TATE’S NAKED AMBITIONS
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