Men Getting Women Naked and Yves Klein — Female Nudity in Art

Yves Klein's Anthropometry performance art, 1960

The resultant print of an Yves Klein Anthropometry

by Christopher Agostino

The post I wrote about possible origins of bodypainting in prehistoric times drew a comment that “man started bodypainting to get women naked” — I might have trashed it as flippant sexism until I saw it was from an accomplished painter with the right to say whatever he wants, Brian Wolfe. Another friend chimed in with the observation that way, way back then nakedness was probably the norm. Not today. The nakedness of the people we paint remains an issue for bodypainters, especially here in the U.S.—but I am not writing about that today (see the post:  is a painted body naked?   )

"Yves Klein Blue" (or "International Klein Blue" as he called it)

I did think of Brian’s comment in a different context: Yves Klein and his “Anthropometries”. Yves Klein is one of my heroes, one of the radical conceptual artists that could make art with their minds as well as their hands. There was the brilliance of Marcel Duchamp who reimagined the answer to “what is art?”, and then there was the playfulness of Ives Klein who invented his own color—what a concept that is, to invent your own color. I’ve had Yves Klein on the brain as I have been writing and thinking about the question “why body painting?”, because his Anthropometries are the first thing I think of when I think of “bodypainting as art”.

Anthropometry performance 1960

The linkage to Brian’s comment came from a review I’d read about a recent Klein retrospective at the Hirshhorn Musuem ( that opined that we (the viewer) have to confront the question of sexism in the Anthropometry performances. That there is something troubling about a formally dressed male creating art in public with completely naked women. I will add that they are being observed by a fashionably dressed audience of men and women and accompanied by a group of classical musicians, also formal in appearance. The only people naked in the room are the women serving as the objects of art. This is not a “happening” with everyone getting naked and painted. This is a lot of people with clothes on looking at naked women in an art gallery.

He took the naked women off the wall, out of the frame, right into the middle of the gallery. It is disturbing, and disturbing your audience is a vehicle for getting them to pay attention and engage with the art. Confronted by naked women being used as paint brushes, the spectators have to deal with the central role of the human body in art—especially the naked female form in fine art. And, from my perspective, that makes this the primary example of bodypainting as fine art because it so completely centers on the body in the creative process—there is no art here without the body as it is the naked body itself that makes this a process of art as the models cover themselves in his YKB paint and press themselves against the canvas, and it is the naked body that forms the resultant object of art in the prints that remain as the final product. The video from the Hirshhorn Museum (below) relays how Klein felt his hands were no longer enough to create art. He needed “living brushes”, the models themselves, to create an art form “designed to prevent that aesthetic objectivation which would give prevalence to the two-dimensional composition and make us overlook its bodily origins”—as analyzed by Michel Thévoz in The Painted Body. The text by Pierre Restany for the invitation card to Klein’s Anthropometry performance of 1960 makes the direct linkage between this act and those ancient origins of bodyart I write about: “The blue gesture released by Yves Klein runs back through forty thousand years of modern art to link up with the anonymous markings, the both sufficient and necessary markings in that dawn of our world, which at Lascaux and Altamira signified man’s awakening to self-consciousness and the world.” (See? I don’t just make all this stuff up.)

An "Anthropometry/Shroud"

To achieve that end, Klein not only needed to use the model as the brush, he needed the model to be naked. Nudity continues to have a radical role in art. Years ago I saw a modern dance performance in which the dancer was on stage alone completely naked. I believe the piece was called “Primate”, and she moved in an animal manner, comfortable in her nakedness, allowing the audience to consider what was so shameful about being naked? A recent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art included live naked people and directly addressed the taboo of nakedness in public. One part of the exhibit had two naked people standing in a doorway so that the museum visitor had to brush past them in order to get through the door, confronting their own feeling of discomfort being so close to a naked stranger. (I didn’t see this exhibit so this description is based on a critics’ radio interview about it. The exhibit:    Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present March 14–May 31, 2010  )

At the origins of bodyart, the nakedness of the person being painted was probably not an issue. We have a different relationship with our bodies now and bodypainting functions in a very different context. In his analysis of the bodyart of the Southeast Nuba, James Farris states that the most significant element of the bodyart is the medium it is produced on, the human body—but that’s in reference to a culture in which nudity and very minimal clothing is commonplace. To risk misappropriating Marshall McLuhan‘s work (which, according to Woody Allen, is easy to do) by linking him to this idea of Farris, if the “medium is the message” than what is the contextual message embedded in the medium of a naked body in public in our current, body-conscious, sexually excitable but morally prudish, American society?

Brian and Nick Wolfe painting their championship winning design at the World Body Painting Festival 2009

Regarding the question of sexism in Yves Kein’s Anthropometries, we are back to Brian’s comment about male artists getting women to take their clothes off. Looking at the male dominated history of fine art it is hard to argue with. As I thought about this, though, it occurred to me that if you took a survey of all the naked bodies in paintings and sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (most of which would have been created by male artists) the percentage of naked men vs. women depicted would be considerably higher than the relative proportion of male to female models at your average bodypainting competition or convention, and that’s an environment that will have as many female artists as males, so in the modern bodypainting world perhaps Brian’s comment needs to be expanded to say that everyone likes to get women to take their clothes off.

about Anthropometry, from the Hirschhorn Museum show:

a video of the live performance, in color, but with cheesy music rather than his original Yves Klein Monotone Symphony:

An excerpt from:  Art Review: Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers at the Hirshhorn, Washington, DC  By Alix MckennaJune 3rd, 2010 at 10:00 am

In one of Klein’s, racier projects, the Anthropometry series, the artist dressed to the nines and directed naked ladies while they painted themselves in IKB paint and impressed their bodies onto the canvas. Musicians played in the background and an audience of art lovers watched the spectacle. The impression of these bodies represented the energy and temporal nature of the human form. While Klein spoke about his Anthropometry pieces in cosmic and asexual terms, the edginess of the project cannot be denied and is one of its greatest strengths. The mysterious, headless impressions reduce women to their most elemental signifying components. Against a white canvas, we see cosmic blue breasts and thighs and stomachs. They are as primitive and as powerful as the Venus of Willendorf.

All the Yves Klein photos are from: Yves Klein Archives

An Yves Klein Anthropometry, 1960

An Yves Klein Anthropometry/Shroud

An Yves Klein "Firepainting" which used models as stamps and stencils in combination with fire

Yves Klein using the model as stencil for a firepainting

Yves Klein firepainting process

At the bottom is a a remarkable video with a great deal of Yves Klein footage in combination with works of his art:

Learn more at my Body Painting Page

2 comments on “Men Getting Women Naked and Yves Klein — Female Nudity in Art

  1. This information has been really useful to me as a practising artist who uses her body within video. Thanks

  2. Slim Pickins says:

    I want to correct a very essential mistake regarding your description of Klein’s process. You suggest the naked models “covered themselves” with YKB, but, in fact, Klein, as is countlessly evidenced by photo, mostly used his hands to rub the paint on the women’s bodies’ and used them as tools. They were nothing but objects to him. Objects to fondle, use and regard as dumb, headless bodies.

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