Naked Intensity: Saul Leiter’s Painted Nudes by Mona Gainer-Salim

Between 1899 and 1936, somewhere amongst the dark-panelled cafés of central Vienna, the notorious writer and critic Karl Kraus penned the contents of Die Fackel, a weekly pamphlet immoderately crammed with reflections, observations, defamations, and above all, writing of the sharpest, most penetrating kind. Kraus identified the pulse of the times, took aim with his formidable needle, and injected the hottest debates in politics and culture with a good dose of insight and vitality (without shying away from a bloodbath). He insisted – much to the annoyance of his less painstaking contemporaries in the field of journalism – on the utmost rigour when it came to putting words to paper; style, he stormed, was the opposite of ornament – it was the very substance of thought. So indivisible are form and content in Kraus’s own writing that his precise phrasing is nearly untranslatable, but in his (delectable) choice of words he characteristically puts his finger on one of the richest, and at the same time the most exposed, veins of the prevailing cultural climate. In essence, das Kleid – the dress, a garment designed to flatter and conceal – is peeled away to reveal das Fleisch – flesh – not skin, mind you, but flesh, something far deeper, stranger.

This movement – the unsheathing of flesh from fabric – had captivated Western art for centuries, but it had perhaps never before been performed so openly, so flagrantly, as in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Like elsewhere in Europe, the city’s public build­ings were filled with murals of wispily clothed goddesses, its museums packed to the rafters with rosy Renaissance nudes, but these older works of art still walked the line between modesty and suggestion, careful not to trip and fall on the wrong side. Outside these walls, however, something more wide-reaching and uncompromising was afoot. Egon Schiele was undressing his models with unpre­cedented candour, almost aggression, allowing no unlovely curve or cavity to go unprobed. Arthur Schnitzler unravelled in his prose the conventions and inhibitions of the modern age, dissecting the tangled tissue of desires underneath. Freud was uncovering the deepest mechanisms of the human mind. No matter how diverse their fields of endeavour, the artists and intellectuals of the time seemed determined to complete the tentative, teasing gesture of their predecessors. Where Bernini and Titian had flexed the muscles, where Goya had languidly lifted the dress, the greats of early 20th century Vienna got at the flesh.

Perhaps New York in the ’60s and ’70s was not so dissimilar from Vienna in 1910. Both were turbulent cities, heaving under the weight of uncontainable pressures. Energies that in calmer times were stifled and subdued erupted to the surface – socially as well as artistically. It was in this environment that the painter-photographer Saul Leiter developed the artistic tendencies that would shape his practice for the rest of his life. This unassuming but ferociously single-minded figure delighted in photographing the streets of New York, focusing above all on the rounded, the sensuous and the colourful. Leiter’s approach was both informed by, and divergent from, the eminent photographic traditions of the time. ‘Out of a vocabulary invented by Lewis Hine, Ben Shahn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans’, writes Jane Livingston, ‘Leiter crafts a new kind of poetic imagery.’ Like the New York School photographers of the 50s and early 60s, Leiter was captivated by ‘the fleeting and the candid’ (Livingston), but he infused them with a lyricism and a delicacy that were quite his own. In his own studio he painted in the abstract, planes of colour kissing at unruly horizons – but he declined to work on the giant canvases of his contemporaries, much preferring the pages of notebooks and the covers of old books. His heroes were the Impressionists – devotees of colour and light – not the gloomy, apocalyptic Expressionists of the late Habsburg empire. And yet, for all this remoteness in place, time and even inclination, Leiter is part of the arc that began somewhere on the Italian peninsula in the 15th century and culminated in the early 1900s in Vienna, a Baroque metropolis hovering on the verge of disaster. Leiter is unmistakably, triumphantly, of the flesh.

Taken alone, neither Leiter’s paintings nor his photography can fully testify to this kinship. It is only when they are combined, in his painted nudes, that it reveals itself. Leiter created hundreds of these works, combining two media that were traditionally kept scrupulously apart. There have always been photographers, however, who have sought to expand the medium’s narrative possibilities by escaping the confines of the lens. Consider, for example, William Klein or Nobuyoshi Araki, both of whom devoted serious attention to the painted photograph, or even Gerhard Richter, who developed highly original and multifaceted explorations of the form. Like these artists, Leiter recognized that the photograph could supply him with myriad qualities that would excite any painter. Much like a sketch, it provides an underlying geometry – a landscape of shapes – that guides the strokes of his brush. Its surface alters the paint’s behaviour; a matte ground will hungrily absorb layers of paint, while a glossy finish touched with a water-heavy brush forms erratic rivulets. Unlike a stretched canvas, a printed photograph will easily crease or tear – accidents Leiter embraced, permitting these wrinkles and folds to become organic constituents of the image.

Indeed, the painted photographs are guided by an affinity for texture. Flat or furrowed, smooth or coarse, the photographs’ surfaces are further enlivened by the rich, earthy quality of many layers of paint. Leiter was known to add to his work continuously, sometimes over the course of decades, accruing new layers and scratching at old ones. The effect is intensely tactile; the painted nudes not only captivate the eye, but invite the fingertips. Further, as many artists have remarked, paint has a singular penchant for mimicking flesh. Lucian Freud said, ‘I want paint to work as flesh. I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them.’ Ductile and sensuous, paint hugs the flat photographic forms of Leiter’s nudes in a tailor-made mantle. Gentle sea-blue washes are punctuated by bold, assertive strokes in bright pink and yellow. Strands of the women’s hair, formerly grey, become vivid red tendrils, while their bodies are made radiant by streaks and patches of colour, variously soft and diaphanous, deep and opaque. The effect is of a turbulent maelstrom of colour, created with impulsive, almost dancing brushstrokes. In these painted nudes, colour seems to have been unleashed; it is a carnival, a riot, an irresistible force. Or perhaps – it bears contemplating – these painted nudes have unleashed colour.

In his short, keenly perceptive book Chromophobia, David Batchelor suggests that the connection between colour and the female nude is far from tenuous. Throughout the ages, he argues, the West has had an uneasy, at times positively paranoid, relationship with colour – not at all dissimilar to the suspicion it has attached to the feminine. The roots of this prejudice reach back as far as Greek antiquity; Aristotle was amongst the first to expound his distaste for colour, dismissing it as a superficial quality that would always play second fiddle to the crisp precision of line. Ever since, a vocal contingent of artists, philosophers and writers have fallen in line behind Aristotle, developing a formidable discourse that either relegates colour to the realm of the cosmetic and the ornamental, or aligns it pejoratively with the primitive, the irrational and the sensual. In their time, artists as well-established as J. M. W. Turner had to contend with critics who accused them of ‘chromomania’ – an unbecoming adoration for colour.

Underlying both these trends is a kind of panic that colour – this shapeless, dazzling property – could destabilize and overcome the painstakingly drawn boundaries the West has erected between mankind and nature, order and chaos, depth and superficiality, male and female. (It is hardly a coincidence that a boundary, represented in a work of art, translates into a line.) Colour, in its irreverence of line and form, threatens the constructs that allow man to define himself, so it must be suppressed, controlled, or passed over in scorn. So it is with the feminine, which has been endowed by the Western imagination with the same dangerous associations as the colourful – the feminine is to the masculine as emotion is to reason, as pleasure is to discipline, as the body is to the mind.

No matter how tangled and contradictory this web of opposites may be, it is bound to the bedrock of Western civilization, going back to the moment of Eve’s creation – before she had ever made the acquaintance of a certain reptile. When God sees that Adam cannot find a suitable companion among the animals in the Garden of Eden, he puts him into a deep sleep. He then takes a rib from Adam’s torso and moulds it into Woman. As soon as he wakes, Adam makes a resounding declaration: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Unlike Adam, who is made of the dust of the earth, Eve is made of the very material of Adam’s body. She is unique among all the creatures in the Garden, for she is not entirely of God, but of Man. Furthermore, Adam’s yearning for Eve is not a yearning for a fellow mind to accompany him in his life – he has God for that – but above all, subversively (even before such an idea could be articulated), for a fellow body. Eve is thereby linked from the start to a desire that is foreign to God. Eve embodies a threat; through her body, she hints at the possibility of an overpoweringly deep connection between humans, which risks cutting God out of the equation altogether.

Adam’s sons have tried hard to align themselves with God, causing the need to draw a decisive line – black on white, the sharpest possible contrast – between themselves and womankind. Despite the rigidity of this boundary, the feminine, epitomized in the female nude, allows a tantalizing glimpse of what life might be like in its absence. Like colour, the feminine causes this line to waver momentarily, calling into question its need to exist at all. Far from being superficial, both colour and the feminine are deep qualities, stifled and hooded by surface constructions such as lines (confining) and skins (hiding).

Among Leiter’s photographs of nudes, there are many that he did not paint. Those that remain black-and-white are lovely in their own right: nimble bodies in subtle shades of grey, enchanted by the play of light on their skin. But perhaps, despite their nudity, there remains something opaque or aloof about them, as though there is much more to them than meets the eye. Stripped of their clothes, their divestment is still incomplete. They keep their secret.

Leiter’s painted nudes, I think, venture further along on the path to this secret than most depictions of the female nude dare, succeed, or care to go (there is also something to be said for preserving the secret). Throughout the 20th century, many of those who have positioned themselves outside the dominant ‘chromophobic’ mentality have suggested that ‘Man . . . is exiled from his coloured soul’ by the constructs of language and conceptual thought (Yves Klein). Remembering the experience of taking hallucinogenic drugs, Aldous Huxley writes that ‘all colours are intensified to a pitch far beyond anything seen in the normal state . . . our perception of visionary objects possesses all the freshness, all the naked intensity, of experiences which have never been verbalised, never assimilated to lifeless abstractions.’ In other words, colour is stifled by the complex artificial systems man has imposed on the world.

Colour is true nakedness. Colour is flesh.

The women in Leiter’s painted photographs are truly, radically naked – with all that this state implies: ecstasy, release and escape, but also madness, confusion and loneliness. Paradoxically, by painting on the skin’s surface, Leiter has penetrated it, revealing the brilliant colour that lies underneath. The exposed flesh has none of the skin’s smoothness and opacity, but is messy and unstable, unsettling but at the same time resplendently beautiful. It tells a tale of the proximity of beauty and ugliness, of love and death, despite the concerted cultural effort to keep them apart.

Colour is not only in the nudes, but also fills the space around them. The nudes are nestled in a tumultuous field of coloured planes, threads and patches. They are always framed closely, enhancing the intimacy of the setting, which is usually a snug interior space, such as a bed covered in blankets. These backgrounds bleed freely into the nudes, and the nudes bleed back into them; the supposedly inviolate line separating the body from its surroundings is broken up, muddied and dissolved. The threat is twofold: not only is the distinction between human and nature blurred, but the illusion of the integrity of the individual body is tarnished. If flesh can touch flesh, the explosive force of this union could vanquish all the hard-won achievements of civilisation: order, stability and exclusivity. This fear is as ancient as the world it has created; it is God’s fear when, in response to Adam and Eve’s clandestine repast, he clothes them in skin to separate them, thereby foreclosing the volatile power they can only access together. And of course, it is Eve who unleashes this threat in the first place, so it is woman who is further from God, who carries within her the most sensuous appetite for life, the greatest and most boundless reservoir of colour.

Leiter’s painted nudes may tap into a more original state of being, but it is wrong to say that they are a return to the Garden of Eden. For all that can be said about them as a group, these nudes are also unmistakably individuals who have accumulated identities and personal histories unique only to them. They are not ignorant of desire nor of its darker companions, despair and solitude. Above all, they know the power of their bodies as repositories of a vigorous life force. Colour treats the nudes in broad, general terms, unleashing an energy they hold in common, but it is the geometry of their bodies that acquaints us more intimately with them as individuals. Some of the women exude confidence, limbs spread wide in careless abandon. Others are more introverted, chins inclined and arms tucked in close. One woman is seen through soft washes of colour, purple and frayed as algae. Face delicately averted, she seems to float through layers of a dream, a sunflower in a shallow sea. Many of the nudes are undoubtedly erotic, whether they boldly stare down the lens or seem oblivious to its presence. Often, one gets the sense that the pleasure they are experiencing is private, as though no one else were in the room.

Colour and geometry are the point where the painting and the photograph converge. This is where the two need each other, greedily; colour craves a form to animate, while form needs colour to release its most visceral life. There is a real sense that both of these elements are ravenous, desperate to swallow each other up. Again the site of the battle is the boundary, the line between the human and the disorderly, libidinous morass that does not have the privilege of being included in this definition. The line that colour wants to erase, and that geometry depends upon. Apparent opposites, colour and geometry seem to desire nothing more than to eradicate one another, but they equally yearn to be united on the only appropriate battleground: the body of the female nude.

Coming to the end of this discussion, I find myself needing to revise the timeline I suggested at the start. The movement of which Leiter is a part – that unbearably slow undressing that involves discarding so much more than clothes – has not been centuries, but millennia, in the making. Its first artistic muscles may have been flexed in the Renaissance, but the first neuron crackled to life when Eve first appeared before Adam. The epic transmission that began at that moment encompasses everything from Palma Vecchio’s tentatively exposed décolletés to Lucian Freud’s unsparingly mottled bellies and shrivelled genitals. A faint pulse is even evident in Turner’s chromomanic brush. Before the early 20th century, artists had to make do with hints and suggestions; after that artistic eruption, closely followed by two horrifying world wars, there was no longer any escaping the vulnerability of flesh, its entanglement with death and decay alongside life and fertility.

Perhaps the single closest sibling to Leiter’s painted nudes, both in time and in spirit, are Henri Matisse’s blue nudes. Were it not for their subject matter, these cool blue shapes, cleanly set against white backgrounds, would seem far removed from the multicoloured, mercurial realm of flesh. And yet, they pull off the same visual trick as Leiter’s nudes. It is as though the blue shapes were not pasted onto paper, but as if the white paper had been cut to reveal the colour underneath; colour that had always been there.

This is the image I want to leave you with. A small movement within a colossal one. Leiter picks up a brush from a cluttered table. It is a wide, soft one, the kind whose bristles feel like a caress. He has laid out a photograph on the table, a nude, who looks challengingly up at him. With no need for paint or water, he touches the dry brush to her grey skin, wiping gently as though with a sponge. When he takes it away, we see a bloom of colour. A sliver of flesh.


Saul Leiter – Painted Nudes is available to purchase here.

Mona Gainer-Salim was born in Vienna, studied literature and fine arts in Paris, and now lives and works in London as the commissioning editor of Sylph Editions. She is a founding member of the celebrated LiMon team, an alliance of linguists, editors, writers and neurologists.

Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter