Summer is here and that means beach, tanning, more beach and getting beach body ready!
No wait. That’s a different blog. (Also, your body is ready for the beach as soon as you have applied sufficient sunscreen. Slip, slop, slap kids)
Summer means a slew of new shows at all the major kkkultural institutions around town. And the first Friday in November seemed to be when they were all opening. As some sort of notable (I personally think it’s just the big hair), my mother legitimately gets invited to such things and as her offspring I often just claim to also be entitled and tag along. I know I know, that’s really how the nobility started and why we needed to rinse them out with the guillotine - speaking very generally both about facts and sliding happily over the ‘we’ in that sentence.
Regardless, my mum took me (sort of, she also took a date and I took my boyfriend (but, you know, more the merrier) and we all swanned along to the Art Gallery of NSW which was looking deeply faux swish with an actual red carpet (probably from costumebox.com.au), masses of flowers and swathes of well dressed suckers swarming around black waistcoats bearing trays of shucked oysters.
See, you thought I was being rude with the sucking but how else do you eat an oyster?
(Personally I don’t; if I want that much salt in my mouth it’s going to be as vegemite on toast.)
The show was officially opened by a triptych of boring speeches, a sort of holy trinity of beige banality and vague remarks that suggested the givers had perhaps not availed themselves of the pre-opening viewing on offer (I suppose that makes the opening soft?) but relied instead on the media release. (A key sign of this: all speakers talked about the same set of three – it all comes in threes – photographs which were conveniently located just by the gift shop).
Exit through, as Banksy says.
There was also a deliciously funny speech by a very Australian chick-lit novelist that drew its (unintended) humour from the way each crowd-pleasing dick-joke fell flatter than flat. An audience that considers itself kkkultural does not wish to be told it will drool over the penis size rendered larger than oil stick.
Once officially opened to the waiting scrum, the actual show experience was a wild and exuberant thing with more elbows than usually witnessed outside sale season. The espoused premise of the show is largely caught in the title - ‘Nude: art from the Tate collection.’
Generously sized and fleshy, the show pays homage to the human form in all its tonal variance. To this end it is separated into ‘historical nudes’ (Etty, Millais, Turner), ‘private nudes’ (Bonnard, Picasso, Matisse), ‘modern nudes’ (Hepworth, Modigliani, Moore), ‘erotic nudes’ (Rodin, Hockney), ‘real and surreal’ (De Chirico, Man Ray), ‘paint as flesh’ (Freud, Bacon, De Kooning’), ‘body politic’ (Hendricks, Linder) and ‘vulnerable body’ (Dumas, Dijkstra).
These categories themselves attest to the seismic shift that occurred in art between the Victorian age of Millais and the contemporary time of Hockney - the abstraction of form and even the separation of the nude from its host body –best exemplified by Banner’s nude which shows no figure but merely provides an adjective ripe description in its place.
It’s strange isn’t it, the way in which the more art proclaimed to be about ‘things’ (concept and message and meaning and purpose) the less anything resonated – message wise or emotionally.
Traditionally of course the argument was nude vs. naked. There was no conception of nude without, to be frank, a bit of leg and a lot of tit. As Clark seminally opined, the difference lies in that to be naked is to be deprived of our clothes but to be nude was to transcend such things - the nude was the transmutation of matter into form.
These forms then were idealised both in the physical characteristics they often embodied but also in the their static state – fixed forever in both time and place. The historical nudes give no sense of lacking anything at all, including their clothes. It is the knowledge of this lack, of the transitory nature of nudity, veiled between periods of dress, which caused such scandal when initially unwrapped.
The show’s narrative – flagged on the walls and explored fulsomely in the handsome catalogue – is this tale of exploration and challenge; the high idealism of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), clad only in her serenity, through to the scandalous transition evident in the repose of Manet’s Olympia (1863) wrapped at both neck and ankle (though alluringly bare between).
Of course, neither Venus nor Olympia are present in this show. And here we come to what is perhaps its greatest failing, for how can a collection of such recent origin (Henry Tate’s formative bequest having been made in 1897) explore in depth a genre that crested before its conception?
The show makes an admirable effort in this direction, including a historically grandiose royal voyeur (Etty) and an erstwhile knight and nude-dame duo (Millais), but both remain Victorian conceptions of a past and shrouded age and carry with them all the morality and puritanical influence of such.
This is not to suggest there are not excellent works in the collection (or indeed to say anything particularly negative about Etty and Millais although the Victorians are rather… drab in the maids-in-meadows way); the drawings of Turner and etchings of Hockney are correspondingly captivating in their intimacy while the paintings of Bonnard and Dumas warrant a second turn.
An off-day Degas lifts a weary limb to signal the arrival of the modern masters, a mantle carried in unassuming fashion by an (for them) unremarkable nude from Picasso and Matisse, adding colour if not much flair. The Hepworth meanwhile is stunning as is her 3-d playmate, the Giacometti.
The ‘real and surreal’ is explored in a De Chirico painting of bust and bananas which transported me straight back to year 9 art class and my rather elderly and rather buxom art teacher suggesting that we draw inspiration from her own reclined form as part of our study of abstraction (high school art aye).
There are Freud’s and Bacon’s and a De Kooning – so hard and hateful in its rage it becomes difficult to see the corporeal form blown apart by his brush. Towards the modern end of the trajectory, the show, like the titles and indeed like the art world at large, becomes more fractured and less cohesive; a jumble sale of body parts and different views. Indeed Bourgeois’ set of drawings could have been nabbed at an actual jumble sale, though for anything over a fiver for such ham-fisted charmless renderings (why is it still ‘challenging’ for artists to ‘pretend’ not to be able to draw? Surely we are so far chronologically from the age of the Academe that it would be fair more subversive to actually learn) one would be seeking return.
My picks for the show (aside from Rodin’s The Kiss which, if you haven’t seen one, you should, and this one is spellbindingly lit) both came from the ‘body politic’ section. Both were works (and indeed artists) of whom I will own ignorance and whose work still appear both fresh and challenging forty years on. Hendrick’s ‘Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs) (1974) bears beautiful witness to the fact that art can be skilfully made, aesthetically pleasing and personally confronting, all in one velvet wrapped fist. Linder’s photomontage (1976), meanwhile, is a sassy and clever comment on women and sex and work that (sadly) seems every bit as pertinent today as it was then.
‘Nude: art from the Tate collection’ is not without its flaws. But it does possess significant interest and merit; pondering the work – its selection and juxtapositioning – fills gaps in my day even a fortnight later and it opened my eyes to several new artists of interest. And while Berger’s timeless quote that “to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself” is perhaps not explored as fulsomely as it could be, the work chosen is thoughtful and intriguing and definitely worth an afternoon of your time (as is the catalogue. I do love a good catalogue).
'Nude: art from the Tate collection' runs until 5 February 2017 and will set you back $24 per adult, $21 for a concession or $18 for a member. If you can convince the front desk you're under 12, it is free. Bargain.