BY Polly Staple in Reviews | 03 MAR 02
Featured in
Issue 65

Exposed: The Victorian Nude

Tate Britain, London, UK

BY Polly Staple in Reviews | 03 MAR 02

'Exposed: The Victorian Nude' was a hideous exhibition. Room after colour-coded room contained a seemingly never-ending array of naked flesh: wilting damsels, virile pugilists and coy pubescents. There were lots of gilt frames and some horrific concoctions from a host of mediocre British painters dragged out from the back storerooms of the Tate. Hidden among the bombastic Victoriana, fig leaves and carefully swirling drapery, however, were fascinating stories of socially acceptable convention and private fantasy, of parochialism and hypocrisy, of artistic freedom and civil liberty, of continental influence and technological development.

The exhibition was conceived as a search for a fresh perspective on Victorian art and Victorian values through the reappraisal of representations of the nude figure in relation to historic and contemporary attitudes to morality, sexuality and desire. The range of material was exhaustive: from Royal Academicians such as Frederic Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones and Lawrence Alma-Tadema to the radical and erotically challenging drawings of Aubrey Beardsley and the furtively explicit work of a small selection of early pornographic photographers. A selection of early erotic movies or 'smoking concert films' were delightful, surprising for the slapstick humour and the profoundly untitillating suspense of a Victorian matron disrobing to her chemise.

The exhibition was grouped thematically ('The English Nude', 'The Classical Nude', 'The Private Nude' and so on). The approach of curator Alison Smith was in turn commendably scholarly and cringingly populist, which served to highlight the problems of staging a blockbuster show. It is a credit to Smith that the exhibition was both academically informative and wonderfully entertaining. The loopiness of the show made it even better.

Take William Etty, for example, who kept reappearing in the section 'The English Nude'. Etty is a respected Victorian artist and one of the first to depict the nude with seriousness and consistency, but his paintings are truly awful. Youth on the Prow and Pleasure at the Helm (1830-2) is a riot of kitsch: semi-naked ladies, a muscular hero, tootling cherubs, floral garlands, all atop a gilded vessel; and there is, of course, the required moral lesson implicit in the blustery storm clouds animating the precarious pleasure seekers. This 'poetic romance', although admired for its fleshy, Venetian palette was, however, also criticized at the time for its deviation from a more restrained classical ideal and for the immodesty of the languorous sexuality of the nymphs.

In the section 'The Classical Nude' Leighton's The Bath of Psyche (1890), inspired by continental Neo-Classicism, offered a more formally restrained take on beauty; however, the erotic suggestion of the narcissistic pose was still controversial. The juxtaposition of Leighton's ideal with a photograph of Hana Studio's Miss Viola Hamilton (c. 1900) was pertinent. Dressed in a demure body stocking, Miss Hamilton cut a Nana-esque figure, the Classical props and the sculptural qualities of her pose coyly eliminating any salacious implications. The flash of crotch in Edward Linley Sambourne's photograph Untitled (Maud Easton in Pulcinella Costume, Legs Open, Seated in an Armchair, at 54 Bedford Gardens, London) (1891) was a little more direct, as were the homoerotic implications of Robert Cawshaw's Untitled (Two Men in a Turkish Bath) (c. 1866-8) or the hint of paedophilia in Guglielmo Plushow's photographs of uncomfortably undressed boys and girls. Beardsley's The Impatient Adulterer (1896), by contrast, is fantastical, humorous and artful, while intriguing for its rarity was the inclusion of J. M. W. Turner's besmirched A Copulating Couple (1805). The majority of Turner's erotic sketchbooks were destroyed by a traumatized John Ruskin, who saw them as compromising the great artist's heroic status.

Informed by feminist art history, yet compromised by the Tate Britain's agenda of sexing up its flagging appeal, this exhibition took you from the world of marginalized representations of desire through the weird coolness of an academically approved formal idealism to the ornate grandeur of late Victorian spectacle. In the penultimate section - crassly entitled 'Sensation! The Nude in High Art' - one image stood out. Herbert Draper's The Lament for Icarus (1898) is a beautiful painting. Defeated by gravity and foolhardy ambition, Icarus is depicted collapsed but still strapped to his opulent feathered wings; tended by three curious nymphs, his modesty is protected by a swathe of blood-red cloth. The painting represents all the excess and restraint of Pre-Raphaelite high camp; moralizing, sentimental and morbidly sensual in turn, it is a magnificently composed image of epic failure. Draper's painting served as a key work in a show that was fraught with, and yet self-consciously revelled in, the implicit contradictions of its subject-matter.

Polly Staple is a director at Chisenhale Gallery, London.