Published  31/07/2007

The Naked Portrait

The Naked Portrait

6 June-2 September 2007
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Opening this month at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 'The Naked Portrait' explores the genre of naked portraiture and brings together many of the most significant artists from the past century. This major new exhibition brings together both art and photography through the work of over 80 artists, from Pierre Bonnard to Tracey Emin.

The show features around 150 examples of the genre, dating from around 1906 to the present day, representing one century of work. 'The Naked Portrait' shows how the subject matter has become widespread throughout the period and examines how artists' varied uses of the naked portrait have reflected the rapidly changing cultural and moral landscape of the last century.

James Holloway, Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, has said, 'This is the most ambitious and challenging exhibition that the Scottish National Portrait Gallery has ever mounted. It is the first time that the Gallery has devoted two floors to a show ... This is an exhibition not to be missed.'

'The Naked Portrait' brings together work by a diverse range of artists and photographers, including, Egon Schiele, Alfred Stieglitz, Pierre Bonnard, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Stanley Spencer, John Bratby, Richard Avedon, Lucian Freud, Annie Leibovitz, Nan Goldin, Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton, David Bailey, Gilbert and George, Gerhard Richter, John Coplans, Robert Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans, Marc Quinn and Sam Taylor-Wood.

Among the works from these artists included in the exhibition is a selection of photographs from Lewis Morley, including 'Christine Keeler', an early example of a naked portrait circulated in the mass media, capturing the sexual allure of a figure at the centre of the Profumo scandal. Among the works from Tracey Emin is 'The Last thing I said to you', which demonstrates the artist's use of self-portraiture to convey a sense of vulnerability rooted in personal childhood experiences. Tracey Emin is also representing Britain at the Venice Biennale this summer (See the review on this website).

The subject matter of the works includes men and women of varying ages, disabled and able-bodied, and from a wide range of ethnic groups. The relationship between the artist and subject varies from an intimate relationship to the artist not knowing their subject beyond the circumstance of making the picture. Many of the images represent the artists themselves. Photographer Melanie Manchot notes the complexities of our response to naked portraits:

I think the naked human body brings up so many intense and important psychological issues in all of us. It is at times both vulnerable and strangely threatening when stripped of its façade, mask, persona and signs which clothing provides us with. So a lot of my work attempts to explore the complicated feelings that we all have when encountering the naked human body, our feelings of delight, shame, amusement, embarrassment, or indifference.1

The 1915 portraits by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant of their friend David Garnett capture different aspects of the same individual. Bell captures his boyish innocence, Grant - his lover and also the partner of Vanessa Bell - made him sexy. Both capture the Bloomsbury artists' dedication to friendship, art and ideas. Painted in the early stages of the First World War, the Bloomsbury Group's stand on pacifism and conscientious objection meant that its members became even more separated from the mainstream of English thought and action. Although Roger Fry and Clive Bell were extremely influential in the development of art theory in the first part of the twentieth century, the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant valued personal liberty, and in the face of personal hostility - which was inevitable during the war - they became more inward-looking and removed from society. At their best, their works reveal a trueness to self and those close to them. Much work of this period developed an interesting tension and ambivalence: whereas Dada artists on the continent fought the absurdity of war with absurdity and the British Vorticists portrayed war and mechanised society in order to condemn it, Bell and Grant and their Bloomsbury friends chose to pretend the horror did not exist.

'The Naked Portrait' includes five works by Egon Schiele. A great many of the works of Schiele owe their existence to the numerous taboos constraining artists at that time, particularly in Vienna. These things are long consigned to the past together with the social restrictions of the time, including concepts of a protected privacy. In the absence of shame, creativity could flourish. In Schiele's work, the safe boundary of aesthetics, which so comforted more conventional artists of the time, was breached for good.

Unlike Klimt, Schiele chose to demolish the existing concept of beauty. Schiele's own important self-portraits were initiated by no less than the leading architect Otto Wagner. The artist was to develop a series of portraits of famous Viennese figures, but in Schiele's hands this became controversial, and soon after Schiele turned to making portraits of pregnant or sick women, executed while staying in his mother's home town. He was always drawn, it seems, to depict unhappiness or deprivation in one form or another. This possibly reflects a disrupted childhood, with the death of his father at a young age. But the mood of Schiele's work was also consistent with the apprehensive mood of the early years of the twentieth century. The figures - lesbian or androgynous - are reflected in the further affront to decency: here is the vulnerability and susceptibility of his lost generation, by now needlessly at war. At the very end of his life Schiele, was, however, aware that he had become possibly Vienna's greatest living painter and graphic artist.

In a very different vein, David Hockney states, 'What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn't be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought'.2

David Hockney's portraiture has become well known in recent years with his prodigious output - using watercolour on an unprecedented scale - and his work and publication on the subject of optical devices, such as the camera lucida. He is represented here by two works, In 'The Beginning' (1966) and 'Peter Getting out of Nick's Pool', (1969). Portraiture has run through his oeuvre since his teenage years - and naked portraiture features in an unselfconscious manner.

David Hockney uses different media, expressing personal and heartfelt emotions with a tenderness that is a privilege to experience. The scale and range of the work and the level of intimate engagement with the process and the subjects is prompted by a rare faith and trust in human relations. In Hockney we experience what George Steiner (in On Difficulty and Other Essays) identified as a lost quality in contemporary literature, a space afforded around figures.3 For all the intimacy, Hockney also allows a privacy and respect around his characters. The product is compelling. Although Hockney works in the traditional genres of portraiture, still life and landscape, he has been innovative at all stages of his career. There is a touching candour and unpretentious quality that personifies Hockney's life and work.

Hockney's work is often confrontational in manner, psychologically as well as technically. The loss of friends to AIDS in Los Angeles was especially devastating; further, it symbolised the end of an emancipated sexuality and freedom and tolerance that had drawn Hockney and many others to LA in the sixties. The contribution made by Hockney as an artist to the Gay Liberation movement from the 1960s onwards is examined by Edmund White in The Lineaments of Desire, the catalogue essay to accompany last year's exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 'David Hockney Portraits'. White observes: 'From the very beginning literature, homosexual desire and tributes to friends came together as sources in David Hockney's work. He would remain true to these three influences until the present. Hockney took up gay subject matter before almost anyone else - and the amazing thing is that he got away with it ... Hockney's cool detachment and our sense that he has other, strictly artistic designs on us direct our attention away from all these smooth, bare buttocks.'4 Hockney has said of his early works:

What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something that hadn't been propagandised, especially among students, as a subject: homosexuality. I felt it should be done. Nobody else would use it as a subject because it was part of me, it was a subject I could treat humorously. I loved the line, 'we two boys together clinging'; it's a marvellous, beautiful, poetic line.5

Themes explored within the exhibition include: the challenge to received notions of ideal physical beauty; age identity; the artistic exploration of love and desire; the projection of 'otherness' in terms of social class, race; celebrity; and the fundamentals of the human aging process and mortality.

Chapter six of the well-furnished catalogue, The Naked Portrait, raises an interesting aspect of the subject, which relates to gender problems surely inherent in portraiture, especially nude portraiture and the rise of the male nude. This chapter, entitled 'A Crisis of Masculinity', addresses the question of male nude self-portraiture. The field is focused on the profiles of artists 'conscious of their passage to middle or old age'.6 Lucian Freud is prominent here; his 'Painter Working, Reflection' (1993) offers a challenging figure, not quite gladiatorial in stance, with scalpel in left hand, sword-like, and palette in the right hand, shield-like. The catalogue author claims more peaceably, but unconvincingly, that Freud is waving 'a wand'. It is a very scary picture. Freud has been criticised for his objectification of his female sitters. Linda Nochlin, in Art Forum (1994), attacked him sharply for his 'rampant male egocentricity'.7 This self-portrait shows Freud in a less-than-defensive male stance, perhaps already aware of this biting female criticism. Freud does not need, as does Francesco Clemente here, to incorporate a death's head into the self-portrait as a reminder of mortality. Freud displays all the ravages of time on the aging male physique.

Linda Nochlin had famously questioned, in 1971, why there were no great women artists. Frida Kahlo of course belies this assertion, indeed her painting on the subject of her miscarriage, 'Henry Ford Hospital' (1932) naturally dramatises the tragedy perceived. It is not included in the exhibition, but would have been a revealing inclusion in terms of the artist's own elaboration of the miscarriage narrative and its documentation (the foetus was refused to her) by means of the illustration of relevant elements of her body, shown detached but prominent in the depiction. The number of Frida Kahlo's self-portraits is extraordinary by the standards of most artists. It is precisely this self-scrutiny and insight that she brings to the female condition that has made her nothing less than an icon of the Women's Movement. Her story is now well known, and certainly the dominant theme in her life and work is that of physical injury and suffering, following an appalling accident when she was 19. It is curious, however, that although Kahlo made many confrontational images of womanhood, the only nudes of herself were those that related to medical procedures such as childbirth, miscarriage and surgery. Nakedness for Kahlo was not a sensual or sexual issue, but one of great vulnerability and mortality. The work by Tracey Emin exhibited here, 'Just Remember How it Was' (1998), is a fulfilment of Kahlo's motivation in terms of candour and female independence. Here again the female portrayed is a victim as much as Freud's painting referred to above stands as a threat and a challenge. A more benign take which reasserts masculinity in portraiture is by Yves Klein in the portrait-relief, 'Arman' (1962), of his fellow artist of that name.

Is obesity a male-female issue? Clearly in contemporary society it is of profound concern, extending to major health prescriptions. But Jenny Saville is unfazed by the condition, which of course is as much a male as a female predicament. Nor is it any longer age-related, since obesity now spreads across age-sex statistics in social profiling. Gilbert and George are to be complimented on their trim figures, and stand proudly before us in 'In the Piss' (1997).

The Courtauld Gallery in London has created a timely exhibition, 'Temptation in Eden: Cranach's Adam and Eve'.  Here Lucas Cranach took Adam and Eve on a nudist journey in a deliberate and revolutionary move to shock Northern Germany's chaste religiosity. Albrecht Dürer had epitomised the asexuality of naked figures in his 'Adam and Eve' (1504), but Cranach, like many of the nude portrait photographers in this exhibition, chose to return sexuality, even eroticism, to the male and female figures. This modernity pervades Cranach's work. While his 'Cupid Complaining to Venus' (c.1525) would have seemed to Martin Luther to show that decadence leads to hell, his 'Adam and Eve' (1526) at the Courtauld reveals the artist's own obsession with sex and his awareness of the risks of seduction. The nude in this exhibition above all shows the variance in the artist's interpretation and the subjects' ambivalence, wavering between the explicit and the oblique.

Mapplethorpe's photographs indicate a pride in male genitalia. Many of the portraits, conversely, are defensive of their anatomy. Not so Christine Keeler in her calculating pose shielded by designer chair, in the famous photograph taken by Lewis Morley (1963). Venus and Keeler have much in common in their attitude to the predatory male.
The photography of Diane Arbus is also represented, including a number of works taken in a nudist camp. Her photographs reveal an almost obsessive dedication to capturing the people who existed on the fringe of society and to exposing those who succeeded within in it. The intensity in the sheer volume of stylistically similar works shows her success in achieving her most famous goal: 'I would like to photograph everybody'. In capturing individuality and interiority, Arbus approached every subject with the same format in a similar manner. Thus she explored, and perhaps exploited, their differences, but she also treated them equally. In 1972, Arbus was credited as being 'one of those rare figures ... who suddenly, by a daring leap into a territory formerly regarded as forbidden, altered the terms of the art she practised'.8 And yet, it is for these same reasons that her motives and approach are constantly questioned. Raising issues about Arbus's responsibility to her subjects, Susan Sontag asked about the moment after the button has been pushed. 'Far from spying on freaks and pariahs, catching them unawares, the photographer has gotten grown to know them, reassured them - so that they posed for her as calmly and stiffly ... A large part of the mystery of Arbus's photographs lies in what they suggest about how her subjects felt after consenting to be photographed. Do they see themselves, the viewer wonders, like that?'9

There is something mildly ridiculous in Arbus's 'Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N.J.' (1963). The nudist camp was in Arbus's view a latter-day version of the pastoral impulse, requiring great courage: 'For many of these people, their presence here is the darkest secret of their lives, unsuspected by relatives, friends, and employers in the outside world, the disclosure of which might bring disgrace.'10 Arbus admitted to being quite two-faced in ingratiating herself to the nudists. The sitters' amiable expressions indicate that she charmed her way in to their very private world, and yet maintained an ironic detachment. In 'Siobhan in my Bathtub, Berlin' (1992) Nan Goldin by contrast identifies with her sitter and achieves a real trust. She comments: 'It's really about giving back to the people, who gave so much of themselves to me.'11

Favourites in the show include Lewis Morley's 'Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage' (1982), a spoof of Morley's Christine Keeler almost twenty years earlier, and Sam Taylor-Wood's 'Dustin Hoffman' (from the 'Crying Men' series) (2004). 'The Naked Portrait' is a most worthwhile exhibition and is endowed with a scholarly investigation that presents amusing, tender, confrontational and life-enhancing works to great effect.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Hammer M. The Naked Portrait. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2007: 11.
2. Quoted in: Howgate S, Stern Shapiro B, Glazebrook, White E, Livingstone M. David Hockney Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2006.
3. Steiner G. On Difficulty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
4. White E, The Lineaments of Desire. In: Hockney Portraits. Op. cit.: 48.
5. Ibid: 49.
6. Hammer M. Op.cit.
7. Nochlin L. Flesh for Phantasy: frayed fraud - Lucian Freud's nude paintings. ArtForum March 1984: 58.
8. Kramer H. From Fashion to Freaks. The New York Times. 5 November 1972.
9. Sontag S. On Photography. London: Penguin Books, 1977: 36.
10. Arbus quoted by Hammer, op.cit., p.110.
11. Goldin, quoted in: ibid, p.59.

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