Published: October 15, 2002
By A.L. Dunnington
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — High art. Low art. The Luscious and the Lewd. Truth. Temptation. The classical ideal and the raunchily real.
All this and more come to North America for one stop only in “Exposed: The Victorian Nude” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The 150-piece exhibition traces the controversial history of the nude in Victorian art.
The show, organized by the Tate Britain, traveled to Germany before opening at the BMA in September, and concludes its international run next year in Japan.
The elaborate exhibit showcases Victorian paintings, sculpture and other media, including photography and cartoons, on a subject condoned by the Queen but crushed by critics and moral crusaders. As Nineteenth Century British artists took on the nude – that most natural of human states – their work became a lightning rod for social, political and cultural change, instigating not only new attitudes toward art and the human body, but new laws and a new word: pornography.
When the Tate approached BMA about exhibition, Barbara Gallati, BMA’s curator of American art, signed on. “You don’t know what you’re missing unless you know what it is, and we rarely get the chance to see this type of work,” said Gallati, who had read The Victorian Nude, by Alison Smith, the Tate Britain curator and organizer of the show.
Smith’s book explored the presentation and reception of the nude in Victorian society; the exhibit, Gallati said, brings that scholarship, those insights and beautiful works of art to a wider audience – in the process, forcing viewers to confront their own attitudes toward the human body.
While Victorians have a prudish, buttoned-up reputation, in fact there was a proliferation of nude imagery starting about the time Victoria took the throne.
One reason was the growing internationalism of art in the Nineteenth Century. The English were asking themselves, What’s English about our art? How can we maintain a national identity and still sustain a competitive stance in international aesthetics?
The French were viewed as the most aesthetically advanced at the time. To adopt a French mode of painting or presentation, however, was to admit French superiority, something the British were loath to do.
“You had a contradiction in that you wanted to be a player in this, so you had to develop a mode of sophisticated presentation in your art, and the English had never been known as sophisticates in the arts,” Gallati said.
Enter the nude – and the fervor set off by its ultimate assimilation into mainstream English art and society.
While the BMA exhibit essentially follows the thematic path set by the Tate Britain, it diverges somewhat by using an entryway to showcase dramatic works that establish some of the tensions and levels of meaning explored throughout the show.
Grouped together are Frederic Leighton’s “Athlete Wrestling with a Python,” bronze, 1877; Robert Penn Browning’s “Dryope Fascinated by Apollo in the Form of a Serpent,” bronze, 1883; and Evelyn De Morgan’s “Cadmus and Harmonia,” the signature image of the BMA show, oil, 1877.
“What’s fun about this is they’re all what you’d call Victorian high art from the late Nineteenth Century, and they introduce the idea of the nude, but they also introduce how different the content can be even when the image is similar,” Gallati said.
Leighton’s “Athlete” is heroic, and can be interpreted as man’s intellect fighting with his baser nature, or as Alison Smith writes in the catalog, “…a ‘moral’ example in keeping degenerate forces at bay.”
The statue won a Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1878.
Browning’s “Dryope” also involves a serpent and a nude, but this time, the nude is female, and the theme, seduction. Dryope is entranced by the serpent as it coils around her body, but her stance is one of seducer as well as seduced.
In contrast to both is De Morgan’s “Cadmus and Harmonia.” One of the first nudes by a British female painter to be publicly exhibited, the scene refers to a story from Ovid: Cadmus is transformed into a serpent, and wraps himself about his loving — and nude — wife, in an entreating, embracing fashion. This scene tells a story of marital love.
“That’s why we chose those three human-plus-snake works – to show you can get all sorts of meaning from similar images. That same theme works as you go through the exhibition,” Gallati said.
The exhibition, as organized by Alison Smith, senior program curator, Tate Britain, and co-curated by Smith, Martin Myrone and Robert Upstone, is divided into thematic categories, beginning with “The English Nude.”
While nudes by artistic giants like Titian and Rubens were represented in private collections of British aristocrats, such works were rarely seen by the general public.
In fact, writes Smith, by the mid-Nineteenth Century, vocal vigilante groups had developed to protect the public from “…the harm the nude presented to inartistic minds…”
British artists wanted to explore the same themes as the Renaissance masters, but they also wanted to earn a living and show their paintings.
To make nudes more acceptable and uniquely English in character, the nude was portrayed in the context of English themes, such as Titania, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Musidora, from Thompson’s poem, “The Seasons.”
Then there was the most English, nationalistic nude of all, Lady Godiva, portrayed in Edwin Landseer’s “Lady Godiva’s Prayer,” circa 1865. Here, the presence of doves, a cathedral and a Puritanically dressed matron reinforce the nude Godiva’s self-sacrificing act: the noblewoman, on her husband’s dare, rides naked through the streets to persuade him to abolish unbearable taxes.
The artists’ exploration of the nude figure also found justification in Queen Victoria herself, who bought nudes for her husband, Prince Albert. At times, the Queen’s purchases were announced in magazines, which may have helped support the emergence of the nude on the walls of public galleries like the Royal Academy, Gallati said.
Despite this royal stamp of approval and an effort to portray the nude in uniquely English themes, artists were still bedeviled by critics who claimed the nude form was not appropriate for gallery walls. John Everett Millais’s “The Knight Errant,” oil, 1870, was criticized, for instance, because its nude female subject was painted looking directly at her fully clothed male rescuer – an attitude considered vulgar. In response, Millais cut out that portion of the painting, and reinserted another canvas, where a woman modestly looks away.
The reaction of the next generation of artists to what they considered the provincialism of English art leads into the “The Classical Nude” portion of the exhibit.
These artists used classical myths to circumvent critics, as evidenced by Frederic Leighton’s “Bath of Psyche,” circa 1889-90, whose Psyche is sculpturally classical, yet undeniably sensual.
Possibly the most famous piece in this section is sculptor Hiram Power’s statue, “The Greek Slave.”
The full-scale statue, which Smith calls “the most famous nude composition of the mid-Victorian period,” was based on an “antique Venus.” The chain around the wrists of the female nude, however, made the statue a cause celebre, since it referred not only to the Ottoman practice of parading nude slaves for sale, but also to the American abolitionist cause.
In addition to the topical theme of slavery, Gallati said, “We’ve got the high art image as it was shown in 1851, in London, of this beautiful marble sculpture of a female, the Greek slave, who is nude not through her choosing, but because she’s forced to be nude: therefore, she is virtuous. She’s not only got the whiteness of the absolutely wonderful white luminous marble that signifies purity, she’s also got the weight of classical tradition behind her.”
The “Greek Slave” became so popular that fine white porcelain reproductions, called Parian ware, were manufactured by companies such as Minton and sold to the public.
“You could buy the little reduced version of this for your living room, for very little money, comparatively,” Gallati said. “Whereas high art was in these grand palaces of art, in the great galleries, now you could have one on your mantel. So all of a sudden, the nude figure is invading the home.”
This statue was particularly popular because she was not only virtuous, but Christian. A cross was prominently carved into the pedestal upon which she leaned: Hiram Powers did not want any mistakes made, Gallati said.
After “The Greek Slave” was shown in London in 1851, however Punch published a cartoon of “The Greek Slave” as a black Virginian, writing: “We have the Greek captive in dead stone…why not the Virginian slave in living ebony?”
Meanwhile, the image was photographically mass-produced, filtering further into both the English and American mainstream.
From the “Classical Nude,” viewers stroll into a hallway, which displays a video of Alison Smith narrating the original Tate exhibit, and a small library of art books about the Victorian period.
Viewers then enter a gallery with a private and intimate feel. The sensuously red-walled “Artist’s Studio” portion of the exhibit examines the subject of artist and model, the mystique of the creative process, and popular fantasies about the imagined improprieties between (mostly male) artists and (mostly female) nude models, during a time in which women were not to work. Especially in the nude. Nude models were, however, routinely used to help artists understand the human body, as they sought to better portray and perfect it.
This desire to create perfection is captured by the story of Pygmalion, an artist who rejects the real in pursuit of the ideal, and falls in love with his own sculpture of the “perfect” woman.
The story is told in a series of oil paintings by Edward Coley Burne-Jones: in the final painting, the artist’s statue comes to life. As she gazes past Pygmalion, however, her face devoid of love or warmth, the scene conveys the ultimate unattainability of perfection in real life.
A black mesh drape signifies entry into “The Private Nude” section of the exhibit.
Here we see William Etty’s “Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed,” oil, 1830.
The painting refers to Greek historian Herodotus’ story of a king who allows his general to watch his wife disrobe. The angered queen commands the general to either kill her husband or be killed. The king is killed, and the general marries the wronged wife. The dark tones of the two male characters flank the luminous, marble-like sheen of the nude queen.
Etty was one of the first major English artists to address the nude. This particular work makes the viewer a voyeur – like the general, sneaking a peak – and critics deemed this painting unacceptable for any but private viewing, if that.
Other images produced for private view include pornographic illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and photographs of nude children by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll – taken for the children’s families, with their consent.
This segment also captures the turmoil of the time, as nude imagery becomes more prolific, less artistic and more commercially available, prompting the “Obscene Publications Act” of 1857 and the creation of the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
Step off into a smaller, side gallery – offset again by black mesh drapes – and the light flickers black and white with Victorian “erotica” films – more comic than arousing to modern sensibilities, but a dramatic example of how far the nude had come.
Back to the bright lights of the main gallery, “The Nude in High Art” follows the nude’s evolution into ever more spectacular and daring presentations.
The more adventurous approach to the nude was due in part to French influences, which beguiled many young British painters in the latter Nineteenth Century. Opposition by religious and moral groups increased, inspiring laws such as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, raising the age of consent to 16.
“The politicization of the nude provoked by the demand for regulation and censorship did little to halt its visibility in public,” writes Smith. “Rather the scandal and publicity … helped generate audience curiosity and with it a general tolerance for the nude in the face of what was dismissed as ‘philistine’ opinion.”
At the same time, there was growing concern about the victimization of children and female prostitutes in London – anxieties that were translated into the thematic contents of paintings, Gallati said.
Included in this section is John William Waterhouse’s “Saint Eulalia,” oil, 1885.
“The way [St Eulalia] is presented is utterly dramatic because she’s prostrate on the pavement, her hair is blowing out towards you and you’re literally pulled up her body into the painting,” Gallati said. “She’s not entirely nude, but this is surely a seductive painting.”
Waterhouse had modified the subject matter: St Eulalia was tortured and martyred at age 12 for not sacrificing to the Roman gods. Here, Waterhouse has made her older, and the scene less gruesome, to help the viewer feel more at ease viewing her body.
In contrast, Anna Lea Merritt’s “Love Locked Out,” oil, 1889, presents a different kind of drama: the subject is love lost, daring in its use of a naked child model.
Philadelphia-born Merritt, who married an Englishman, pursued her painting primarily in England, and became one of the few women to establish a professional career as an artist in the late Nineteenth Century.
The death of Merritt’s husband preceded this work, and the nude child represents love poignantly waiting to be reunited with its beloved.
“Love Locked Out” became one of the most popular paintings for the English nation at the turn of the Twentieth Century, Gallati said. “We think of late Victorian culture as being overly sentimental, but this has the right measure of it, and it’s a beautifully painted work.”
“The Modern Nude” concludes the exhibit, and shows just how far the nude has journeyed: from idealized figures set in classical, English and High Art themes, the nude is now presented in more naturalistic settings that at times are jarringly real.
Theodore Roussel, a Frenchman who married an English woman, contributed his large painting of a nude woman reading to the New English Art Club’s 1887 exhibition.
“The Reading Girl,” oil, 1886-87, as it was aptly named, was panned by the Spectator, a reactionary publication: “…Our imagination fails to conceive any adequate reason for a picture of this sort. It is realism of the worst kind, the artist’s eye seeing only the vulgar outside of his model … No human being … could take any pleasure in such a picture as this; it is a degradation of Art.”
English artists who had studied in France and were returning home to establish their careers often found themselves unwelcome by academicians and shut out of exhibitions. In response, they formed organizations like the New English Art Club.
“The NEAC featured the work of young artists, some of whom had trained in France, others of whom were picking up stylistic influences from French Impressionism, anything that made them look somewhat modern and interesting compared to what they considered to be a moribund academic style,” Gallati said.
Railing against Impressionistic influences, those from the old school considered such works alien, immoral, and “worst of all, French,” writes Smith.
By the end of this exhibit, it becomes apparent just how drastic the change in Victorian nudes has become, stylistically, by the turn of the century.
“While there are still artists focusing on the nude figure, there’s no longer that perceived national unity of style,” Gallati said.
Implicit in the show is the question of how the viewer, personally, responds to the nude body. “The show invites us all to explore our own attitudes, through the history of the Nineteenth Century nude,” Gallati said. “It leads us to make comparisons or contrasts with our own experience in our own culture … If we want to look in the pages of Vogue magazine, say, we see some very similar images.” The human body provokes people, she said. “The history of the idea of beauty is so wrapped up in the human body … and if we establish the human body as the height of beauty, then how can we get upset by it?”
But the nude has been a particularly “fraught” image, she said, imbued with social, religious, political, philosophical interventions.
What “Exposed: Victorian Nudes” offers, in addition to some beautiful and provocative works of art, is a slice from the history of morals and taste, Gallati said, adding, “I hope people enjoy themselves, and that they learn something in an enjoyable way. My own feeling is that art is supposed to make you think – and if you’re challenged in a positive way, that’s a good thing.”
“Exposed: The Victorian Nude” runs through January 5, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, in the Morris A. And Meyer Schapiro Wing, fifth floor. The fully illustrated catalog is $34, softcover, and $45, hardcover.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art is at 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. Museum hours are Wednesday-Friday, 10 am to 5 pm. First Saturdays, 11 am to 11 pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 6 pm. Closed Monday, Tuesday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Call 718-638-5000 to hear a recording with updated program and exhibition information and detailed directions by car and public transportation, or www.brooklynmuseum.org.
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