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Friday, November 01, 2002

Arts & Letters

The Eyes of the Beholder

Exposed: The Victorian Nude, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, September 6, 2002-January 5, 2003.

Most of us take for granted current interest in sexuality in art, as well as the explicitness that has been effect as well as cause of a sexual revolution in our culture. The slick eroticism we see in so much advertising has its counterpart in the arts, where, in the guise of expressionism, sexual feeling is addressed and communicated with remarkable abandon. At the same time, there has been a backlash: John Ashcroft decided to cover the genitals of classical nudes under his jurisdiction in the building housing the Department of Justice. It seems as though both casts of mind – prurience and repression – have been emphasized by virtue of their extreme position; indeed, it becomes clear that prudery is the other side of frankness, so closely joined are the two in their interaction. The very drive to exceed a limit turns on our recognition that the limit exists, and so art calls into being not only the possibility of liberation but also the existence of boundaries set by our desire to move past them. It would appear, then, that the formulation of a freely espousing libido inevitably contracts for its opposite, because sex is so highly charged, so biologically compelling a topic.

  Art has provoked these feelings by a choice of imagery that it asserts according to the mores of the time. The sexual forthrightness of classical Greek pottery finds its parallel in later depictions of physical love, which tend toward the pornographic – whatever that may mean – by presenting, among other things, intercourse in detail. The invention of the photograph, with its ability to depict particulars and motion (by showing sequences of images), pushed the impulse of eroticism – until the middle 1800s a matter of nonmoving description – toward a sexuality quite specific in its simulation. Esthetic delectation of the body moved toward a verisimilitude increasingly based on reality. While it is notoriously difficult to separate eroticism from porn, because our definitions are, in large part, deeply personal and a matter of taste, we can perhaps do more than simply know sexual pleasure when we see it. We can say in fact that pornographic art substitutes reality for imagination, indeed literalizes the sexual act by showing its actual performance. In light of this literalism, it may well be that there is a subtle but real difference between the intention of pornography, which is transparent in its wish for sexual release, and that of eroticism, in which desire is transformed, and even blunted to some extent, by esthetic distance.

  The contemporary art world prides itself on its openness to sexual imagery – consider the photographs and sculptures of Jeff Koons enjoying his porn-star wife. But the discomfort and hostility of some parts of society toward sexual openness in art make it clear that the debate is ongoing, partly because the expression is extreme. We should remember that the argument between propriety and frankness is also historical; it is the underpinning of the excellent show, Exposed: The Victorian Nude, currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The tension between Greek idealization and coy voyeurism is continually apparent in the exhibition, not in small part because the ideal nude, as understood by Victorian culture, was sexualized in ways that undermined its sublime appreciation. If the Greek nude, executed in smooth marble, drives toward the abstract ideal, it allows at the same time for titillation in the implications of its theme, the beauty of the naked body. One could argue at length about whether the classical nude was in itself a sexual expression when it was made – it is hard to know for sure – but the nude became a touchstone in the Victorian era for certain attitudes toward the absence of clothing. According to the informative catalogue, the Victorians could not make up their minds whether the representation of nudity was inherently erotic or made chaste by the distanced, distancing strategy of idealized representation.

The question is whether sexual feeling attaches itself to all nude portraiture. It may be argued that seemingly repressed idealizations of the female nude, the classicizing marbles especially, are pure in spirit as well as form; according to Alison Smith, the catalogue’s editor, “the accepted Antique form of the classical goddess of beauty was seen [by Victorians] to elicit a pure disinterested response in the beholder.” And yet what are we to make of the suggestiveness of Charles Hazelwood Shannon’s oil, The Bath of Venus (1904), in which a loose-haired naked woman, standing in a bath whose water comes up to her thighs, coyly smiles at us with a look that is an invitation to pleasure? The crowding and sense of containment in the painting strengthen the impression of hothouse eroticism, and despite – or perhaps because of – the Hellenism of the title, the painting functions as soft porn. There is a lasciviousness here, not all that well hidden by pedantry, that escapes the justification of its classical rhetoric. In another oil, The Bath of Psyche (c. 1889-90) by Frederic Leighton, the painter depicts a nubile woman before a pool, her downward gaze not so much a matter of modesty as of demure self-containment implying autoerotic pleasure. While there is nothing about suggestiveness that is inherently in bad taste, contemporary viewers, saturated with directly sexual depictions, might well find the painting lewd – not because of its transparent eroticism but because of its indirect lasciviousness.

The chaste virtue of Hiram Powers’s marble, The Greek Slave (c. 1850-60), was seen at the time as a triumph of bravery against the evil of slavery, in particular the Ottoman display of naked slaves for the purpose of their purchase, according to Alison Smith. The sculpture occasioned outcry as political rhetoric rather than erotic lure; the modesty of the slave’s gaze and the generalities of her sexual attributes lessen rather than heighten sensuality. Ironically, in light of the more direct display of S&M paraphernalia in contemporary culture, it is hard for modern viewers to see the handcuffs she wears as an indication of imprisonment alone. There is a suggestion of homoeroticism in Frederic Leighton’s bronze, The Sluggard (1885), a life-size treatment of a young man with an athlete’s physique in the midst of an invitingly sensual stretch. The languor of the body’s pose feminizes the model’s muscular frame, while its angular stance and crooked arms – a pose ascribed to women at the time – intensify the work’s casual indolence. The use of photography to explore the beauty of the male nude enabled Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden to picture young men in classical, and also clearly homoerotic, poses. His work also includes pornographic images of men in sexual contact; these images pass over the fine line separating eros from pornography. Clearly, gay imagery also found expression in Victorian culture, which allowed it because of its recreation of classical themes.

In a telling painting entitled Bondage (c. 1895), Ernest Normand portrays a Pharaoh deliberating with his wife about whether to purchase a naked Nubian slave or a white mother and daughter, also naked, from a Semitic slave dealer. The dark slave is presented as proud of her body, standing nude with erect breasts, while the Caucasian females sit cowering off to the right of the picture. The contrast could not be greater, with the implication that a dark-skinned woman had access to an eroticism that the white mother would inevitably reject. The women represent two kinds of erotic categories, made abstract by their stereotypical aspect. One senses more than a little of imperium here, the conquest of the male gaze. At times, the ease of power associated with looking threatens to pass beyond the respectable, as, for example, in William Stott’s Wild Flower (1881), a portrait of a barely adolescent girl with loose hair sitting on a furry white rug. The image is one of vulnerability made painful by the girl’s sexualization; according to the catalogue, the painting was shown just once during Stott’s life, most likely because its erotic implications were offensive.

Of course, as time went on, the nude was treated with greater frankness. Philip Wilson Steer’s oil, Seated Nude: The Black Hat (c. 1900), is an unabashed turn-on in its portrayal of a voluptuous nude wearing a black hat decorated with flowers, which adds an element of abandon to an already freely painted likeness. The sexuality in William Orpen’s Nude Study (1906) is palpable: a young woman is draped over her bed rather like the rumpled bedding surrounding her. The model’s lassitude is exquisitely erotic – and also real in a manner that takes us a long way beyond the prim decorousness of earlier marble nudes. It cannot be said with certainty that Victorian rectitude is undercut by such presentations of the female nude; it is clear, however, that Victorian mores were likely more complicated than the generalization that they were nothing more than a veneer of probity that only barely covered a cauldron of frenzied sexual activity.

While we may well remain uncomfortable with the exploitative nature of some of the images – Lewis Carroll’s photographs of nude girls, for example, also on exhibit in Exposed – we can see that the struggle between sex and its containment was not always hypocritical or disingenuous. The increasing openness with which the nude was portrayed meant that, even in Victorian times, there was a tug of war between what was acceptable and what was new. Greek sexual frankness may have been suggested at first by classical allusions meant to give dignity to what was a barely concealed soft porn, but we begin to see the modernization of erotic representation as the era grew older. It seems, then, that Victorian culture idealized itself according to Greek motifs only to find, in its portraiture of the nude, an increasing realism that is also just as true to Greek art in its honest appreciation of sexual feeling. As the era moved forward, the nude turned more genuine in its intimations of sex, something that no doubt inflamed moral authorities but which was impossible to stop. Exposed documents very well the various ways the nude changed in the eyes of Victorian artist and viewer, who called back to an archaic past as a way of justifying impulses whose expression was controversial.

Jonathan Goodman is a contributing editor to
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