Click on the photographs to see an enlarged view.
Since “Exposed: The Victorian Nude” opened a couple of weeks ago at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, art critics have been sniggering about it like schoolboys, as though every last one of the hazily painted bums and bosoms on display were a highbrow version of a Playboy centerfold. (Possibly, they’re confusing this show with New York’s Museum of Sex, which opened to the public last weekend.) “Saccharine, mindless sluttiness,” opined Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice. “Good old filth dressed up as cultural elevation” and a “fixation on naked pudenda,” wrote Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times critic.
Perhaps the confusion is natural: After all, anyone who frequents contemporary galleries is used to encountering obviously titillating work clothed in reams of disingenuous art-critical justification. But as the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark once pointed out, there’s a difference between the nude—an art-historical genre usually having to do with idealized notions of beauty—and plain old human nakedness. Besides, who says that a naked body must always signify sex? This show, which comes to us from Tate Britain, is really more of a pleasantly bluestocking-ish art-historical endeavor that delineates why and how the nude came to flourish in a somewhat surprising time and place.
Contrary to popular opinion, the nude didn’t get its start in Britain just because those wacky, hypocritical, sex-obsessed Victorians sought another opportunity to indulge base desires while keeping their little fingers raised. It was more a matter of English artists wanting to keep up with the Joneses—in this case, their peers in Europe, where the nude had long been an accepted subject. At the time, unlike most European countries, England had no state arts patronage, and its national arts academy had only just begun to propound national aesthetic ideals—something the French had already been doing with alacrity for well over a century. Instead, British subject matter was simply determined by market demand—just as it is in America today—and buyers were mostly interested in landscapes, scenes from literature and history, horse paintings, and portraits.
Because nationalism was the flavor of the 19th century in Western art, English painters started out by focusing on great nude moments in English history. The pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais depicted a knight in armor untying an unclothed damsel from a tree. The animal specialist Edwin Landseer painted the pre-Norman-Conquest activist Lady Godiva on a horse, riding naked—and sidesaddle—through Coventry. Fairies also made for popular nude subject matter, presumably because it wasn’t much of a stretch to imagine them sans clothes. Early on, there was also an attempt to typify English physiognomy and an ideal English body type.
In reaction to such provincialism, English artists embraced the so-called “classical” nude, which was all the rage in Europe. Hence the world is now blessed with such delights as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s adorably cheesy Roman bath scenes and Sir Frederic Leighton’s kitschy but painstakingly drafted Greek heroes and beauties. The advancing century saw many more British artists traveling to Paris to study life-painting and concocting the sort of massive, spectacular set pieces that could get them noticed at international shows and competitions. Typical subject matter included nudes tied to stakes, expiring in the snow, tangling with suggestively thick serpents, and writhing among clouds in ecstasy. However, all this sensationalism and treacle wasn’t unique to Victorian Britain; until the Impressionists came along, it was a major component of most 19th-century European art.
Besides, as the English nude advanced toward the 20th century, it reached a fork in the road. Some artists opted for an idealized naturalism by depicting people—mostly children—gamboling in the buff in bucolic surroundings. But the more impressive work—at least by contemporary standards—usually portrayed adult bodies in a grittily realistic fashion. Increasingly, the nude turned up posing in artists’ studios or lounging in artists’ beds.
Accordingly, this show’s real intrigue isn’t so much the artworks themselves as what they reveal about the relationship between the idealized nude and actual Victorian flesh. Not surprisingly, the nude’s presence in fine art was often feared, on the grounds that it might encourage paganism (courtesy of all those pre-Christian themes) as well as licentiousness. Yet it wouldn’t have flourished unless society also had good reason to embrace it. The image of a robust and naked male physique meshed neatly with the Victorian love of fitness and athletics. The depiction of female bodies in their natural state helped to encourage women’s emancipation from corsetry. As for the more sensational artworks—those featuring maidens in extreme physical distress—they resonated with another do-gooding Victorian concern: the plight of fallen women and the poor.
If anything, the show could have used more obviously pornographic work because the small segment devoted to such material was one of it most fascinating aspects. Much of what’s here we owe to Edward Linley Sambourne, an illustrator who frequented an amateur gentleman’s photography club where he immortalized, among other subjects, a woman whose breasts are popping out of her gypsy dress and a teenage actress wearing nothing but high heels.
Salaciousness clearly got a major shot in the arm with the invention of photography, perhaps because the medium depicted “real” bodies rather than idealized types. Yet the most arrestingly erotic work isn’t a photograph at all: It’s an utterly frank watercolor (circa 1805) by the great pre-Victorian painter J.M.W. Turner, which shows a completely naked couple in flagrante delicto—part of a suite illustrating the progression from foreplay to intercourse. (Most of Turner’s pornographic work was destroyed after his death by the notoriously prissy Victorian critic John Ruskin, who sought to preserve the great man’s reputation.)
Representing the end of Victoria’s reign are lighter-weight “smoking concert films”—the kind of thing men could peep at in the penny-in-the-slot machines that by the close of the 19th century graced English railway stations and seaside resorts. All depict women in various stages of striptease, and all are purposely silly. One features a model in an artist’s studio, stripping down to pose; when she discovers he’s actually painting a cow, she cracks his canvas over his beret. Another purports to show a Frenchwoman performing her ablutions—light on water but heavy on perfume.
As the wall texts make clear, the British routinely excoriated the French for being coarse and salacious while the French condemned them for making such vapidly titillating work. As for Americans, the British considered us prudes: Apparently some English work couldn’t be sent touring here, lest it provoke a scandal. The situation hadn’t changed much by 1999, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani censured the Brooklyn Museum for mounting “Sensation,” Charles Saatchi’s relatively tame show of contemporary British art. And today American critics are still giggling about British prurience and hypocrisy.
Maybe the Victorians had us pegged exactly right. But I suspect that what’s really shocking critics is seeing so much Victorian art at once. Until a few years ago, almost all 19th-century art (nude or not) was generally dismissed as the ultimate in bad taste—which is partly why it’s such a hot scholarly field today. Using ignored material like this, a smart curator can shed new light on a surprisingly unexamined era—and titillate a few critics at the same time.