December 2016 – January 2017

by Julie Ewington

‘Nude: Art from the Tate Collection’
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until 5 February

Hans Bellmer, The Doll (1936), painted aluminium on brass base, 635 x 307 x 305 mm, purchased 1969. © Estate of Hans Bellmer. Image © Tate, London 2016.

At last – a truly intelligent blockbuster. Nude is a splendid assembly of various nakednesses in paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs spanning 200 years. Thoughtfully bundled into eight roughly chronological sections – from ‘The Historical Nude’ of the 18th and 19th centuries to ‘Body Politics’ and ‘The Vulnerable Body’ from the 1970s to the 2000s – the exhibition runs the gamut from Lord Leighton’s pearly The Bath of Psyche (1890) to David Hockney’s tender prints showing gay couples (1966) to John Coplans’ magnificent photographic ruminations on his own ageing body (1994). Nude is as inclusive as it is eclectic, studded with treats like a Christmas pudding. And, as all blockbusters must be, it’s a show for the whole family.

Why? Nude is frank and sane, equally unapologetic about the mythological baggage veiling late Victorian nudes (sometimes with actual paint), and Francis Bacon’s rugged eroticism, and the open challenge of Barkley L Hendricks’ Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs) of 1974, all puns intended. Here the human body, the canonical subject of Western art, is considered both within the academic tradition of the nude and the more recent “naked portrait”. We’ve known “nude” and “naked” since television art guru John Berger took on his predecessor Kenneth Clark in the early 1970s, but this openly populist exercise skilfully weaves together a wealth of recent ideas, especially from feminist artists and writers. The Guerrilla Girls’ famous poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get into the Met. Museum? (1989) neatly sums up these assertions, so it’s wonderful to see two veteran American feminists hung together: Alice Neel’s Kitty Pearson (1973) is one of several “you can leave your hat on” works in the show, and Sylvia Sleigh’s Paul Rosano Reclining (1974) is quite as saccharine as Lord Leighton but far more honest in its desiring gaze; Louise Bourgeois’ works on paper are in turn irreverent and passionate, but the sculpture Arched Figure (1993, cast 2010), the AGNSW’s major recent acquisition, gives us a male nude that is extraordinary in its corporality.

Which brings me to the showstopper: Rodin’s marble The Kiss (1901–04) in a cavernous double-height space. Sparkling, spotlit, still astonishing, The Kiss compels centrifugal circling, complete attention; you notice only later the variously astringent, lush and feral works on paper surrounding it, including JMW Turner’s once-scandalous erotic watercolours, the ones that the dismayed John Ruskin “kept as evidence of a failure of mind only”. This room alone is worth the visit.

Curated jointly by the Tate’s Emma Chambers and the AGNSW’s Justin Paton, Nude is an exemplary instance of the collaborative exhibition projects that were so impressive in 2016. It triumphantly pools ideas and expertise, as much as works of art. Don’t miss it.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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