NudeDecember 2, 2016
When Justin Paton, head of International Art at the Art Gallery of NSW says that Nude: Art From the Tate Collection is not a package show, surely he means: “Not just any package show”, or “Not merely a package show”. If the term doesn’t apply to an exhibition in which 122 works out of 126 are drawn from the same museum, there must be no such thing.
I wish I could collude with this attempt to consign the package show to the realm of the unicorn or the hippogriff, but I remain unconvinced. Regardless of the merits of this exhibition it continues an unfortunate pattern at the AGNSW of shows drawn from a single source. Indeed the only exhibition to buck this trend during the past four years, has been Pop to Popism, which was at best a patchy affair.
This doesn’t mean these shows have been failures. Last year’s survey of works from the National Galleries of Scotland was a high quality package. But a gallery that keeps doing exhibitions on this basis gets a reputation as a venue for touring shows not an initiator of original projects.
Does this have any impact on attendance figures? This week we learnt that the AGNSW’s excellent Scottish show allegedly attracted 140,000 visitors while the National Gallery of Victoria drew 400,000 to Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei, which was pure showbiz. The AGNSW has to ask itself why a superior show got such inferior attendances, but that’s a discussion for another time.
A big problem with taking all works from one source is that even the greatest museums have their strengths and weaknesses, meaning there is no chance of drawing on the strengths of one institution to compensate for the deficiencies of another. There is also a limit to any museum’s generosity, which usually results in a handful of masterpieces and a certain amount of filler. The Scottish show was an exception to this rule, but Nude is a textbook example.
For those with long memories it’s possible to see Nude as an attempt to do a more accessible version of the gallery’s 1997 show, Body. One of the notable disasters in the AGNSW’s history, Body was drawn from many collections and featured some major works. It was undone by an excess of lurid, confrontational pieces and a muddled approach to curatorship. (As a reminder I’ll put the review of 1997 up on my website this weekend).
By contrast, Justin Paton, and co-curator Emma Chambers from the Tate, have given us a display and a catalogue that are models of clarity. If anything it’s almost too simple. The show is divided into eight plausible sections: The Historical Nude, The Private Nude, The Modern Nude, Real and Surreal Bodies, Paint as Flesh, The Erotic Nude, Body Politics and The Vulnerable Body.
Each section has a small, tidy introduction in the catalogue, and each work is given its own compact entry. It’s a basic overview of a time-honoured theme that adds absolutely nothing to our understanding of the topic. What we’ve had by way of compensation are nude performances from the Sydney Dance Company and an opening address by the excruciating Kathy Lette, who can be seen on-line holding forth about the show.
None of this has anything to do with the exhibition itself, which begins by savouring the contradictions of the 19th century nude, in images such as William Etty’s 1830 painting of King Candaules exhibiting his wife, Lydia, to Gyges; and John Everett Millais’s The Knight Errant (1870). These works are separated by almost three generations but both were criticised for overstepping the bounds of propriety by showing palpable flesh, as opposed to neo-classical ice maidens.
It could be argued that the 19th century nude was always an excuse for exhibiting a titillating image under the guise of historical or Biblical authority. The Victorians specialised in pictures that put a moralising dimension to works of soft pornography, but it would be crude in the extreme to suggest this was all that was going on.
In 2001 Tate Britain held an exhibition called Exposed: The Victorian Nude, which subsequently travelled to Munich, New York and Kobe. This show teased out the complexities of its subject in a way that Nude does not.
Probably the best things in the AGNSW show are the paintings of Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard found in the second section. This includes Picasso’s Nude woman in a red armchair (1932), one of his most sensuous and playful portraits of his mistress, Marie-Thérese Walter.
If there is a talking point in Nude it centres around the works of modern British artists. There is the surprising eroticism of Philip Wilson Steer’s Seated nude: the black hat (c.1900), juxtaposed with Gwen John’s scrawny Nude girl (1909-10), who stares out at us with supreme indifference. Both beg comparison with Walter Sickert’s La Hollandaise (c.1906), with its shadowy portrayal of a corpulent nude in a dingy bedroom. All three pictures are far removed from the conventions and polite hypocrisies of the Victorian nude.
Christopher Nevinson’s A studio in Montparnasse (c. 1926) is equally compelling. Even though the nude model plays only a small role in the picture it is this glimpse of flesh in the dark, crowded apartment that brings the painting to life.
Less successful, if no less fascinating, are the works of Matthew Smith, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. I’ve always thought Smith’s Nude, Fitzroy Street, no. 1 (1916) should be given some award for the ugliest sense of the colour in modern art. Smith was looking at the Fauves, just as Vanessa Bell was looking at Matisse when she painted The tub (1917); and Duncan Grant was channelling Picasso of the period of Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) in his own Tub painting of 1913.
In these works the pioneering efforts of the Parisian modernists are mimicked in an utterly mannered fashion. The Bloomsbury set, of which Bell and Grant were long-term members, has always had an air of dilettantism, and these pictures reveal a couple of artists who have mistaken style for conviction.
One could not say the same about Stanley Spencer, who was a true British original. His famous “Leg of mutton nude”, AKA. Double nude portrait: the artist and his second wife (1937), is surely one of the greatest images of unrequited desire ever committed to canvas. The artist crouches, naked and flaccid, staring dully at the body of his wife, laid out like a banquet at which he is forbidden to partake. The leg of lamb in foreground makes the lustful connotations even more profound. We’re watching a neutered carnivore unable to touch his prey.
There are many things worth talking about in the latter half of the exhibition, if only I had the space. Rodin’s The kiss (1901-04) is given the star treatment, and there’s no denying it stands out from the crowd. The over-life scale is important, as is the exaggerated size of the man’s hand, resting on his partner’s hip. Joined together in a block of solid marble the lovers have literally become one in the vertigo of their embrace. The impact of the sculpture is assisted by the fact that the rest of the room is filled with works on paper which inevitably feel a little low-key, even if the artists include Picasso, J.M.W.Turner, David Hockney and Louise Bourgeois.
The final sections that explore the political associations of the modern and contemporary nude are inevitably much more superficial than the earlier parts of the show. It remains a mystery to me how any art-literate person could get excited about the works of Sarah Lucas or Tracey Emin. Neither artist has given us anything half so challenging as John Coplans’s segmented photos of his own ageing, hairy body – a display guaranteed to provide many viewers with intimations of mortality.
Nude ends in puzzling fashion, with Ron Mueck’s Wild man (2005) staring at Rineke Dijkstra’s photos of three naked, or near-naked young mothers, holding their newborn babies. I don’t know if this was intended as a joke but it’s horribly creepy. The wild man looks like the crazed leader of a religious cult staring at his harem. Neither Mueck nor Dijkstra would ever have anticipated such a juxtaposition. It’s purely a creation of the curators’ black arts.
Nude: Art from the Tate Collection
Art Gallery of NSW, until 5 February 2017
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 3rd December, 2016