Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Andrew Paul Wood has been squizzing at some nudes in Christchurch

The Naked and the Nude
Curated by Justin Paton
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
18 December 2009 - 18 April 2010

Just as once upon a time the conscientious English teachers at my Catholic high school drummed into me the difference between ‘sensuous’ and ‘sensual’ (one is dirty and the other isn’t – but I can no longer remember which is which), there is a difference between ‘naked’ and ‘nude’. One is naked in the bathroom belting out show tunes in the Zen satori of a hot shower, but one is nude when one welcomes the gaze of another on one’s unclothed self. Therefore all works in Christchurch Art Gallery’s skin show The Naked and the Nude must be, by definition, nudes.

Admittedly, from the very beginning, there has been a certain resistance to nudes in art in New Zealand (ithyphallic carvings of Maori ancestors aside). The emphasis was historically on another kind of rapacious, possessive gaze – that of the colonial landscape. One recalls talented Dunedin amateur watercolourist William Hodgkins (father of the infinitely more famous Frances) joined Girolamo Nerli’s lessons in figure painting – but such was his sense of propriety (the model was nude), or else his embarrassment at his inadequate ability, he kept it quiet. Frances wrote to her sister Isabel in April 1894:
For several evenings Father has gone out ostensibly on business but has always returned with a large portfolio which he instantly secreted in the most mysterious manner in his study. I was most curious and yesterday I solved the mystery and I confess it gave me a bit of a shock. It turns out that he is attending a nude class at Nerli’s studio and he is much too ashamed to own it.
Given Frances was twenty-five at the time, her shock is a little difficult to understand – she was hardly unworldly. Perhaps it’s different when it’s your sixty-one-year-old father. His reticence in revealing the lessons might have more to do with Frances’ tendency to be a scathing about his abilities. She must have been a terrible trial for him. When Frances wrote to her mother about her father’s activities, she took a deliberately innocent tone, no doubt to wind her mother up: “Father has developed into quite a figure painter and has actually persuaded Dr Scott to join the life class they are both quite enthusiastic about it”. Bitch.

Even when the western nude crops up in New Zealand art at its most brazen and direct in the first quarter of the twentieth century, it still feels awkward. Louis John Steele was responsible for what is perhaps the earliest example of imaginative Maori-themed cheese-porn, Spoils to the Victor (Auckland Art Gallery, 1908), also after the style of the French Orientalists, depicting a buxom young wahine captive, décolleté fully exposed, bound to column - politically deeply incorrect by today’s standards, and fairly outré then as well.

Hell, I remember being confronted by a wall of roly-poly pinkness in the form of a Reubens hang at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich – and I didn’t know where to put my hands (I had to run outside for a cigarette). Let us, then, examine the CAG show.

It would all be worth it just for the decadent inclusion of dirty old Australian Norman Lindsay, a Picasso etching/drypoint of Minotaur attacking an Amazon (1933, and really that ‘attacking’ should be ‘raping’) and two exquisite Van der Veldens. I didn’t even know Goldie had ever done a nude – evidenced here as a young European women in modest shadows à la Ingres, circa 1898. There is even what can only be described as Swedish postcard porn in the form of the photograph Water nymphs by Anders Zorn (1918).

It is also good to see no less than three works by the much underrated Martin Whitworth – an artist with a deft line and an obvious reverence for Kitaj. And for all of those who always found Richard McWhannell a little on the dull side, there is a major shock as he goes gonzo channelling Francis Bacon and De Chirico in the triptych Holy Holy Holy (1987).

Of course nudes and erotica are not exactly the same thing – although some of the great canonical works are quite capable of inducing discomfort of the trousers. Clearly, though, the nude can also convey a broad gamut of concepts from modesty to vulnerability. Joanna Braithwaite’s monkey-headed victim, Little monkey (1997), crouched in a foetal position in some dark and indefinable place of incarceration, is a quasi-scientific subject – a product of genetic experimentation cast aside. One is reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in which a utopian community’s perfection is leavened by a dear price – every citizen knows that in a windowless, subterranean cell is a single prisoner (one of their number, incarcerated in childhood), whose grim fate is to sacrificially bear the squalid burden of all the community’s wretchedness and suffering. Such is the price of utopia. There is also the fictional city of Perinthia in Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (1972): a city built to astrological calculations intended to reflect heaven. The streets are filled with dwarfs, hunchbacks and bearded women, but the worst can only be heard as grunts and growls from cellars and lofts. The astrologers must therefore decide whether to admit that they made a mistake, or that the gods are monsters. Substitute ‘genetic engineer’ for ‘astrologer’ and Braithwaite’s message is much the same.

Far from attractive is Steve Carr’s A Shot in the Dark (The Bachelor) (2008) – bared hairy beer-belly (like those awful, tedious whistling stomachs of Telethons of yore) transformed into a moose face by the placement of hands. I do not particularly care for Carr’s brand of grunge-esque slackerism, but it does demonstrate the versatility of the nude theme. The nude in Grahame Sydney’s etching Evening in the Studio (1987) is virtually invisible in the shadows, but is still demonstrably a nude. For similar reason’s it is not entirely clear as to why our own editor, John Hurrell’s Updike slo-mo (1994) is included – one of his alphabet soup word paintings – except that it reproduces the text of one of John Updike’s cringe-inducing sex scenes (one thing the creator of Rabbit was never very good at). Another of these ‘nude that wasn’t there’ (sort of visual versions of the mystery of the dog that didn’t bark in the nighttime) is Jude Rae’s Clérambault’s dream (1994) – a trompe l’Œil drapery that alludes to the psychologist G. G. de Clérambault (1872-1934), who had a fetish for photographing fabric draped over mannequins.

Then there is the downright odd, like Barry Cleavin’s etching/aquatint Girl with no head on a swing (1971) – which pretty much does what it says on the tin in a ghoulishly Goya-esque way.

Other works like Di Ffrench’s The life-drawing class (1990) and Richard Killeen’s About drawing a woman at the centre (1984) are straightforward responses to the feminist construction of art as primarily concerning the male gaze. The Killeen is a bit of a cheat, because the abstractly represented woman is in fact clothed. Retroactive cultural norms are a bit of a bore. Personally I think the idea of an exclusively male gaze is a laboured one because male artists have never exclusively looked possessively at just women (cf. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio); and though rare, women artists are historically represented in the record (Artemisia Gentileschi, Angelica Kaufmann); and in many instances that arguably the female nude seems to exert an imperious power over the viewer (and presumably the artist). The latter is very much in evidence in Manet’s Olympia.

It seems everyone has had a revisionist crack at Manet’s reclining courtesan Olympia, itself an ironic paraphrase of Titian’s Venus of Urbino. George Baloghy’s Antipodean Olympia (1981) is merely the artist inserting himself in the family tree of western art. This kind of postmodern magpie pick-‘n’-mixing is very much a product of its time. Leonard Booth’s The awakening (Vanity) (c.1927) likewise represents the self-referential nature of art, though this sumptuous odalisque is much more straightforwardly academic and from life, and owes more to Velázquez than Manet.

There are also the uncomfortable moments of recognition. Anyone familiar with the South Island art world will immediately recognize the subject of Christine Webster’s Blood (1992).

One day, when I have time and patience enough, I intend to write a monograph on the homoerotics of New Zealand art, and certainly some of the works in this show give me pause for thought over my port and stilton.

An obvious example is a Paul Johns contribution of a Warholian prettyboy masquerading as a Flemish dead Christ. There are also the classical allusions in a fragmentary sculpture torso from the Vatican collections, sketched by Bill Sutton. I don’t give a rat’s arse what side Sutton’s bread was buttered – although Pat Unger feels the need to include an appendix on the subject in her third biography of this gentle doge of Canterbury art – but a certain tension in its asymmetrical composition is undeniable.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, while other Canterbury artists (especially the women) were painting landscapes, Evelyn Polson was painting nudes, moving in the 1940s to cityscapes. Eventually she married the musician Frederick Page. Evelyn Page was a pioneer of the nude in New Zealand, drawing the ire of the prudes in 1926 when Figure Out of Doors was exhibited in Auckland, and arguably Summer Morn (1929) is the most outstanding of these. Although rendered in a French impressionistic manner, there is something of the Victorian painters of classical scenes like Lawrence Alma-Taldema and Lord Leighton. There is something defiantly idyllic – a sun-dappled riverine or lacustrine scene (possibly Karamea) of three healthy young women mucking about. The image is more sensuous (as we were once taught to carefully distinguish at school) than sensual. Eroticism is there, but it is not overt. The viewer becomes a voyeur, an Acteon intruding on Diana’s bath. What a peach.

The style suggests an interest in French Impressionism and post-Impressionism, Monet perhaps. The dominant figure is the female nude, standing on a tree branch, perhaps about to dive into the water for a swim. Her pose – one hand on hip, the other hand holding on to the sparkling green curtain of foliage, probably the willow found on the banks of many South Island rivers, a symbolic nod to the velvet and bullion-fringed drape of the academic study – suggests an invitation or challenge to the two more timid, clothed girls in the boat. It is very much a New Zealand scene, but perhaps with just a barely suggested hint of suppressed Sapphic eroticism which was shocking to audiences at the time. The dominant figure in the composition is an Edwardian Antipodean Venus with intimations of classical statuary.

Even despite our modern ambivalence, this is a fairly brave exhibition for a public gallery, and a highly enjoyable one.

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