TATE’S NAKED AM­BI­TIONS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

The ti­tle of the Art Gallery of NSW’s sum­mer ex­hi­bi­tion from the Tate im­plies that the nude is a sub­ject in art. In fact it would be hard to deny that this is true in some sense: un­clothed bod­ies abound in art from the Re­nais­sance — it­self in­spired by the ex­am­ple of an­tiq­uity — to the present day. Only the face in­ter­ests us more, and is more ex­pres­sive, than the hu­man fig­ure.

Yet the nude is not prop­erly a genre in the sense that por­traits, land­scapes or still lifes are gen­res. The fact is ob­scured by the in­creas­ing au­ton­omy of the naked body as sub­ject in the past two cen­turies, but in real­ity what we call nudes are the frag­ments left be­hind by the break­down of the genre of his­tory paint­ing.

His­tory is it­self a slight mis­nomer: the term is adopted from French and Ital­ian in which the cor­re­spond­ing words mean his­tory and story. So his­tory paint­ing is essen­tially nar­ra­tive paint­ing, and sub­jects have come from lit­er­a­ture, mythology and scrip­ture as well as his­tory in the nar­row sense. Essen­tially, his­tory paint­ing tells im­por­tant hu­man sto­ries, and sto­ries can be told only with hu­man fig­ures.

The pre-emi­nence of his­tory paint­ing as the high­est genre — from which land­scape and still life break away to be­come in­de­pen­dent gen­res — in turn ex­plains the cen­tral place of fig­ure draw­ing in art train­ing since the Re­nais­sance. The peren­nial in­ter­est of the hu­man fig­ure, how­ever, has masked the prob­lems that have be­set the his­tory genre dur­ing the past two cen­turies.

Paint­ing is good at evok­ing sto­ries we al­ready know but not at telling new ones. Nar­ra­tive art, in all cul­tures, re­lies on the fa­mil­iar­ity of shared tra­di­tions, and in the West such tra­di­tions have been in­creas­ingly com­pro­mised since the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion as mass so­ci­ety un­der­mined high and pop­u­lar cul­ture.

No artist il­lus­trates the prob­lem as clearly as Jean-Au­guste-Do­minique In­gres, who came to be re­garded as the fig­ure­head of the neo­clas­si­cal tra­di­tion in the mid 19th cen­tury, yet whose most suc­cess­ful works, the ones for which he is con­sid­ered to­day a great artist, are his por­traits and nudes, per­haps above all the re­mark­able and enig­mat­i­cally min­i­mal Baigneuse de Valpin­con (1808). The ap­par­ent lack of ex­pres­sion in the Baigneuse is far from in­ci­den­tal. In his­tory paint­ing, the naked or clothed fig­ure was em­ployed to tell a story, and the whole way that the fig­ure was de­picted was gov­erned by its role in the ex­pres­sive econ­omy of the pic­ture. When the fig­ure es­capes from the con­text of his­tory paint­ing it loses its role; what we call the nude is an un­em­ployed fig­ure, and we can see the con­se­quences of that en­forced idle­ness from Cezanne’s bathers to Lu­cian Freud’s bored, re­cum­bent or sleep­ing bod­ies. The Tate ex­hi­bi­tion of­fers plenty of in­stances of idle fig­ures, but some of the most in­ter­est­ing are Vic­to­rian be­cause of the ten­sion between a con­tin­ued as­pi­ra­tion to his­tory paint­ing and a real­ity of cul­tural del­i­ques­cence. The most ob­vi­ous con­se­quence is the de­pic­tion of sto­ries no one re­ally be­lieves in or cares about in the way they did in the great­est age of nar­ra­tive art, in the Re­nais­sance and baroque pe­ri­ods. Thus the ex­hi­bi­tion opens with a paint­ing of the Bath of Psy­che by Fred­eric, Lord Leighton and a bronze of Teucer by Hamo Thorny­croft, strik­ing images of the fe­male and male bod­ies re­spec­tively, but not sub­jects well-known to an av­er­age mid­dle-class au­di­ence of the time. Teucer was a fa­mous bow­man but a rel­a­tively mi­nor char­ac­ter in The Iliad: the artist is prob­a­bly al­lud­ing to the pas­sage when he aims an ar­row at Hec­tor in Book VIII, but this would not nec­es­sar­ily be recog­nised by most of his au­di­ence. Psy­che, de­spite her Greek name, which means soul, does not re­ally be­long to Greek mythology but is the pro­tag­o­nist of an al­le­gor­i­cal fairy­tale writ­ten by Latin au­thor Apuleius. It was pop­u­lar in the Re­nais­sance but sel­dom rep­re­sented af­ter the 17th cen­tury. By the 19th cen­tury, in other words, th­ese two sub­jects have be­come lit­tle more than el­e­gant pre­texts for the rep­re­sen- Seated Nude: The Black Hat tation of a pow­er­ful male fig­ure and a grace­ful fe­male one dis­rob­ing for her bath.

In the next room are nu­mer­ous sub­jects, but all fall short of the stan­dards of mean­ing and se­ri­ous­ness tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with his­tory paint­ing. One of the finest is Lawrence Al­maTadema’s Ro­man bath, with its ex­quis­ite tones of aqua and so­phis­ti­cated re-cre­ation of an an­cient set­ting, but there is no story here; it is rather an ex­am­ple of an arche­o­log­i­cally in­spired ver­sion of those scenes of ev­ery­day life that are rather con­fus­ingly known as genre paint­ing.

In other sub­jects, such as Her­bert Draper’s Death of Icarus, the cen­tral mean­ing of the myth is lost in the sen­ti­men­tal and erotic treat­ment of the sea nymphs lament­ing over the body of the beau­ti­ful dead youth. Neu­rotic de­sire and sex­ual ob­ses­sion are ex­plic­itly evoked in Wil­liam Etty’s de­pic­tion of the rare sub­ject, re­lated by Herodotus, of King Can­daules who ar­ranges for Gyges, the cap­tain of his guard, to spy on his wife naked. The king’s per­verse game is dis­cov­ered, and his wife and Gyges con­spire to mur­der him.

The pu­ri­tanism and con­cern for re­spect- abil­ity that de­vel­oped among the bour­geoisie of the 19th cen­tury, so dif­fer­ent from the spirit of the 18th, in­evitably drove re­pressed de­sire into neu­rotic and per­verse forms of ex­pres­sion; and the now un­em­ployed fig­ure, stripped of higher mean­ing or pur­pose, in­creas­ingly be­came a ve­hi­cle for the in­ti­ma­tions of sex­ual un­hap­pi­ness.

The sub­tlest man­i­fes­ta­tion of this new at­ti­tude is in the stud­ies of life mod­els that by the end of the 18th cen­tury had come to be known as acad­e­mies. In ear­lier times, the model was stud­ied to ac­quire an un­der­stand­ing of the work­ings of the body and the draughts­man did not dwell un­duly on the char­ac­ter. In the 19th cen­tury, though, artists be­gin to fo­cus on the model as an in­di­vid­ual in a way that can feel in­tru­sive and even some­times pruri­ent.

Wil­liam Mul­ready’s highly de­tailed study is an ex­am­ple of a life draw­ing that has turned into some­thing that it re­ally should not be, a por­trait of the model. Sub­se­quent artists em­pha­sise this sex­ual am­bi­gu­ity by leav­ing the model partly clothed — re­call­ing Kenneth Clark’s fa­mous dis­tinc­tion between the naked and the nude. As soon as you in­clude items of

(c. 1900) by Philip Wil­son Steer

Teucer, (1881) by Hamo Thorny­croft

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