Just so we know where we stand, there will be a lot of nudity in this post and so if you are offended by pink bits, probably best you give this one a miss. However, if you are partial to a spot of nudity, come on in, the water's lovely...
|Phryne Before the Areopagus (1861) Jean-Leon Gerome|
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Victorians could not cope with pubic hair. Possibly the first thing you will hear about John Ruskin, esteemed art critic and godfather of Pre-Raphaelitism, is that he was startled by his wife's lady-garden on their wedding night. Even though this explanation of Effie's cryptic note that Ruskin was 'disgusted with my person' was only put forward in the 1960s by Mary Lutyen (who later withdrew it), it has lingered in such a powerful way that it was included in the recent Ruskin-bashing movie Effie Gray. The point of this post is to look at how far that is true and more importantly, who are we to mock?
|Rolla (1878) Henri Gervex|
I think there is no doubt that an awful lot, the vast majority, of images of nudity, both male and female, in the nineteenth century do not show pubic hair. That judgement seems to be applied predominantly to us up-tight English-types, but as demonstrated by the glorious Rolla above, the French were no better. The nude on the bed has no hair, either in her armpits or lower down. She is as smooth as a marble statue, and a neat and tidy as can be.
|Venus of Urbino (1538) Titian|
In a way it's rather an unfair criticism to level at the 19th century when it seems that before that point in art public hairs weren't freely sprinkled over the nudes. Raphael, Pre-Raphael and Post-Raphael all had smooth women, perfectly molded like dolls and men with little or nothing to show for their years. More often than not the hairiest thing on the canvas was a small dog.
|Legeia Siren (1873) Dante Gabriel Rossetti|
Looking again at the swathes of hairless Victorian nudes, what seems to happen more often than I had noticed previously is the mysterious floating fabric, covering up the area in question. As Rossetti so ably demonstrates, in olden days, floaty fabric roamed free in the wild and got caught on nudey ladies who were out for a stroll with their musical instruments.
|The Tree of Forgiveness (1882) Edward Burne-Jones|
|Phyllis and Demophoon (1870) Edward Burne-Jones|
Burne-Jones found out the perils of nudity, even hairless and tiny nudity. Phyllis and Demophoon was seen as a little scandalous (only a little, ahem) and so the errant Demophoon found himself covered up by a whisper of fabric to hide his tiny blushes.
|Female Nude (1891) James Watterson Herald|
In truth, the more you look at it, the more cunning artists seem in covering the problem. There is no problem with breasts, you can have boobs galore but when it comes to pubic hair or the lack therein, you can either have it out there like a smooth bump, like a pair of marble pants, or you can deploy a bit of posing. James Watterson Herald above has gone for the side-knee-bend, giving a small amount of modesty for the lower regions, while simultaneously making you look like you need the loo.
|Standing Female Nude (1907) Brian Hatton|
|The Pearl and the Wave (1862) Paul Baudry|
Of course, you can always show the woman from behind as bottoms offend no-one, apparently. If your model is willing and supple, she can twist her top half back (or twist her lower half round in what I believe is called the 'booty scooch' on America's Next Top Model) and give the double whammy of boobs and bum. When you start looking, there is actually far less visible loins than you'd think and even then, you could argue that those 19th century artists were just continuing the tradition of art where no-one sported hair that wasn't on their head. In fact, I would go further and say that the Victorians allowed us to get hairy. Yes, you heard me...
|Nude on a Couch (1880) Gustave Caillebotte|
There is an explosion of pubic hair (which sounds terrible) especially on the continent but also spreading over all regions. Start searching and French nudes become more anatomically correct around 1860 with Gustave Courbet's The Origins of the World but we can take some national pride in the fact that William Etty added a bit of hair to some of his nudes and James Mallord Turner's more risque sketches are shaded in the appropriate areas...
|Reclining Female Nude (1809) James Mallord Turner|
One reason for the growth of pubic hair in the 1860s (if you excuse the expression) could be the rise in photography and with it the predictable growth in pornographic imagery. Hurrah, we've invented a way of freezing astonishing and monumental moments in history! Let's take loads of photos of boobs and minky moo!
|Masked Prostitute imitating Devil Horns with her fingers (1890s)|
Photography meant that there was nowhere to hide. Long before Photoshop, it was perfectly alright to be as God intended in photographs and in fact in Victorian porn (as in life) there is no need to crop, airbrush, or in anyway disguise anything because perfection is a subjective thing. Plus, after all that underwear and outer wear, layers and layers of clothing, you'd be glad to see anything. Or, in fact, everything...
|Maude Easton in Folly Costume (1891) Edward Linley Sambourne|
Edward Linley Sambourne was a cartoonist for Punch and a very upright member of Victorian society (if you excuse the expression). He used photography to capture his models, including Maude Easton, in various positions which he transformed into political cartoons. There are plenty of photographs of Maude in the buff and they are of a quite traditional 'artist's model' type but then there is this. Fully clothed with her skirt pulled up, the rather startling centre of our focus is her pubic hair. She is coyly wearing a mask whilst sitting, legs apart. Similar in subject to The Origins of the World, it is unequivocally sexualised nudity, yet we see very little other than upper thigh and a lot of hair. Is it the hair that is indecent then? Are we all secretly of (fake) Ruskin's opinion?
What brought me along this train of thought was the viewing of a new Channel 4 series entitled Naked Attraction. It was the subject of a lot of shouting on Facebook and so intrigued and convinced it could not be as horrific as I had heard, I downloaded a couple of episodes. For those fortunate enough to have missed this visual treat, the premise is that an ideal way to find the love of your life is to see them stark naked to start with and so a lady (or gentleman) stands in the middle of six booths which slowly reveal the naked bodies on offer.
The climax, if you will, is when our picker has whittled it down to two naked people that they fancy and then has to strip off themselves before making their final choice. Flippin' heck. I was so astonished and horrified I had to watch all the episodes on offer to make sure. What caught my eye was the lack of pubic hair. If you are single and attractive then there can be no hair down there. All the women (and to be honest most of the men too, thanks to the back, sack and crack wax) had been groomed to within an inch of their lives and most of them had no pubic hair, revealing all manner of bits and pieces. One woman was judged to have 'a lot of hair' over her nethers but it was only the barest sneeze of fuzz that must have required a set square and many hours of waxing.
|Female Nude (1907) Brian Hatton|
So, what is my point? I think it can be argued that we have retreated from the realism and body acceptance that unwittingly grew from the 19th century and the birth of photography. We pride ourselves on being ever so liberated and relaxed about nudity but it is obvious you are only welcome to get naked (or in fact exist publicly) if you conform to a very strict set of appearance guidelines. We are hung up on what we look like and massive industries exist to make us aspire to be thin, young and hairless, and in mainstream modern pornography this trend continues because that is our pinnacle. We shy away in disgust from Victorian images of naked children yet seemingly wish to emulate their hairless, slender appearance.
For the Victorians, the novelty of having a photograph of a naked lady or gentleman was sexy enough, but we are many years down the line. Just as the camera brought erotic images to the left-hand of any curious individual, now the internet can show you anything you desire and a great many things you don't. If anything I would argue this has not made us more relaxed about the human form but more uptight, more punishing. If Maude Easton is your idea of sexy then Naked Attraction is definitely not for you because there is not any mystery, nor erotic celebration of the naked form, just a lot of people without a wisp of public hair among them.
In case you were wondering, that sound is John Ruskin saying 'I told you so' and then laughing...