on portraits and nakedness

25 11 2007


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:

bailey selby

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:


— Elizabeth




4 responses

25 11 2007

This is the same show that was at Edinburgh. I loved the large Baileys. I don’t remember the Sam Taylor Wood at all!

I think the female photographer who recorded her cancer treatment was Helen Chadwick.

I am beginning to think that themed exhibitions don’t do it for me – they never quite get it right. I found this show too variable – some wonderful work (mostly black and white photography), but a lot that just didn’t make the grade.

25 11 2007
White Hart

I’ve never been able to draw, or create much in the way of visual art, but I remember back in my student days trying to evoke the male form in verse. (I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, and no longer have the notebooks containing the attempt.) I could try again now, I suppose, but it feels rather too private – and I wonder whether painters’ partners really realise what they’re letting themselves in for?

26 11 2007
Inversion Layer

Rhythmaning, I found this exhibition particularly variable, but have resigned myself to leaving any exhibition vaguely dissatisfied – if it gets me thinking then I deem it a success! The thing that did strike me about the way this one had been put together was the captioning. There were some odd choices of expression – the reference to ‘raw flesh’ seemed strange; some patently unconsidered assertions – the fact that one figure is clothed and the other naked means it isn’t about sex; and there were captions that failed to acknowledge any kind of existing history or analysis – Helen Chadwick’s Vanitas II was particularly striking in this respect.

White Hart, it’s interesting that you feel the enterprise would be too private. Does looking at the paintings of people’s partners make you feel that things are being exposed that were meant to be private, or that a trust has been broken?

— Elizabeth

4 12 2007

overwhelming number of naked portraits of women by their male partners and the very few corresponding naked portraits of me

On a very tangential note I’m currently annoyed because the film I saw last night warned about ‘nudity’ on the ticket. It was male nudity, and you couldn’t really see anything. What annoyed me is the double standard – if it was female nudity there wouldn’t have been any warning on the ticket.

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