Body of Art

Take It Easy: 9 20th-Century Masterpieces That Remix the Reclining Nude

Body of Art
Take It Easy: 9 20th-Century Masterpieces That Remix the Reclining Nude
Henry Moore's Reclining Figure: Angles, 1979

Despite the aesthetic iconoclasms that took place over the course of the tumultuous 20th century, some age-old artistic traditions are still very much alive. The recurring image of the reclining nude goes back at least 5,000 years and includes some of the best-known works from art history, but, as these works excerpted from Phaidon’s new book Body of Art show, the form remains a fertile site for experimentation and reimagining.

Click here to learn more about Phaidon's Body of Art and buy the book.

Marcel Duchamp

ÉTANT DONNÉS: 1° LA CHUTE D’EAU, 2° LE GAZ D’ÉCLAIRAGE ... Marcel Duchamp 1946-66

A weathered wooden door with brick surround fills one wall of the gallery in which Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas ...), is displayed. The door contains two eyeholes through which the viewer sees the figure of a reclining nude woman on a thicket of twigs, her legs spread and an illuminated gas lamp in her hand; a landscape and waterfall lie behind her. Duchamp (1887–1968) created this work in secret over 20 years, using two significant women as models. The first was a fellow artist, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins, with whom Duchamp had an affair from 1946 to 1951. Many of the figure’s body parts are cast from hers. The second is Alexina Matisse, whom Duchamp married in 1954; a cast of her hand holds the lamp. By hiding the figure’s face, and placing her strange genitalia at the center of the work’s only viewpoint, Duchamp destabilizes the conventions of the female nude. Rather than engaging in flirtatious interplay with the viewer, this nude is anonymous, aggressively sexualized, and seems both dead and alive. When first made public in 1969, a year after the artist’s death, Étant donnés caused a sensation, and its ambiguous treatment of the female nude continues to disturb and fascinate audiences.

Henry Moore


With peaked, mountain-like knees, bulky thighs and protruding breasts, this reclining figure supports its large, angular frame with an out-stretched arm. The other arm, sharply angled and projecting away from the torso, contrasts with the sinuously curving back. The face, turned 90 degrees, gazes intently, as if distracted by some nearby event. The large-scale bronze draws inspiration from a mixture of primitive and classical forms, most notably a Toltec-Mayan sculpture from Chichen Itzá known as Chacmool. Moore (1898– 1986) first discovered the Chacmool, which depicts an ancient rain god, in a book on Mexican art. In 1924, during a visit to Paris, he saw a plaster cast of the Pre-Columbian sculpture; it was a profoundly influential encounter, and the image of the reclining woman came subsequently to dominate his work. For this reclining figure, Moore attempted to capture the Chacmool's mixture of vitality and solidity in its occupation of space. Its horizontal pose and strangely proportioned physique suggests strong connections with the landscape. The finished work, intended to be viewed in the round, displays a heightened unity between space and form, whereby the voids of the body were just as important as its solid elements.

Marlene Dumas

Snow White and the Broken Arm

In the original fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, first published in 1812, seven dwarfs discover the lifeless body of Snow White after she has bitten the Queen’s poisoned apple. The distraught dwarfs lay her body on a bier and weep. Dumas (b.1953), with a characteristically cold and dirty palette of grays, blues and blacks, appropriates, twists and confuses this scene: are the dwarfs now possessed and leering children? Is the Polaroid camera that the woman clutches a replacement for the poisoned apple? Is she sleeping or is she dead? Like all of Dumas’s work, the image invites – demands – multiple readings. It has been suggested that this horizontal nude calls on Holbein’s unusually elongated corpse in The Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb , as well as Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare , in which a vicious imp sits on a sleeping woman’s chest, as if conjured into existence by her own tormented unconscious. However, since the artist uses a wide variety of source material – from photographs, newspapers and film archives – no single reference triumphs. Instead, Dumas turns the body into a site of open contestation. As a white native in South Africa who witnessed Apartheid, this is not without its significance.

Yasumasa Morimura

Portrait (Futago)

Yasumasa Morimura’s (b.1951) art is never quite what it seems. In school in Japan, Morimura was taught only the history of Western art, not Asian, and for his "Daughter of Art History" series he restaged famous paintings from the Western canon, using elaborate scenery, props, costumes and make-up. Morimura has assumed the role of protagonist in masterpieces by Édouard Manet, Johannes Vermeer, Frida Kahlo, Rembrandt van Rijn and Leonardo da Vinci. In Portait (Futago), his reinterpretation of Manet’s Olympia , the female European prostitute is now an Asian male. In his re-appropriation of the odalisque (a slave or concubine in a harem who is usually depicted as a reclining nude), Morimura calls attention to the orientalism, and perhaps misogyny, in Manet’s work (which itself appropriated the odalisque of Ingres) and in Western art in general. While the African servant from the original painting remains in Morimura’s re-creation, the sleeping cat at the end of the bed has been replaced by a maneki-neko, a beckoning cat figurine that is believed to bring good luck. Morimura’s portraits of himself as famous women from Western art history and popular culture break down the binaries between male and female as well as East and West.

Guerrilla Girls

Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met Museum

Ripped from her original context, Ingres’s Grande Odalisque is set against a dazzling yellow backdrop. Her head has been replaced by a gorilla mask, the trademark of the group of anonymous American female artists known as the Guerrilla Girls, who created this provocative poster. Invited to design a billboard for the Public Art Fund, which supports public art projects in New York City, the Guerrilla Girls chose to draw a comparison between the number of female nudes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the number of works by female modern artists held by the same institution. The statistics revealed a glaring imbalance and highlighted the kind of sexual discrimination that is often observed in the art world. The poster was rejected because the shape of the woman’s fan was considered too phallic (the nudity met with no objection). Forced to self-fund the project, the Guerrilla Girls rented advertising space on New York buses until the bus company also protested that the image was too suggestive – again, not due to the nudity, but because "the figure appeared to have more than a fan in her hand". Subsequent versions were created and displayed in 2005 and 2012 without protest, although the quoted statistics remain very similar.

Mark Morrisroe
c. 1989

Untitled (Self Portrait)

Mark Morrisroe’s (1959–89) body, as well as his body of work, documents a life of both physical pleasure and damage. Morrisroe, who grew up in the midst of Boston’s punk scene and called himself Mark Dirt, first used his body to make money as a teenage prostitute. When a disgruntled client shot him in the back, he used X-rays of the wound to incorporate his body into his art. Like his contemporaries Nan Goldin (b.1953), Jack Pierson (b.1960) and Philip- Lorca diCorcia (b.1951), with whom he studied at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Morrisroe created intimate portraits of himself and his often marginalized community of friends and lovers. He used photography and aesthetics to understand and document both the joyful and painful aspects of his life. While many of Morrisroe’s 2,000 photographs document the vitality of his youthful body, other works document the artist after testing positive for HIV. In this self-portrait from 1989, the year he died from AIDS-related complications, he unabashedly presents his body, ravaged by the effects of the life he had led, as a pin-up or odalisque surrounded by the detritus of that daily life.

Hanah Wilke

Intra-Venus Triptych

Posthumously exhibited, Intra-Venus shows artist Hannah Wilke (1940–93) at various stages over the course of her treatment for lymphoma in a series of life size photographs taken with the assistance of her husband, Donald Goddard. As the title’s homonym "intravenous" suggests, many photographs show the effects on the body of invasive medical procedures. Chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant rendered her skin discolored, bruised and swollen, while intravenous tubes, sutures and post-surgical bandages mark the penetration of her body. Yet her face demonstrates dignity and at times a witty matter-of-factness. Wilke had often modeled in her own art, such as her "S.O.S. Starifcation Object Series" (1974–82), in which she parodied stereotypical women’s roles. Intra-Venus continued her critique of Western representations of the female body. The pun "intra-Venus" situates the work in the context of over two millennia of idealized sculptures and paintings of the goddess. Thus in some photographs she poses on a bed, like reclining nudes in traditional painting, or models with a vase of hospital flowers. All the photographs were exhibited in pairs (often displaying contrasting emotions), along with found objects, such as a cage full of syringes and prescription bottles, expressionist watercolor self-portraits she painted in the hospital, and abstract "drawings" made from strands of hair lost during the course of her treatment.

Lucian Freud

Benefits Supervisor Sleeping

Lucian Freud’s full-length portrait of Sue Tilley (a Social Security official who posed for the picture at night so as not to interfere with her office hours) responds to a long Western tradition of reclining female nudes, as seen for example in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus . Yet here Freud (1922–2011) daringly forsakes the idealized body of a traditional Venus with soft, luminous flesh and long slender proportions. Trough his unflinching realism and the deadpan, slightly overhead vantage point, which fattens the back- ground and thrusts the figure closer to the picture plane, Freud intimately exposes the aesthetic of a real body. He renders the pull of gravity upon Tilley’s flesh with sensitivity and observes subtle changes in skin tone – for example, the cooler flesh colors swirling around her right thigh transition to warmer yellow and pink on her knee. Freud treats paint as flesh by using heavy impasto to build the texture and shape of human forms. These forms resonate in the billowing cushions of the floral patterned couch, and the colors of the skin echo in the earth tones of the setting.

Zhang Huan

To Add One Meter to An Anonymous Mountain

As a young artist, Zhang Huan (b.1965) explored the limits of his own (usually naked) body in experimental performance works. He began his career while living in a small community of artists on the outskirts of Beijing. The avant-garde actions that they pioneered eventually led to the community’s closure by the police. Nevertheless, some of the artists continued to work together. This image documents one such collaboration: a performance work created by Zhang and enacted on 11 May 1995. The purpose of the action was to increase the height of a nearby mountain by a meter (just over 3 ft). Zhang had initially intended doing this by himself, confined in a steel box, but decided instead to enlist the help of colleagues. After surveyors measured the selected mountain, the eight male and two female participants took of their clothes and lay on top of each other in a pyramid formation. The mountain was then re-measured and found to be exactly one meter higher than before. When the performers left, the mountain remained unchanged, but the ephemeral extra meter they had created persisted, memorialized in photographs taken by other Beijing East Village artists.

Body of Art Book


a treasure trove of fine art from the world's most renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. We offer exclusive works you can't find anywhere else.


through exclusive content featuring art news, collecting guides, and interviews with artists, dealers, collectors, curators and influencers.


authentic artworks from across the globe. Collecting with us means you're helping to sustain creative culture and supporting organizations that are making the world a better place.


with our art advisors for buying advice or to help you find the art that's perfect for you. We have the resources to find works that suit your needs.


Artspace offers you authentic, exclusive works from world-renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. Collecting with us helps support creative culture while bringing you art news, interviews and access to global art resources.