“The Recycled Nude” Hay Festival
Talk, Hay Festival, May 27 2013
I speak to you today as a woman who dedicated her last book to her grandchildren. Unfortunately ,they are forbidden to look at it because they are so young and the illustrations are so rude.
It’s an odd position to be in, a divorced grandmother who has written a book containing some shocking images . Or, as The Observer said,images that are ‘titillating, embarrassing and sometimes downright disgusting’.
This was never my intention. Although every image was my own choice ,it wasn’t until the I opened the finished book that I realised how outspoken some of them were.I had checked the page proofs , of course, but flat sheets of paper in black and white are not the same as a bound book where size matters and where images placed on the right hand page jump up to meet your eyes.
Whatever the flamboyant result, the book began in earnest. It was as an attempt to explain a revolution. An artistic revolution.
It’s an interesting revolution because it has happened under our noses and for a long time remained almost unnoticed. I don’t mean that the extraordinary new kind of nudes like those by Jenny Savillewere unnoticed. They were given lots of media exposure when they were shown at Saachi in 1993. I mean that what hadn’t yet been noticed was that these nudes were part of a bigger change that was taking place all over the west but which no one seemed to have stood back from and seen as a whole.
What I realized had happened – not at first of course, but after lots of looking and lots of research — was thatthe nude we are all comfortable with had been replaced by a nude that can cause us great discomfort.
In 1956, Kenneth Clark, then the director of the National Gallery, wrote a book called The Nude . And right at the start, on page one, he laid out his hand for all to see . ‘To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes,’ he said.’The word nude on the other hand, carries in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.’
As a definition, it is brilliant.It is short and and clear. And it is still repeated all over the place, as if it is the last word on the subject.
But as someone who has been looking at the paintings of the last half century, I gradually realised that it wasn’t the last word and that he was actually describing a past that was just about to come to an end .By 1960, four years after his book was published, the world of avant garde art gasped at a happening in Paris at which Yves Klein painted models blue and then dragged them over sheets of paper.
I say gradually realised because it was gradual. People often ask where writers get their ideas and though sometimes you can up with a quick and tidy response, in this case the book developed out of a series of disparate events that finally coalesced.
Three of these were particularly important.
The earliest was twenty years ago when I went to see Jenny Saville’s debut exhibition at the Saachi Gallery in St. John’s Wood. I was utterly impressed by this show of oversized women on oversized canvases peering down at me from the white walls. They were fantastically well painted, which was a joy, but in addition they had a subject ,which was contemporary issues surrounding women and their bodies. Plan , which is bigger than life, has concentric circles on the stomach, circles which suggest the contour lines on a map.Comparisons between landscape and the female body are as old as time: what else is mons veneris, hill of Venus, if nota metaphor for the female pubic area?Bill Brandt made photographs of female nudes which looked like part of the landscape in which they were posed, rocks or cliffs or sand dunes. But that is all very romantic. It took a modern young woman to come up with a much grittier and contemporary artistic simile, one that suggests the body’s sunruly bulk or the marks that plastic surgeons make before they operate.
The second event was about ten years ago when Australian radio asked me to reassess Clark’s book andI heard myself explaining naked as when you got out of the bath with no one to see you and so no reason to look seductive and comparing it with nude which implied a spectator. And realising, though not saying it, that by then I had seen quite a few contemporary nudes which were naked rather than nude.
Event no. 3 was five years ago at an exhibition called Seduced at the Barbican, billed as a show about erotic art. I found this show a nightmare to go round. A lot of erotic art from the past takes the form of small prints and drawings that were hidden away in private studies. But of course for this show, these were placed on the wall for the visitor to look at, so I went to look at them. But as I did so, I felt like a dirty old man in a mac and I realised, as a nicely brought up fifties girl, I had no etiquette for behaving in this situation. I could have comfortably indulged my curiosity in private but to display that curiosity in public, to be seen to be staring at these images, made me very uncomfortable indeed. And things were no better with the modern art. Faced with the great big Ilona on Top by Jeff Koons , which I had seen in reproduction with not one shiver of shock, I felt embarrassed to be seen staring at it in public. I called up my art historical self and admired the irony of Jeff Koons’ knowing grin and the Disney butterflies, but it was really only a sort of bloody mindedness that kept me looking at it.
Clearly something was happening to the nude in art, something that Clark’s brilliant definition could not cover. It was as if the contemporary nude was doing everything that Clark felt it shouldn’t.
So I had my book: the change in the nude of the last fifty yearsI didn’t want to say that the nude was dead. Just that it had been reworked for our age.
It was then that the real work began. That’s the question that you should really ask a writer: Where did you start?
In the case of this book, I had no idea where to start at all. I had the conviction that the contemporary nude had changed from Clark’s ideal nude .I was able to assemble a collection of before and after nudes, like the ones we started with. I had a few hunches about why it had changed. I even had a title, a metaphor, which I was really proud of, the Recycled Nude, which I felt summed up my argument. It wasn’t a lot so the challenge became to hold my nerve and stick with the idea.
One thing that helped me get going was that I decided not to hamper myself by being even handed. I would present an argument not write a text book. Art historians have an inhibiting tendency of trying to cover their backs, cutting off their critics at the pass so to speak. It is inhibiting because it disrupts the flow of argument, a word I use intentionally. Because is it facts we are dealing with in a book like this, or opinion? Obviously it is both, but what is the balance?
The dates of the works of art in the book are facts. The quotations from artists are their actual words.
But what you do with the facts is interpretation. I was well aware that I could take the facts and write another book entirely, one in which the shocking nudes of today could trace their roots back to the erotica kept under lock and key, to grotesque old lady witches of the seventeenth century and the heavy bodied nudes of Durer’s Bath House. But I didn’t do it. I stuck to my conviction that we were seeing something new
I decided to shrink the subject, treating it as if it were a series of talks or essays , each looking at a different aspect of the nude’s contemporary reinvention. Because of research I had done for an earlier book about women artists’ self portraits, I was convinced that women had played a huge part in changing the way the body looked in art.So that was where I started.
Feminist artists of the 1970s played an important part in the redefinition of the nude from ideal to everyday because at the very heart of their beliefs was a resentment of the way male artists had created an unattainable image of the female nude.The feminists argued that the ideal nude was made by men for men. Their strategy was to take back their bodies from their ownership by men by presenting the nude in the way they saw it as women.One of the ways they did this was by performing in the nude.Their theory was that by controlling how their nudity was presented, they could control the viewers’ responses. I am not sure if they completely succeeded in their hope of damping the spectators’ voyeurism — one can’t help but note how many of the performance artists were beautifully made — but they certainly offered food for new ways of thinking about bodies. In 1975, Carolee Schneeman read from a scroll pulled out of her vagina.It’s all about a patronising malefilm maker: ‘I met a happy man/a structuralist filmmaker/ he said we are fond of you/ you are charming/but don’t ask us to look at your films/we cannot/there are certain films we cannot look at/ the personal clutter/ the persistence of feeling.’
Some of their work was highly original and has now attained classic status, like Eleanor Antin’s chronicle of her diet over 36 days in 144 photos of herself. Her witty title, Carving :A Traditional Sculpture, is an allusion to the Michelangelesque practice of chipping away at the stone to get at the body inside. Marina Abramovic is a super star who had a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010. In 1975 ,she and Ulay , her then partner in life and in art, stood either side of an exit door of a gallery in Bologna, forcing those who wanted to leave to choose which body to face as they squeezed past. This really speaks about the discomforting reality of nudity rather than the ideal version.
Some women artists looked at the repellent use the aging female body has been put to in traditional art , as in Durer’s Old Woman with a Bag of Money of 1507 for example.The series of nude photos Melanie Manchot made in 1999 of her mother, a handsome older woman with a handsome older woman’s body,
The feminists’ lines of questioning about the body were immensely influential, as John Coplans’ photographic self portraits show with their on the reality of the older male naked body. Anthony Gormley , the artist famous for creating casts of his own naked body , has absorbed feminist insights about the overbearing quality of masculinity . He said that part of the reason that he often lays the body down or puts it on the wall, is that ‘I am aware that because I am tall there is a sense of dominance.’
I said I started with a handful of hunches and I took mine seriously . I was sure , for example, that art education must have had something to do with the death of the ideal nude.I knew something about this because my first book had been about artists modelsand because people who had been at art school in the nineteen seventies and eighties had told me that they had never been taught art history and had never drawn from the live model. But while that kind of personal testimony is enough for a talk or an article, a bit more evidence is needed if the theory is to going to live a bit longer between hard covers.
I found the proof in the library of London University’s school of education: two leaflets, one published in 1950 which required the candidate to complete a number of specific poses from the live model in order to qualify for a diploma in art history and the other ten years later, the famous Coldstream Report ,which did not set down any requirements at all. The sculptor William Tucker said that at art school in London in the 1960s he felt’ liberated by the sense that sculpture could be constructed of any material and its subject need no longer be the human figure.’
Doing this book was like doing a jigsaw without the picture on the box. The little clumps of evidence that were forming were like little clumps of interlaced puzzle pieces. As they multiplied they could be moved around and sometimeseven linked to each other .Slowly a picture began to emerge of half a century of change which resulted in the overthrow of the ideal nude. And the birth of the recycled nude.
One of the most interesting clumps of evidence concerned the painters. By the 1960s, realism was a discredited method of painting, only taught in adult art education and beloved by amateur artists. For art world gurus, respect for realism had finally collapsed with the glamour of the American abstract expressionists of the 1940s.For them, the nude, the reclining nude, the heroic male nude was a sort of historic notion, practised and perfected by painters in the past but with little relevance to the present.
So what happened if you were an ambitious painter who wanted to paint the nude and who alsowanted recognition from the critics and galleries of the art establishment.? Within a decade of the publication of Clark’s book ,three painters of a new kind of nude had emerged. All three knew they had to produce a newly modern nude if they were to be noticed. Even in this sixties work by Freud, there is nothing of the smooth seductive beauty of the traditional female nude. Freud was pretty taciturn on the subject of his art , but he did say that that it was about art and not the models who are its ostensible subject, an impeccably modern view.
The AmericanPhilip Pearlstein is another fan of the harsh light of day, of a nudity that is more knobbly than smoothly curvy. He had begun his artistic career as an abstract expressionist, and felt that he had to explain his return to painting the live model. As he said in 1962:‘It seems madness on the part of any painter educated in the twentieth century modes of picture making to take as his subject the naked human figure.’ Aware that colour and form were the content of art and not a representation of life, he told his readers that ‘Once I decided that the models just added up to a kind of big still life, I felt that had dispensed with the problem.’
Tom Wesselmann went off in the direction of cartoon perfection, concentrating on the sexual element in the way the nudes of old would never do.His great project was to produce the Great American Nude, combining an awareness of past great painters of the nude with the sexuality of the raunchiest pinups and he did this for decades on canvas after canvas. He was interested in the kind of overt sexuality which Clark felt was outside the territory of the ideal nude and in his autobiography, in which he refers to himself in the third person, he explains his taste for the blatantly erotic and visually aggressive,’ everything the ideal nude was not.
This self consciousness about painting the nude has not died.
Young painters still justify their decision to paint the nude .Jenny Saville says that she is unapologetic – a revealing word –for her choice to point.
And she insists that her nudes are more than nudes: ’Having flesh as a central subject, I can channel a lot of ideas. I collect images of landscapes, news pictures of war zones, bombed-out carcases of buildings, disused factories, not just bodies. These images hold something, they give off a sensation that I’m after, one that I try to transmit through the paintings of a body.’
Marlene Dumas recalls starting out in the South Africa of the 1970s: At art school, I remember my professor told me, ‘You’re a born painter.’I replied that I considered painting old fashioned. All the smart artists were doing other kinds of work, so I wanted to do something else.But he said, My poor girl, what else could you do?’ Which is just as well, as her work reaches huge prices at auction.
Unlike the painters, the sculptors did not suffer over their decision to work with the nude. There is a theory that sculpture is the art of our time and not painting. ‘ From today painting is dead’ is supposed to have been said at the birth of photography and every so often it is repeated – often in exhibitions aiming to show that painting is alive and well. In the eighties and nineties, painting went right out of fashion in western art schools in favour of making , making anything out of anything, taking materials from absolutely anywhere, which it did with great glee.
Ten years ago, Rebecca Warren produced a group of women which she entitled Shes.These glorious beings, whose energy contrasts to the passive smooth perfection of the Rokeby Venus ,are made from rough untreated clay, all wobbles ,bumps and lumpy imperfection. When I saw them at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2003, I grinned in amusement .They were just so wild and unpredictable .Most engaging of all is Warren’s inspiration of placing the Shes on wheeled wooden boards ,making you feel as if they would scoot dangerously around the gallery , smiling wickedly at each other and changing positions as soon as your back was turned.
Marc Quinn has no problem with the great nudes of the past. In fact, he admires them so much he aspires to make his portrait sculptures in their pattern. .His great idea was to elevate his sitters who by birth, accident or sickness were lacking limbs by comparing them to the classical sculptures like the Venus de Milo who we all see as perfect, despite their absence of arms and legs. In the 1990s, he placed a number of his portraits , carved from white marble, in the cast court of the Victoria and Albert Museum , created in the nineteenth century in the name of public education and the promotion of the best artistic taste. With this installation he completely turned the idea of the ideal nude on its head.
Three years ago, Quinn found a new way to subvert the ideal nude. Staring at his life size bronze figures at the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton, it took me a minute to realise that what I was looking at was not the heroic perfection of the past but a completely new addition to the family of nudes.Brad and Alannah are in the process of what is now called gender reassignment, Alannah with a penis, Brad without one.Quinn has nothing but respect for them. He feels that their quest to align their inner desires with their outer appearance is worthy of being honoured in the finest most expensive and most traditional of materials. You can not get a newer nude than this.
Sarah Lucas’ sculpture Au Natural speaks for itself. The female is symbolised by the breast grapefruit and the womb bucket. The male by the penis made up of two oranges and a cucumber.The mattress signifies that this is a sex scene. Lucas is bringing the crudity of casual conversation inside the chaste white walls of the modern gallery where it disconcerts the viewer. It is a strong and witty statement of the crude way sex is commonly talked about in our tabloid society
At the end of the 1990s, Lucas made a number of lifesize Bunny sculptures out of stuffed tights which were placed on furniture in the kind of lewd and loose poses that have bad girl associations .By calling them Bunnies, she was referencing the Playboy Clubs where Bunny Girls with rabbit ears and white pompoms on their bottoms served the drinks. I went to the original Playboy Club in Chicago in the sixties, and the girls were glamorous but very wholesome looking in that all American way . When they served you , they bobbed down to allow a glimpse of cleavage but they always, always kept their knees together in the way that finishing schools taught girls to get out of a sports car. It was called the Bunny Dip. Lucas’s Bunnies are more louche that this ,and so it is no surprise to learn that they were exhibited in the Sigmund Freud museum in Hampstead. For me they suggest the id behind the ego, the reality behind the tightly corseted exteriors of Playboy’s packaged version of sexuality.
And then one day, it’s all done.You know it’s not perfect, but like a cat with her six week old kitten, you can’t be doing with it any more and feel it is time for it to go out to face the world. To my delight, the publisher liked it and gave me the gift of a wonderful editor to help it into print.A wonderful editor is one who says they love how and what you write and only intervenes to save your face by checking dates and titles and spellings and asking oh so politely if that was really what you meant to say.
As for my working title , The Recycled Nude, it turned out the publisher was not keen.Just before the book was printed he sent me a polite email asking how tightly I was wedded to it. I am not possessive of my books. By the time they are written , I have lost interest in them. He got his way and and so the book became The Naked Nude – two references to nudity in one title with the aim, I assume , of increased sales. But I still like my image of recycling. It helped me write the book.
My conclusion is a question.So where does all this leave us? As I see it, the invention of the ideal nude by Giorgione and then Titian in Venice at the start of the sixteenth century was genius.By stripping the body of its sexual and bodily functions and recreating it as Art, it became a fine art category like portraiture or landscape, viewable by all, women as well as men. Even children could be taught to appreciate it. The gilded frame, the hushed art gallery, the conventions that decreed a kind of airbrushed perfection all turned the body from naked into nude. At an exhibition In Venice in May, I watched parents talking to their children about Tititan’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia which had been placed side by side. The parents were not embarrassed by viewing the two nudes with their children and the children didn’t giggle because this was Art with a capital A.The parents followed the rules of art appreciation, comparing the manner in which the respective bedsheets were painted and playing a kind of arty game of spot the difference, comparing Titian’s dog with Manet’s cat.
But how would those parents and children respond to the kind of images that are being made today? To Marlene Dumas’ strippers? To The Fundamental Pictures of Gilbert and George? To the penis-nosed children of the Chapman Brothers’ Zygotic Accelertion, Biogenetic De-Sublimated Libidinal Model of 1995?
I keep thinking of Clark’s definition which so perfectly describes the way that the nude is the naked body made respectable for ar ‘To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes. ‘ wrote Clark. ‘The word nude on the other hand, carries in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.’ But uncomfortable overtones are exactly the description of the contemporary nudes we have looked at today . Could those parents and those children have stood so calmly in front of those? Clark’s formulation has been turned on its head since he wrote it in 1956 and nakedness had entered art.