It’s been quite a few years since I last read my copy of Kenneth Clark’s majesterial masterwork The Nude and, frankly, I have to admit that even after extensive brow furrowing, head scratching and nose wrinkling, I still can’t seem to recall any of the characters or plot, let alone who did it or why they might have done it. I do, however, retain a lingering memory that the tone of its delivery precisely echoed the same purring patrician timbre, compellingly confident cadences and smugly authoritative erudition that the author used when presenting his famous TV blockbuster thriller series Civilisation. During the course of that hugely influential televisual performance, he gave the very impressive impression of being cosily familiar with just about every single item of cultural significance created in European art from Renaissance times to the start of Modernity. And, similarly, I seem to recall that his book suggests that not only had he ogled every single sculpted and painted rendition of the unclothed human form since Fred Flintstone first graffitied a crude version of Willendorf Wilma on the walls of his cave, but that he had also then taken the time to commit them all to memory. The result being that – at the drop of a hat, the unbuttoning of a fly or the unclipping of a bra strap – he could then instantly bring to mind each pose, gaze and composition, sufficient to be able to compare and contrast them all and so go on to reveal the evolutionary order of their development and all the intervening stylistic variations in between – the explicatory chronological cataloguing of which then becoming the basis of his own magnificent magnum opus.
Now, were someone to boast to me that they had memorised the entire pictorial contents of Playboy magazine, from the inaugural revelation of Marilyn Monroe in the early 1950s all the way through to Kate Moss’ appearance in the sixtieth anniversary edition, I suppose I’d be equally impressed but, to quote the old joke about the Portnoy’s Complaint author Philip Roth, I’m not sure I’d want to shake their hand. And herein lies the rub, so to speak. Since artistic propriety insists that staring intently at a reclining Venus sans togs painted by, say, Botticelli, Velasquez or Rubens will stimulate an entirely different set of emotional muscles to those invigorated by a prurient peek at the equally curvaceous embodiment of a similarly recumbent centerfold cutie. What’s the difference? Well, one is an example of fine art and the other is, at best, mere erotica and, at worst, tawdry pornography. Or rather, as the good Lord Clark explained things – one of the models is nude and the other naked.
When Clark made this rather wonderfully exquisite distinction everyone nodded in agreement and, comfortably reassured, returned their gaze to the object of their own particular attention. During the course of the subsequent sixty or so years, however, societal attitudes have changed and changed rather dramatically. And I’m not sure that it’s possible to look at renditions of the unadorned body as stylistic studies in form, or allegorical illustrations of morals and fables, any more without feeling the weight of all those debates around the male gaze, gender inequalities, capitalistic power structures, censorship and so on bearing down and blurring the view.
All of which is a rather long-winded introduction to get to Where are we now, a panel discussion held at the Royal Academy as part of a season of talks and discussions designed to complement The Renaissance Nude exhibition currently occupying the Academy’s Sackler Wing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the panelists – moderator Jacky Klein; exhibitionist artist Jem Stehli; queer theorist Adrian Rifkin; and my old friend and muse, the classicist and TV personality Mary Beard – seemed able to pontificate with quite the same assured certainty and eloquence as that of the late Lord Clark. But then the entire discussion was all a bit of a half-hearted affair, no-one having very strong or controversial opinions about anything very much. Although, in summary I think it’s probably fair to say that all shared severe doubts about Clark’s distinction between the nude and the naked; most were generally bemused by Instagram’s algorithmic censorship of certain artistic imagery; some thought the later works of Lucien Freud were just a bit creepy; and, perhaps more curiously, all seemed to be united once again in having a sneeringly critical opinion of Titian’s painting of Venus Rising from the Sea. Aside from that, the only noteworthy comment that comes to mind was when Professor Beard said that while she was frequently referred to as, ‘that strange academic woman on TV who doesn’t care about what she looks like’, she does, in fact, ‘care deeply’. Who knew?
As for the actual exhibition, I suppose it’s a bit like the discussion in that it’s not entirely disagreeable but contains no great revelations. And apologies to the curatorial team if they really did, in fact, have some important specific proposition about the role of the nude in Renaissance era art to raise for, aside from confirming its variation and ubiquity, if they did have one, I’m afraid I didn’t manage to spot it. So, anyway, what’s to see in the show? Well, there’s a rather higgledy piggledy selection of paintings and prints all featuring personages – male and female – in various states of undress. I don’t think many or, indeed, any are directly personal portraits, although I may be wrong since my memory for these kinds of things comes nowhere near matching the extraordinary levels of near total recall that Clark managed to achieve. Instead, just about everything on show makes reference to episodes from the Bible or works of classical literature, most notably Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So, there’s a multiplicity of representations of all the usual suspect flashers: Adam and Eve, St Sebastian, Venus and Apollo as well as many other assorted naturists, named and unnamed, with everyone caught in various states of shame, suffering, ecstasy, surprise, contemplation and so on and so forth.
Personally, I thought that the Titian was rather appealing but then I suppose we all have our own particular peccadilloes – de gustibus non est disputandum as everyone’s favourite bluestocking classicist would doubtless say. Anyway, despite my earlier comments, I kind of think that when I was walking around gazing at all this flaunted flesh, I did actually manage to look at it remarkably dispassionately: assessing the anatomical accuracy of the displays; recalling all the various religious references and classical allusions to which reference and allusion were being made; admiring the formal qualities of the compositions; and generally acknowledging the technical mastery of the media achieved by the likes of Durer, Cranach, Mantegna, Michaelangelo, Bronzino and all their other clever contemporaries. And while putting on my feminist hat – if feminists wear such things these days – I can well appreciate the prevalence of the female nude in art carries with it some hugely problematical baggage, I’d not be entirely truthful if I said that I felt that these concerns got in the way of my general appreciation of this exhibition or made me feel very voyeuristic.
Unlike the other show on today’s itinerary. For over at the White Cube gallery in Bermondsey Tracey Emin has been baring her soul, and everything else, over and over again in an entrancingly narcissistic display of self-portraiture via photography, painting, print and sculpture. All the works seem to have been created in a frenzied flurry of creative exuberance, especially the paintings – or rather, drawings in paint – where coloured lines have been scribbled and scrawled onto canvases as if Emin was racing against the tightest of deadlines and required to produce the entire series of twenty or thirty paintings in about half an hour. At least, that’s one possible explanation for the fact that the central figure in each picture has such a struggles to emerge from the bewildering blitz of seemingly random marks within which it is imprisoned. Of course, another explanation might be that Emin is, like most of us, just not very good at drawing. This would also provide a reason for the fact that the facial features – which, I suppose, most of us find the hardest part of the picture to render realistically – are simply scrubbed out in just about all the portraits. There is one exception that does sort of capture Emin’s familiar quirky physiognomy but then this cartoony caricature, that seems to show the artist attempting to eat a very large Mars bar, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. I just can’t help thinking that every other time she tried to get a rough facial resemblance she failed and then quickly scratched out the results.
A kinder critic would, perhaps, propose that the very crudity, simplicity and uninhibited force of expression within Emin’s paintings are a measure of the honesty of the artist’s desire to render an unmediated and precise expression of the state of her personal mental inner torment. And, further, that the repeated self-defacement of her own portraits speaks of some terrible self-doubting or self-loathing, the admission of which should encourage the observer’s most empathetic response…and so on. To which I reply – phooey. I just don’t think she can draw very well and the fact that she once occupied the post of Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy, makes the fact that Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize seem, by comparison, to be perfectly reasonable.