Robert Downey Jr by Sam Taylor-Wood
A couple of weekends ago, we visited Compton Verney’s current exhibition, The Naked Portrait 1900 –2007, which is on until 9th December. The exhibition has been curated by Martin Hammer, University of Edinburgh and includes work by Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Pierre Bonnard, Helen Chadwick, Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud, Gilbert & George, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alice Neel, Eduardo Paolozzi, Marc Quinn, Auguste Rodin, Jo Spence, Wolfgang Tillmans, Alfred Stieglitz and Sam Taylor-Wood.
I think the most apt word I’d use to some up my experience of the exhibition would have to be ‘thought-provoking’. Some of the pictures left me unmoved; one triptych left me almost in tears. The latter was a set of images by an artist whose name I carelessly failed to note down, revealing her body after surgery for breast cancer. The first two of her images I perceived as revealing her body; I inspected the damage, tried to imagine how I might feel in the same situation and moved on. The third image held me. I saw it as far more naked than either of the other two – unclothed – images because it seemed to be revealing all her pain helplessness in the face of disease. Looked at her naked body I could deal with, but seeing her naked emotions was something I was not prepared for and felt uncomfortably voyeuristic about. Of course, I know that one cannot photograph emotions, I know that the feelings were entirely my own, evoked by the image, but the experience was powerful and perhaps made me feel uncomfortably naked myself.
I bought a postcard from the shop that evoked a completely different emotion for me:
This portrait of Belinda Selby by David Bailey makes me grin every time I look at it (I’m planning on putting it on the wall above my desk). To me she looks joyful and at ease with herself and her body.
Something that didn’t make me grin was the overwhelming number of naked portraits of women by their male partners and the very few corresponding naked portraits of men by female artists. Who knows where the disparity creeps in: maybe women are just not so fascinated by male bodies; maybe it’s still our Western culture that makes the female body a ligitimate object of gaze and keeps the male body private; maybe the curator of the exhibition prefers the female portrait. I don’t expect a careful count to be kept, but the uneven split makes me uncomfortable.
Lastly, and most interestingly, I found this quote alongside a portrait by the German artist Gerhard Richter:
A portrait must not express anything of the sitter’s ‘soul’, essence or character…It is far better to paint a portrait from a photograph, because no-one can ever paint a specific person – only a picture that has nothing whatsoever in common with the sitter
I frequently find myself wanting to shake people for their unquestioning conviction that a photograph embodies the subject, or even is the subject, but it feels counter-intuitive to witness a portrait painter emphasising the fact that an image is just that and that (just as with a text) meaning arises only when the viewer interacts with the image.
And here, for good measure, is my own rather coy naked self-portrait: