Until September 2; Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
The summer season has officially arrived in the Edinburgh gallery
world, with the opening of the Scottish National Portrait Gallerys
big festival show, The Naked Portrait. Other blockbusters lining up
for the off include a Richard Long retrospective and the first major
show on the Scottish Arts and Crafts Movement, both opening this Saturday;
to be followed by not one, but two exhibitions each on Picasso and
This years thoroughly 20th century mix could not have got off
to a better start. The Naked Portrait, a skinny-dip into the last
100 years of the genre, is not only a significant contribution to
art history, but also a deeply engaging exhibition. Such is its size
packed with high quality loans from all over the world
that its the first show to span two floors of the Portrait Gallery.
Naked portraiture is a subject much-neglected by art historians up
until now. The nude has had plenty of exposure (so to speak), but
this is something quite different. In his seminal work on the nude
in 1956, Kenneth Clark was eager to point out the distinction:
To be naked, he said, is to be deprived of our clothes
and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel
in that condition. The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated
usage, no uncomfortable overtone. For Clark, the nude was an
ideal, an artistic creation far removed from the specifics of its
real, imperfect model. The nude is not the subject of art,
he argued, but a form of art.
This exhibition explores precisely that territory which Clark dismissed
half a century before. Guest curator, Martin Hammer of Edinburgh University,
homes in on paintings, sculptures, photographs and drawings of real
people with their clothes missing. Awkward people and bold people,
intimate acquaintances and unabashed strangers. All of them are presented
as the subject of the work, and not just as a pretext for explorations
of ideal form.
Though the nude dates back to the art of antiquity, the beginnings
of the naked portrait are a bit trickier to identify. Artists through
the centuries have painted their lovers, and the mistresses of kings,
but often in the guise of Venus, or some anonymous muse, and often
under the cover of Clarks notion of ideal art.
If the Portrait Gallery could have given all of its floors and double
its budget, perhaps The Naked Portrait could have stretched back through
those centuries, and what an incredible show that would have been.
But this 20th century survey makes the most of a period when the genre
finally came out of hiding and declared itself publicly.
Hammer credits this new explosion of nakedness to the cultural influence
of Sigmund Freud. Turn-of-the-century Vienna was inspired by Freuds
quest for the liberation of the unconscious mind. As Freud uncovered
the primitive urges of his patients, artists such as Egon Schiele
were ripping the clothes off their sitters, and themselves, to find
the true character which lay beneath.
Five loans from Vienna are among the most stunning pictures in the
show. Schieles drawings of the mime artist Erwin Dominik Osen
are a world away from the smooth, classical nude. Osen adopts theatrical
poses, using his emaciated body as an artist would a pencil. The model
is very much a collaborator in these drawings, and his real, earthly
presence though highly stylised is made undeniable by
the inclusion of pubic hair and bony elbows.
The urge is palpable among artists throughout the show to peel back
the polite, socialised mask of clothes in an effort to uncover the
real human being underneath. For Lucian Freud (Sigmunds grandson),
friends and lovers are stripped of airs and attributes, a complex
bundle of flesh suspended in a state of simply being. For Nan Goldin,
the sex and drugs of the New York underworld reveal people in their
Through the sexual liberation of the 1960s, to the feminism of the
1970s and the cult of celebrity to follow, the naked portrait performs
many functions. In Richard Avedons portraits of beat poets and
Warhols factory, nakedness becomes a bold badge of bohemian
pride. In the hands of Melanie Manchot and Jenny Saville, it becomes
a way to reclaim the female body in all its shapes and sizes
from the narrow scope of the male gaze.
This cornucopia of naked portraits is thoughtfully selected, and sensitively
arranged to keep us in a constant state of dialogue. Is this a nude,
or a naked portrait? Is this naked person truly exposed, or still
hiding behind a mask? You could go around in circles all day and still
be ready for more. In the end, if the truth be known, theres
nothing we human beings find more fascinating than a good bit of navel-gazing.
Black, Sunday Herald 24.06.07