Installation view of “Nude: Art from the Tate Collection” at Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), Sydney, 2016–17. Photo by Jacquie Manning. Courtesy AGNSW

ANNA LEA MERRITTLove Locked Out, 1890, oil paint on canvas, 115.6 × 64 cm. Copyright and courtesy Tate, London. 

Nude: Art from the Tate Collection

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Australia United Kingdom

“Nude: Art from the Tate Collection” at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) is a joint curatorial effort between AGNSW and London’s Tate, offering audiences in Australia a historical survey of the genre via one of Europe’s most significant institutions, covering the late 18th century through to the present.

The nude is closely bound with gender politics, evident even from the first gallery themed “The Historical Nude,” which is dominated by classical allegories. American painter Anna Lea Merritt’s Love Locked Out (1890), a depiction of a nude child, representing Cupid, trying to force his way into a mausoleum, was painted in memory of the artist’s husband. It was more acceptable at the time for women artists to paint children than male life models, and Merritt’s adherence to this social imperative paid off, with the work becoming the first by a female artist to be presented to the national collection.

As the exhibition moves into more intimate territory with “The Private Nude,” viewers encounter Nude Girl (1909–10) by Welsh artist Gwen John. One of the smaller paintings in the exhibition but one of the most powerful, John’s subject sits upright, holding the viewer’s gaze, possessing an autonomy distinct from many of the other subjects in the room. Another highlight of this gallery is a suite of Pierre Bonnard paintings from the 1920s featuring the artist’s wife bathing. Amidst the awkward angles and cropped compositions, the subject nearly dissolves into the bathwater, forming a color field.

AUGUSTE RODIN, The Kiss, 1901–04, Pentelican marble, 182 × 122 × 153 cm. Copyright and courtesy Tate, London. 

Museum visitors are led progressively through the deconstruction, reconstruction and reimagining of the nude via some fine examples of the art movements of the 20th century, however a gallery titled “The Erotic Nude” falls outside of the exhibition’s chronology. Focusing instead on erotic depictions from the 19th century onward, it is centred on Rodin’s masterpiece Le Baiser (The Kiss) (1901–04). While this gallery contains an excellent suite of David Hockney etchings depicting scenes from quotidian homosexual life, “Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy” (1966), and JMW Turner’s intriguing tiny sketchbooks of erotica, the unifying thread of sex is not strong enough to hold this motley selection of works.

In the final galleries “Body Politics” and “The Vulnerable Body” we begin to see a more balanced relationship between artist and subject. Gwen John’s Nude Girl would not have been out of place here among works by Alice Neel and Sylvia Sleigh, who are as preoccupied with depicting their subjects’ personalities as their bodies. The departure from painting in the service of feminist and queer practice is seen in photography and works on paper by Hannah Wilke, Jo Spence, Linder, David Wojnarowicz and the Guerrilla Girls. Rineke Dijkstra’s photographic portraits of new mothers and their babies—one hour, week and day old respectively—are a powerfully moving tribute to the human body and spirit. Sarah Lucas’ sculptures Nud Cycladic 3 and 6 (both 2010) employ contorted forms of stuffed pantyhose atop breezeblock plinths—a refreshing counterpoint to the bronze figures that punctuate the preceding galleries.

DAVID HOCKNEY, According to Prescriptions of Ancient Magicians, 1966, part of series “Illustration for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy,” etching on paper, 34.5 × 22.3 cm. Copyright David Hockney. Courtesy Tate, London. 

This gallery also includes the commanding painting Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs) (1974) by Barkley L. Hendricks, an odalisque-style portrait of Hendricks’ former student George Jules Taylor designed to confront through title, subject and pose. The work of Hendricks and of South African-born Marlene Dumas, depicting people of color and directly addressing the politics of racial representation, appear in this final third of the exhibition, framed through politics and vulnerability respectively. It is crucial to note the lack of non-white subjects in the preceding sections of the show—this Anglo-centric view of art history fails to adequately account for multicultural, diasporic and postcolonial voices in both Britain and Australia.

BARKLEY L. HENDRICKS, Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs), 1974, oil paint on linen, 168 × 183 cm. Copyright and courtesy the artist. 

According to Tate director Nicholas Serota in the catalogue’s foreword, the exhibition is intended to “address the subject [of the nude] using the full breadth of the collection.” There are, then, big-picture questions to be asked about the inclusion or exclusion of racially and otherwise diverse artists and subjects in that collection (and no doubt many others)—questions around canonical framing of art history, accessibility of visual art education, bias in commercial gallery representation, institutional collecting practices, curatorial aims and audience expectations. This brief review did not contain the scope to unpack those questions, and likewise perhaps the exhibition did not hold that scope either. While shows like “Nude” cannot be all things to all people, they find their relevance and resonance through their contemporary context.

Nude: Art from the Tate Collection” is currently on view at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, through February 5, 2017. 

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