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In 1991, actress Demi Moore posed for a famous Vanity Fair cover photograph, taken by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. It exploded as a “meme,” and was copied many more times.

Soon, it became impossible for an aspiring starlet not to be seen naked and gravid on the cover of one magazine or other.

Leibovitz herself seemed to feel “ripped off” and sued when an ad featuring Leslie Nielsen used the pose to sell the film, Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult.

The courts didn’t agree with her, and anyway, we had moved on to other memes, including dancing cats on You Tube. The courts could hardly have decided otherwise, not only on the basis of fair use for parody, but because borrowing poses has been an essential tool in artists’ kit for millennia.

As Picasso didn’t actually say, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” Actually, that quote has been attributed not only to Picasso, but to T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky, but goes back at least to 1897, when a variant version was used by critic W.H. Davenport Adams. Even quotes get borrowed or “stolen.”venus and eve

L-R: Venus de Milo; Eva Green in The Dreamers (2003).

The examples are legion. My interest came to me through the paintings of Manet, Titian and Giorgione.

First let’s look at a few examples.

One of the most familiar is the pose of the “Three Graces.” It shows up in many forms in antiquity.3 graces antiquity

L-R: mural from Pompeii; statue in the Louvre; mosaic from Anatolia.

It was used by many Old Master painters.3 Graces renaissance

L-R: Raphael; Rubens; Pontormo.

And even later.3 Graces recent

L-R: Edward Burne-Jones; Henri Regnault; Leonard Nimoy.

You could find dozens of others.

Adam and Eve became such a meme, too. One version has Adam with his arms around Eve. It became used for other things, too.Adam&Eve trio

L-R: Jan Gossaert, 1520; Gossaert, Neptune and Amphytrion, 1517; Two Virgins album, 1968.

Or take the famous Botticelli painting, Birth of Venus. The pose, with the goddesses hands vaguely protecting her modesty, and you find it all over Classical art and Renaissance painting, to say nothing about one of the oldest figures in Western art.Birth of venus archetype

Or even Playboy magazine, which — probably not on purpose — imitates some other, more famous images.buns foursome

Top: Playboy; Gauguin. Bottom: Boucher; Modigliani

But the main course:Edouard_Manet_-_Olympia_-_Google_Art_Project_3

Victorine_Louise_Meurent_(1844-1927)Edouard Manet created a scandal in the 1865 Paris salon when he exhibited his Olympia, a nude featuring the model Victorine Louise Meurent dressed up — or rather undressed — as a prostitute. She wasn’t, by the way, and later became a painter herself. Here is what she really looked like in 1865.

Her pose in the painting is an obvious quote of two famous paintings of the past, Titian’s Venus of Urbino from 1538,venus of urbino by titian

and Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, from 1510 (and probably finished by Titian, after Giorgione’s death).Giorgione_-_Sleeping_Venus_-_Google_Art_Project_2

The salient points of the pose are the recumbent nude woman, with her calves crossed.

This is a pose that even Giorgione can take no credit for. It goes back to antiquity. Here she is from PompeiiAphrodite_Anadyomene_from_Pompeii_cropped

The full meme version is the Titian painting, with these other points that get “borrowed” over and over, including in the Manet version.venus of urbino with labels

olympia handNotice that the space of the painting is divided in half, near and far, and that there is a distinct vertical line that, in this case points downward directly to the model’s pudenda, which is caressed by the curling fingers of her left hand. This gesture is highly ambiguous: Is she really masturbating? Can a great master really have meant that to be our take-away?

In the Manet, the similar gesture is more assertive: Olympia uses her hand as a kind of gate to paradise for which she and she alone holds the key. You won’t get past that hand unless she gives permission.

There is also an animal in the picture, other subordinate people.

These elements are used over and over, not least of all by Titian himself, who used the pose, or variants in several paintings.jupiter&antiope titian 1535

Jupiter and Antiope from 1535.venus&cupid titian 1550

Venus and Cupid from 1550.Venus,venuscupid and organist titan 1548

Cupid and the Organist, from 1548.

venus, organist and little dog, titian 1550And then, more lasciviously, in the variant, Venus, Organist and Little Dog, from 1550, in which the so-called “male gaze” is fairly explicit, even comical.

But Titian is not the only artist obsessed with this pose. Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) painted nearly a dozen versions between 1515 and 1550, which he usually titled Nymph at the Fountain. Here are four of them.Cranach composite

She can’t quite figure out just what to do with that left hand.

Through so many of these paintings, note the presence of animals, the near-far background, the frequent strong vertical line bisecting the picture, and the frequent use of drapery behind the woman’s head.

Not all these paintings have all the components of the Ur-painting of Urbino, but each has some of the components.

Here’s a 1639 painting by Guido Reni, with the crossed legs, the drapery, the near-far and if there are no animals, well, Cupid at least has wings.reclining venus guido reni 1639

A 1540 painting by Paris Bordone, called Sleeping Venussleepingvenus bordone 1540

From 1523, a Sleeping Venus from Girolamo da Trevesisleepingvenus da treviso jr

From 1520 and Palma Vecchiovenus palma vecchio 1520

Even in the north, from Maarten von Heemskerk, in 1545Venus&cupid heemskerck 1545

And Jan Massys painted her as Flora in 1514023 Flora Jan Massys 1514  copy

While most of these come from the 16th century, the pose streches beyond, including this 1844 Nude Girl on Panther Skin by Felix Trutatnude girl on Panther Skin Felix Trutat 1844

Lord Frederic Leighton painted Cymon and Iphegenia in 1884, with the pose, but with Iphigenia modestly covered in draperyleighton iphigenia

He also did the nude version, Actaea Nymph on the Shore, in 1854.actaea-the-nymph-of-the-shore-1853 lord leighton.jpg!HD

And Paul Gauguin’s Noble Woman from 1896paul-gaugin-noble-woman-1896

There are many more. A pile of them are mirror images, with the nude on the right side of the painting.

Giulio Cesare Procaccini painted Venus and Cupids in 1625venus&cupids procaccini 1625

Palma Giovane in 1610 did Venus and Cupid at Vulcan’s Forgevenus&cupid at vulcan's forge giovane 1610

Lorenzo Lotto’s 1540 Venus and Cupid gets kinkyvenus&cupid lorenzo lotto 1540

Allesandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid from 1586venus&cupid Alles allori

Sebastiano Ricci’s Venus and Satyr from 1720venus and satyr sebastiano ricci 1720

I think you can even make a case for Piero di Cosimo’s Venus and Mars from 1490. Although, here it is Mars with the crossed legs. Still, animals.venus&mars piero di cosimo 1490

This is just a skim across the surface. I’m sure you can find many more examples of the reclining nude, legs crossed, with animals or cupids, with figures in the background and a wandering hand.

I’ll leave you with only three more:

Pablo Picasso’s parody, Olympia, from 19011901_pablo_picasso olympia

and Claes Oldenburg’s Pat, Lying as Olympia from 1959OldenPat,_Lying_as_Olympia 1959

And finally, E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville prostitute from New Orleans in ca. 1912bellocq13 copy

This meme gets around.

Sometime around 1515, the Venetian artist Titian painted a scene usually titled “Sacred and Profane Love.” In it, two women are seated at a marble well; one is nude, the other elaborately dressed. It comes as a shock to many Americans to find out that in this allegory, sacred love is represented by the naked lady.

And in general, Americans seem to have a difficult time with the nude in art. Maybe it is America’s Puritan heritage, maybe it is the low priority given art education in our schools.

Sometimes it’s just pig ignorance.

But to many Americans, the nude is something dirty, lewd and embarrassing. At the very least, nudity is equated with sexuality and eroticism.

As they said on “Seinfeld,” “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

We can laugh at the silliness of such a view, but it governs much of what Americans think about sexual morality, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who spent $8,000 in 2002 on blue drapes to hide two giant Art Deco statues — “The Spirit of Justice” and “The Majesty of Law” — at the Great Hall of the Department of Justice in Washington.

Certainly, there is a good deal of eros in art history.

Take for instance, Francois Boucher’s “Reclining Nude” from the French 18th century.

There is not much about this luscious painting that is different from, say a photograph with a staple in the middle.

An in America, too often, this is all that a nude is.

A few years ago, a woman in Tucson demanded that art and art books be removed from a public school, calling works by established masters ”pornographic and morbid.”

She was talking about Michelangelo’s “David” and Picasso’s  “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

What is more astounding is that she managed, at least temporarily, to have 10 art books and four posters yanked from the school. The works in question were by Edouard Manet, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin, Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco.

She said she considered El Greco a ”pervert.”

”We left the art teacher with about five books,” she said, with some pride. ”I took out anything with nudity in it. There’s no difference between a nude (in an art book) and a ‘Playboy’ picture.”

I’m not interested so much in the question of what is appropriate for fifth- and sixth-graders; there may be some legitimate concern for their sensibilities. Although, in this case, I doubt the kids are getting anything from Gauguin they haven’t learned long ago from Aaron Spelling.

But, I am very much interested in the widespread belief that nudes are necessarily pornographic.

Such a view ignores the evidence of centuries of art that has portrayed the human body for other, more complex purposes.

Varieties of nudity 

So what are those purposes? In other words, what does the nude mean?

All but a few cultures in the history of the world have had a place in their art for the undressed human body. Although it is probably more developed in European art than elsewhere, the nude body appears prominently in African, Persian, Hindu, Tibetan and Japanese arts.

It occurs with different meanings in them: In Chinese art, the nude is rare; the most frequent nudes are not sleek ideals of human form but fat Buddhist monks, looking like the sileni of Greek art.

But you will see that these are not different merely in style, but in purpose: These are all different meanings for the nude and the human form.

Of course, in the geography in which humans evolved, there was less need of heat-conserving hair. And in those climes, nudity has different cultural meanings.

And titillation is rarely the primary factor involved.

Like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib — Surely being made to exhibit themselves naked means more to them than it would to us, even if we feel humiliation in our nudity, how much worse is it for these Arab men?

In the temple art of India, nudity and copulation are used as a metaphor for the Cosmos. There is not one single meaning for the nude, but rather a series of layers of meaning that can overlap. Those layers run from the most primitive to the most sophisticated. There are at least four distinct layers of meaning to be addressed:

–> Appetite;

–> Intellect;

–> Power;

–> and Spirituality.

The first layer is really that of plumbing.   At the level of appetite, we have the gaze of the voyeur.

It is here we find everything from men’s room drawings to “Debbie Does Dallas” to the pillow books created by Japanese artists in the 18th century.

The faces mean little, the beauty or fitness of the physiques mean little. There is nothing going on but what Joseph Campbell has called the ”zeal of the organs for each other.”

All true pornography stops at this basement level.

And it is this level that most of the moralizing critics of the nude are stuck in, unable to see any higher.

The rippling of silk 

The second layer is that of both eroticism and idealization.

In both cases, the mind takes over from the organs and imposes standards.

Eroticism is the level at which the rippling of a silk dress is more arousing than raw flesh, with all its hair, bruises and cellulite. Pornography is stunningly literal-minded; eroticism is imaginative.

And eroticism’s flip side is the idealized nude of ancient Greece or “Playboy” centerfolds. In each case, an ideal form is held in the mind – an ideal the real world cannot actually live up to; hence the canon of Polyclitus, which defined the proportions of the perfect body, and the airbrush of Hugh Hefner.

When Sir Kenneth Clark wrote his famous book about the nude, he focused almost exclusively on this aspect of the figure in Western art: The idealization of beauty.

Here we find the pneumatic Boucher cuties and the massive Classic Zeus in bronze throwing his thunderbolt.

If pornography is often physically repulsive, no matter how fascinating, the idealized nude is  intended to be attractive. The idea of beauty enters into the equation.

The so-called Venus of Willendorf, from at least 24,000 years ago, found in what is now Austria. Is this an ideal of beauty? It is certainly an image of fertility. And fertility and beauty are often the same thing, when you live in a time and place that survival depends on fertility.

In Ancient Greece, where we generally start our narrative of Western art, the earliest statues were an expression of human perfection. And for the Greeks, human perfection meant the male human form. They worshipped male beauty. Greek vases are full of nude male bodies — athletes in the Panathanaic Games, for instance.

The early kouros was still rather stiff, by modern standards, but compared to what went before, in Egypt or Babylonia, it is a model of realism and accurate observation.

I don’t want to make this a chronological history. You have schools for that.

But you are familiar with lots of nudes in European art from the Renaissance to now.

Rather, I want to look at some thematic ideas, how the nude changes meaning.

The body still remains, however, essentially an object rather than a person.

How the world works 

We’ve seen the erotic nude, but that’s not all there is.

A third level, above the erotic and the idealized, is the level of power and the political, psychological and scientific.

What does the nakedness here tell us? It tells us these people are powerless, humiliated, tortured and suffering.

There is a famous picture by Imogen Cunningham of a young woman with her head and hair hanging off the edge of a bed. It is erotic.

But put it beside this and you see the similar pose with a completely different meaning.

No one who has seen pictures of naked Jews herded into the showers of Auschwitz can fail to recognize the political significance of nakedness. It functions to underline the powerlessness of the victims and their vulnerability.

Context makes a huge difference.

And in Manet’s famous painting, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” the message that comes through is ostensibly erotic, but in reality is political: Two fully clothed middle-class men are having a picnic with two nude women.

The ridiculousness of the scene makes fun of the traditional power relationship between men and women. The painting pointedly comments on such earlier paintings as Georgione’s “Fete Champetre,”   in which two Renaissance courtiers talk animatedly with each other while attended by two docile and idealized nude women.

And it comments on such popular paintings of Manet’s time as Gerome’s “Slave Market,” in which clothed men paw over a nude woman, checking her teeth before purchasing her.

Gerome’s painting is merely a salacious bit of kitsch; Manet’s is biting and political. (One shouldn’t discount the tacit political message in the Gerome, probably unnoticed by the painter: Who has the power here? It isn’t the woman.)

It’s no wonder that “Dejeuner” was declared indecent while such paintings as the “Slave Market” made Gerome a wealthy man: By making his figures  bourgeois, Manet was pointing a finger at his audience. It is political commentary.

Many left-wing feminist critics of the nude get just as stuck in this level as their Christian right-wing counterparts get stuck in the first.

But the power I’m talking about at this level isn’t only political power. It is the power of  humankind over itself and the power to understand the world it lives in.

For instance: If Renaissance artists hadn’t become obsessed with drawing the nude figure, modern life expectancy would likely still be short and brutal. Modern medicine could not have developed without such artists as Leonardo and Michelangelo taking an interest in how the human body looks and how it is put together.

Before the Renaissance, Gothic artists created the figures they used to decorate the cathedrals from their imagined forms. If a figure had a torso, two legs, two arms and a head, it was enough. The bones, muscles, tendons and sinews that lay underneath the surface might as well not have existed.

”It seems rather as if you were looking at a sack of nuts than a human form, or at a bundle of radishes rather than the muscles of nudes,” wrote Leonardo of unobservant figure drawing.

But the Renaissance brought with it an interest in how the world works, how the parts of the body work.

Those artists studied the world around them intently. And to them, the most interesting thing in the universe was humankind. The human figure was to them the most perfect and beautiful form found below the level of the angels.

”Who is so barbarous as not to understand that the foot of a man is nobler than his shoe, and his skin nobler than that of the sheep with which he is clothed?” wrote Michelangelo.

In other words, clothes are trivial, the naked human body, essential.

But even at this level, so much more profound and moving, the figures still represent ideas and are not fully humanized, not fully individualized.

Empathetic encounters  

At its highest level, the nude represents spiritual virtues, unencumbered by fashion. The nude is universally true. That is why Titian’s sacred love must not wear the silks and finery of her earthly sister.

Angels are nude, and so are the putti, or cherubs, that flit around so many Baroque allegories.

Michelangelo’s designs for the Sistine Chapel are monumental nudes for that reason, and for another:

When art is most profound, it draws us out of  ourselves and forces us into an empathetic encounter with things and people who are radically different from us.

It is not possible to view the figures of the Sistine Chapel with any intensity and not feel your own body compared with them. Their sinews are your sinews; their contorted muscles are yours.

It is why the nude is used for the most profound tragedies in art: the nude Pieta and the Crucifixion, to name two very Christian uses of the nude.

Angels are often drawn as putti, or cupids, in part for their association with innocence.

We look at one of Matthias Grunewald’s tortured crucifixions and cannot help but feel the pain in our own flesh.

In all the greatest art, we are thus drawn out of ourselves and identify with the grace, power, suffering and love of others and come to escape   the isolation — and loneliness — of the ego. We recognize the similarities of all humanity and not its petty differences.

Whatever it means in religious dogma, the Christ is symbolic of our own mortality.

A lot of wind has been spent on the argument over whether there are any universal truths in the world. So many of the old Truths now seem mendacious. But there are two truths that are inescapable. We die, and people we love die. Loss is central to the human experience. It is why Michelangelo’s “Pieta” is meaningful, even for the atheist.

Our recognition of our humanity is one of the highest aims art can attempt.

It is why Rembrandt’s nude portraits of his two wives are so compelling, why Goya’s “Disasters of War” are so frightening.

And not only are the figures in the art thus humanized, but the viewers are as well.