“The nude is a paradigm of what the ‘West’ consists of in cultural terms,” Francois Jullien writes in his The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, “and brings to light the stances that originally underpinned our philosophy.” Conversely, in Chinese culture, “everything about the tradition suggests that the nude is simply an impossibility.“ By contrasting the depiction of the nude (or lack of) in these two cultures, Jullien gets at the root of the philosophical foundations of the nude in art.
Jullien sets the stage in Part 1 of his book, “A History of Being: For an ontology of the photographic nude.” A collection of photographs by Ralph Gibson originally spurred Jullien, a philosopher and a sinologist, to explore this issue. Looking through those photographs, Jullien realized that the nudes stood out and apart from the other images. He realized that, whereas “we can imagine a beyond to everything, … after the nude there is nothing more… It is the end, the very point of contact.” Jullien sees the nude as unchangeable and “invariable”—pure “essence.” There can be “variations,” Jullien agrees (such as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase [above]) , but no true “innovation” that can alter its “coherence and its autonomy.” Although it takes Jullien a while, he finally evokes the name of Plato as the father of this concept of “essence.”
Plato and the Ancient Greeks, Jullien writes, saw beauty as “stand[ing] out most among the visible: its power is to cause being to appear and bring it most clearly to our sight.” This beauty is the “vocation” of the nude, the aspect that allows it to stand out as something irreducible to anything else. The nude “consecrates” the Greek idea of form, which created the concept of “essence (the eidos).” For Jullien, the nude is the form “par excellence.”
In contrast, Chinese culture lacks any sense of Greek philosophy’s “form” or “essence.” Instead, all is process. Jullien points out that “classical Chinese has no verb ‘to be’”, a clear sign that they consider reality “not from the viewpoint of being but from that of processes (dao).” Western culture takes for granted that their sense of being is universally accepted. Jullien shows that this misconception can be traced in the attitudes surrounding the nude. By doing so, Jullien strongly argues the case that cultural and artistic attributes are not absolutes but rather choices. The West chooses to see reality as forms, with the nude the primary form of our reality (i.e., the bare reality we see each day). Chinese culture chooses to see the human form as just another manifestation of the energy (qi) flowing throughout all reality, giving priority to neither the individual human form or any other form of physical reality.
Because of this process-based viewpoint, Jullien says, “Chinese aesthetics demand that there should always be a ‘beyond’: a ‘beyond’ to words, to shape, to the taste of things… The nude, on the contrary, abruptly severs all possibility of a ‘beyond.’” The “dead end “ of the nude makes it an impossible concept for Chinese aesthetics. Like a shark, Chinese painting must constantly move, unlike the formally posed, immobile nude of the West. In landscape painting, Chinese artists created this sense of movement by showing scenes of transition, such as mountains coming through clouds (above) or other atmospheric effects caught at the midpoint.
In Part 2, “The Impossible Nude,” Jullien fleshes out his argument with examples from Chinese art and Chinese treatises on painting from the literari period. As a contrast, Jullien presents the art and treatises on art of Leonardo da Vinci as typical of the measuring, scientific, morphological, anatomical approach of the West. Whereas Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man shows man with clinical intensity, the Chinese saw man as just another part of an integrated landscape, nothing exceptional at all except in the sense that everything is equally exceptional. In Chinese art, Jullien writes, “the (clothed) human figure should ‘respond’ to the landscape and be in complicity with it, the scenery responding in turn… [L]ike the human body, the entire landscape vibrates with flowing breaths that pervade it.”
Jullien stresses that these anti-nude attitudes originated during the literati period in Chinese thought, but that they still linger today, citing the discomfort of modern Chinese art historians and curators with the idea of the nude that goes beyond issues of morality or the status of women. Even today, there is a language barrier between East and West in the translation of art texts. When Chinese art critics praise the “spirit” coming through an artist’s work, invariably Western translators, blinded by the Western concept of “the beautiful,” mistranslate “spirit” as “beauty,” replacing infinite process with the finite concept of beauty and losing the subtle difference between the two cultures.
Jullien’s work casts the Western concept of the nude in a whole new light against the example of Chinese art. He admirably achieves his goal of making us reevaluate Western concepts against those of the East, proving that the Platonism that pervades our aesthetics today is a choice and not a universal absolute. Oddly enough, to do this, he simplifies both cultures to an unsettling degree at times. “Can one speak of Chinese ‘tradition’ in such global terms, though?” Jullien asks at one point, answering “yes” for the purposes of his argument. Craig Clunas, fellow expert in Chinese art, might beg to differ with the usefulness of that simplification, but Jullien at least acknowledges this problem. I wish that Jullien could have found some room to discuss the case of Pan Yuliang, the woman artist who tried to bring the Western style nude to China in the 20th century and failed. (One of her nudes is above.) Jullien may have just lumped her in with the rest of the other Western-influenced nudes that he sees as “implant[s] … that could not be absorbed.” The intersection of Pan Yuliang’s roles as artist and woman in Chinese culture could have offered a fascinating case study to extend his argument.
Another interesting direction Jullien’s thesis could be taken in is in regards to the landscape. If the philosophical differences between the West and East make the nude “impossible” in the East, is it equally true that the Chinese concept of a landscape in which the human and nature are integrated is impossible in the West? I tried to think of a Western landscape that even came close to this integration and could only come up with Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits (above), but that may be due more to associations raised by the figures in the painting, Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant, than to any actual Chinese “spirit” in the painting. Perhaps, as Jullien says, landscapes in the West are merely “a decorative background against which the nude [or clothed figure] stands out.” Coming to such a realization of our culture’s alienation from nature seems terribly sad.
Maev de la Guardia does a masterful job of making Jullien’s philosophical concepts understandable, even when he rounds up the usual suspects of heavy footed ontology: Aristotle, Plotinus, Descartes, Saint Augustine, and Martin Heidegger, among others. Although the ostensible subject of this work is the how the aesthetics of the West and China differ, the glory of this book is how much these differing systems have to say about one another.
[Many thanks to the University of Chicago Press for providing me with a review copy of this book.]