The nude in art is one of the greatest means of expressing individuality. It bypasses the status of clothes and symbols and drives the focus towards character through body and facial expression. The nude asks the viewer to share their deeper, more personal thoughts about how they feel about who they are, their dreams, and their deepest beliefs.
Looking at Peter Schipperheyn’s Zarathustra we see a larger-than-life-sized man, arching back, and his head thrown back at an intense angle – the chin raised above the forehead. The body’s tone is taut, yet there is relaxed fluidity from limb to limb. He has the body of a world-class athlete, such as the current tennis great, Roger Federer. The most prominent gesture is the back of the closed fist meeting the open, extended hand.
An abstract aspect of this sculpture is the arc of the entire body – from the heel to the tip of the head. It conjures up the form of a bow, or of a tree limb a limb pulled back. This, combined with the smack of the hand, creates the sense of a springing force. The raised heel is understated, yet very challenging for the artist – it would be much easier to sculpt the feet flat-footed. The raised heel shifts the lower body forward, balancing the backwards arc, and enhancing the athletic litheness. This curve gently pushes the crotch forward, giving the sense of unselfconscious ease.
When I started thinking about this sculpture, I got up from my chair, went into the middle of my studio, and spontaneously mimicked the pose – arching my back, and slapping the back of my fist against my open hand. My gut feeling was of being seventeen years old and coming to an important decision to act. All of us know the depressing quality of procrastination, the inability to follow through. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the moment of coming to a resolution. Here we have a man who is forever springing up. He conveys what the Nike commercial recommends: Just Do It.
The artist, Peter Schipperheyn, explains: “My figure could only be nude; the body is the ‘spirit’ clothed by flesh, creation conscious of itself, the moment between being and becoming.”
A friend, Lance Davey, who has enjoyed playing the role of Henry V, described it this way:
“Shifting the hands down and getting the head in line shifted my perception immediately. You go from supplication…to ‘potential kinetic energy’…It looks as though he has drawn his body up and his breath…
“This EXACT thing happens in Shakespeare’s Henry V (though more violently), the tempo and the building energy of the delivery of:”Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to his full height!”
“It builds and builds and builds then peaks at ‘height’… then WOOOOOOOOSH the balance tips and out comes that pent-up energy with:”ON, ON! You noblest English!”That sculpture I think is in that pause…”
The real Zarathustra, the man who inspired Nietzsche, was active approximately at the time of Homer, pre-sixth century B.C.E. Zarathustra is known for his formulation of the concept of free will and for his belief that active participation in life, through good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, is necessary to ensure happiness and to keep chaos at bay.
The concepts of free will and active participation dovetail nicely with Schipperheyn’s vision of the sculpture. That vision came to him in a dream. Then a friend with the right body type was willing to pose for a smaller version of the work. The construction of the monumental work began twenty years later, with a commission by Dame Murdoch. The title came to Schipperheyn during the process of making it.
To comprehend the full import of this sculpture, it is important to grasp the meaning of two of its elements: nudity and completeness.
Clothes in art are symbols identifying the subject’s time, nationality, and position in the world. They tell us about the subject. Think of Egyptian sculptures and how the state and religious symbols of staffs, ceremonial collars, and head gear drape the people. But if we focus on the expression of the people, they come across as stiff and formal, as if they are only stand-ins for the role of king, priest, or god.
The nude figure is completely different. Once the artist removes the status symbols of clothes, we get to the truth of the human spirit. The artist must show us the meaning of the work – not tell us – through the sensual intimacy of body language and facial expression. We might say that we are seeing the figure’s psychology: how he is when alone with himself. The nude extends the range of knowledge about the person; we witness his intimate individuality.
The second characteristic is completeness. Like nudity, completeness has symbolic connotations. The complete, the whole, is what we generally believe to be god-like. “We’re only human” is often used as an excuse not to be whole and to indulge a human failing. There is an amusing anecdote about Greek sculptors leaving a blemish so as not to anger the gods with their figures’ perfection.
In Zarathustra, the whole body is presented, from spot-on proportions to the refined detailing of veins, toes, and fingernails. There are no lobbed limbs, no mangled flesh, no deformities, no unhealthy extra fat, and no Achilles’ heel.
To make images of such god-like, idealized, nude human beings often provokes cultural conflict, because there is little that is Christian, Jewish, or Muslim about them. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image . . . You shall not bow down to them or serve them . . . I am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:3-6) “[A] Muslim artist [is] constrained . . . by the general prohibition preventing any figural treatment of the divine or human countenance . . . for only God can create.” (Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction, by Oliver Leaman)
Nude heroic sculpture must pose quite a threat, to be dismissed by one of the Ten Commandments.
One puzzle about contemporary individualism is that it seems to have no cultural identity. Postmodernism and its art could be a symbol of freedom to go your own way, including the freedom to shock and the right to do almost anything. But is that really what individualism is for?
It is interesting to note that the cultures that embraced the heroic nude – Ancient Greece, the Italian Renaissance, and many countries in the nineteenth century – simultaneously made monumental advances in politics, science, and philosophy.
If we are going to move forward into a culture of flourishing individualism, then there is no better symbol for its beginning than Schipperheyn’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Published in The New Individualist April 2008