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  • The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics
  • Christian Helmut Wenzel
The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics. By François Jullien, translated by Maev de la Guardia, with photographs by Ralph Gibson. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. 136. Hardcover $40.00.

The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics by François Jullien is a small book that is well translated and full of ideas.1 Jullien argues—and illustrates—that the nude was not possible in China. The nude, he shows, is not just a naked body, but an idealization, an expression of essence and form, sensible, intellectual, and divine. It freezes a moment in time and evokes the eternal. The nude would not have been possible without the Greek metaphysics of logos, eidos, and hulē, form and matter. Viewed against this background—and assuming that it matters for the nude—it is no wonder that the nude cannot be found in China, where one simply does not have this metaphysical background, but instead is focused on transformation, process, resonance, movement, continuity, the indirect, the allusive, and the indicial. In Chinese painting it is not formal resemblance and fixation that counts, but grasping the energy of qi, the internal coherence of li, and the transmission of spirit, chuan shen. This also leads to an explanation of why in Chinese painting landscapes have usually been favored over human figures in general, not to speak of the nude. These, then, are the basic ideas of the book.

The nude can be found all over Europe (p. 10), in sculpture, painting, and photography, and even in the church—in Adam and Eve, the Pietà, the Last Judgment, and the crucified Christ (pp. 13–14). Although the church banned nakedness, it did not ban the nude. The nude is simply different from nakedness. It is not a diminished state, something stripped, laid bare, an object of shame and pity (p. 4). Rather, it offers a view of eternity and essence (p. 26). "The nude is better suited than anything to embody the essence of the beautiful" (p. 121). It is the "embodiment of our quest for the model, archetypal 'primary form' to be reached through sensible form" (p. 65). It "abstracts 'Man"' (p. 54) and is metaphysical: "all true nudes are metaphysical" (p. 22).

How does Jullien arrive at this picture? He claims that the nude is a pose that fixes form, and that this concept of form is rooted in Greek metaphysics, in eidos and morphē. "The existence of the nude is made possible primarily by what, with the Greeks, we came to understand by 'form"' (p. 33). For this he goes back to Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Plato asked what beauty is, in itself, in its essence, auto to kalon (p. 120), and Plotinus linked beauty not just to form, eidos and logos, but also, and in particular, to the human body (p. 33). Bodily beauty "participates" in rational principles derived from the gods. Thus, the nude has been possible only through Greek "morphology," morphē, and the Platonic world of Ideas, eidos, and logos (p. 63).

The nude freezes movement and form. It immobilizes and reaches for eternity. "Je suis belle, ô mortels! comme un rêve de pierre," Jullien quotes Baudelaire (p. 90)—and the poem is indeed titled "La Beauté." But Jullien also offers another, quite different aspect of the genre in support of his claim. Nude painting and nude sculpture [End Page 240] are based not only on form, but also on anatomy. Greek sculptures not only have the right proportions, they even show the muscles and tendons. Later, Leonardo da Vinci was explicit about this: "In showing the movement of a limb," the painter had to be "familiar with the nature of the nerves, muscles, and tendons," and "the method is a scientific one" (p. 56). A painter had to understand the "causality of forces": he had to "dissect the composition of forces, analyze movements in terms of thrust and traction, evaluate the points of exertion, and determine the bearing points. At once geometrician and physicist, he builds axes, deduces centers of gravity and support, makes his calculations in terms...