinema and television, public displays of nudity are often controversial.
In 2011, a complaint was lodged against Facebook through the Parisian court of general jurisdiction by a French Facebooker when his profile was disabled for showing a picture of Courbet’s Origin of the World. His lawyer claimed that deleting his account was a breach of his human rights, which should have guaranteed his freedom of expression.
In February, Danish artist, Frode Steinicke, had his Facebook account deactivated for posting a copy of the same infamous painting. Facebook later reactivated his account on condition he only used pictures of clothed people on his page. In reaction, critics have established a Facebook group condemning the censorship of this artwork and art in general.
No doubt, contradictions will always exist as to what is socially acceptable. Towards the end of last year, Instagram banned a user for uploading a nude self-portrait. There are many semi naked or breast revealing images on Instragram including Kim Kardashian's raunchy ‘boob and bum’ pictures. However, the other user had her account deleted because her nude image showed her pubic hair! In fact, she was wearing a pair of briefs and only a sliver of the top of her pubic hair was visible.
It goes to show that in an open forum, genital hair is still a no-no like it always was, but what a thin line we travel.