The Naked Portrait
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 Gallery’s 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 Andy Warhol.

This year’s 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 it’s 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 Clark’s 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 Freud’s 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. Schiele’s 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 (Sigmund’s 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 rawest states.

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 Avedon’s portraits of beat poets and Warhol’s 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, there’s nothing we human beings find more fascinating than a good bit of navel-gazing.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 24.06.07