Nude: Art from the Tate collection
In the final room of Nude: Art from the Tate Collection – curated by Emma Chambers and Justin Paton and on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until February 5 – three large colour photographs by Rineke Dijkstra present a taxonomy of sorts. They are portraits of three women – Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29 1994, Tecla, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16 1994 and Saskia, Harderwijk, Netherlands, March 16 1994 – standing naked, staring directly into the camera, holding newborn babies: one hour, one day and one week after giving birth.
Taxonomy and classification was the system of knowledge acquisition that emerged during the Enlightenment. It sought to understand reality – the physical world as distinct from a spiritual telling of that world – through empirical observation and comparison. A Dutch predecessor of Dijkstra valorised this moment and shift: Johannes Vermeer’s The Geographer (c. 1668-69) shows its compass-holding protagonist – surrounded by maps, charts and a terrestrial globe – blessed by the light filtering in through a nearby window. Outside that window, upon newly discovered and colonised shores, scientists were capturing flora and fauna before carefully depicting them on clean white pages.
Dijkstra has referred to the camera’s ability to capture the “paradox between identity and uniformity”, a description that speaks to images that are clinical but bear a certain religious reverence and warmth. With no single light source or visual escape route – Vermeer’s windows, Pieter de Hooch’s back doors – these Madonna and child portraits lock our attention into detail. We become geographers to a body’s landscape, to nature wounded and managed according to the battles of birth-giving; to the exhausted curve of a belly, the design of a nipple, undulations of torn and stitched flesh, estuaries of blood; to hair, suntan, the net of hospital underwear supporting a sanitary pad. Through all this, though, we are mystified by those eyes: the bottomless wells into which adjectives and classifications vanish.
Leading up to this arresting moment were a number of others, of which I will mention a few.
While facets of human reality will never fit into museum drawers, art has provided a medium through which some of the cosmic mess of emotion can be accounted for. Working under the spell of early childhood traumas, the sculptor Louise Bourgeois harnessed her psychological lot into intensely visceral art objects. Hers was a process akin to the 3D printing of unconscious realities, to the restless excavating of a largely ungovernable repository of emotions.
Arched figure (1993), a sculpture recently acquired by AGNSW, shows a male figure, cast in bronze, arching across a bed. Its clenched feet and headless throat convey constriction and repression, the violent pelvic thrust bringing 19th-century depictions and treatments of female hysteria – a term from the Greek word for uterus, “hystera” – to mind. Walking around this hystericus masculus recalls other bronze male figures in the exhibition: Hamo Thornycroft’s Teucer (1881), a virtuous and vigourless nude standing with arching bow in the first room; and Henry Moore’s Falling warrior (1956-57), a strangely weightless and ecstatic form not quite touching the ground. The three sculptures, evenly placed throughout the exhibition, highlight the shift away from males being the proprietors and arbiters of beauty and flesh.
“Flesh,” Willem de Kooning once said, “was the reason why oil painting was invented.” His painting The Visit (1966-67) is one of a handful of pictures one might choose to defend this claim. In this instance, flesh isn’t idealised, carefully reasoned, argued over or even depicted so much as generated by physical outburst. Beneath a floating eye in the upper right corner of the canvas, a female figure emerges from the epic swamp of oil and colour. Pegged, splayed and masked, her body speaks to a long history of art and flesh: ancient fertility goddess sculptures, crucifixions, Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) and, for a brief second, the inscrutable Gertrude Stein (1905-06) painted by Picasso.
De Kooning spent most of his career painting and boozing in the shadow of an all-powerful and physically abusive mother; his work shows female flesh being summoned and expressed through awe rather than authority. Painted on the cusp of his serene and emptied-out later works, known as his “white paintings”, The Visit bursts through angrier and choppier delineations. What might have been this artist’s final tribute to his mother becomes a triumph of letting go.
How to make flesh move or operate on a canvas as if it were alive provided one of the great challenges for modern painters. Francis Bacon’s paintings – bone-dry canvases with moments of viscosity – were at times uncannily alive to flesh. Triptych (1974-77), depicting a number of blurred and contorted figures and heads across the bleak arena of an English beach, isn’t exactly one of these – ambiguous though they are, later works by Bacon lack the thrilling hesitancy of earlier ones – but it does reveal Bacon’s hunger for movement and carnality over waxwork dignity. On the other side of the room a number of studies by the artist – grubby and spare compositions on paper depicting figures crawling, falling and bending, as if in wrestling rings or butcher trays – hint at what was sacrificed in the neater and “well done” cuts.
The power of the study, of flesh conjured through a kind of ethereal fleshlessness, is to be found in Turner’s erotic sketchbooks. Displayed in a vitrine behind Rodin’s monumental sculpture The Kiss (1901-04), these tiny pages gauge sexual desire and temperature through whisper-quiet daubs and trickles of paint over graphite caresses. A bedroom: the empty bed (1827) captures intercourse through its crumpled aftermath of sheets, while Reclining nude on a bed (c. 1840) shows a figure hovering somewhat like Moore’s warrior, his body glowing like a hot coal amid the murky ash of recent copulation.
Stanley Spencer’s Double nude portrait: the artist and his second wife (1937) gets at painting’s double bind of flesh – of life pressing in on an artist, of the canvas pressing in on its subject – in much the way Spencer described religion: “a gloomy wretched thing, a depressing atmosphere”. The naked bodies of a husband and wife lie and sit at the front of the painting as if forcing themselves into a peepshow box. It’s a depressing show, the performers exposed by a light cruel to ageing, northern hemisphere skin and the doldrums of marriage. Around them, a clutch of symbols and effects – the joint of mutton at the base of the canvas, some guilt-invoking flames in a background furnace, the frown of the husband and painter – give the painting a somewhat portentous air.
Both figures reflect upon the grim predicament of life, or merely this diminutive stage within it. The pious creator gazes down at the ageing, stretched skin of his second wife as if she were a corpse – the fried egg of her left breast threatening to slide into our laps – while she, less theatrically and more compellingly, looks away from the meat chops flanking her, towards a life beyond the wretchedness of marriage and painting. Depressing though this meal of limbs and metaphors is, it’s a painting that compels the viewer to eat its every fleshy morsel.
Spencer’s canvas shows painterly conceit intersecting with reality. On an adjoining wall the figure in Balthus’s Nude on a chaise longue (1950) spreads diagonally across a darkened space, effectively measuring the breadth of the canvas, her left hand intersecting the top edge so as to magically activate the physical object of this painting. Appearing at the midpoint of an exhibition that collapses what we might generically think of as “the nude” – men regarding themselves regarding naked women – these works bring awareness to the unique bodies that are paintings. It’s one of many interesting moments in an exhibition that moves from idealised treatments of flesh towards realities far more stark.
CIRCUS Circus 1903
Sydney Opera House, until December 29
MULTIMEDIA Biomedical Breakthroughs
Melbourne Museum, until January 22
CABARET Burlesque Extravaganza
Speakeasy HQ, Melbourne, until December 24
CULTURE The Sikh Empire
Drill Hall, Melbourne, until December 20
MULTIMEDIA Sugar Spin
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until April 17
Sydney Opera House, until December 21
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "Bodies of work". Subscribe here.