BMCR 2011.03.14

Exposed: Photography and the Classical Nude

, Exposed: Photography and the Classical Nude. Sydney: Nicholson Museum, The University of Sydney, 2011. 140. ISBN 9781742102061. AUS $29.95.

Exposed: Photography and the Classical Nude is the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney from January to March 2011. It has three lead essays in it (and a brief conclusion by the collector, William Zewadski). The first essay by the book’s editor and the museum’s curator, Michael Turner, is an enthusiastic appreciation of the photography of Herbert List, a very good-looking young German, friend of Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, who produced some stunning images of the classical torso and classical stones in the inter-war years before it became clear exactly where the fascination with the classical body might be leading in German aesthetics. The most wonderful of these images is on the cover also. This portrays a marble torso and buttocks lying chest-down on stone by some sand, and the lower back is covered by sand or the encrustation of age. Some strands of hair from the missing head curl down the back. The stone is so sensually lit that it produces an uncanny affect of human flesh—a realism at which so many Hellenistic epigrams wondered, faced by sculpture’s appeal. The dynamics of fragility and lastingness, the brokenness of form, the contrast of textures is marvelous.

The second essay is a brief history of the representation of the nude by Alastair Blanshard who teaches at the University of Sydney and has recently published some provocative and fun work on the history of sexuality. This piece is entitled “Nakedness without Naughtiness”, but he is well aware of how provocative the encounter with the classical body has been for Christian culture in particular, and how hard post-Renaissance visual regimes have found the tensions between eroticism, the privilege of art, and exploitation of the viewer and the model. The third essay is by Ana Carden-Coyne, whose earlier research has focused on the imaging of the body around the time of the First World War in modernism—she works in the Manchester Centre for the Cultural History of War. She concentrates here on the juxtaposition of modern and ancient bodies, including some gorgeous fashion plates of elegantly dressed women next to fragmented classical statues. These scenes stage the encounter of modern and ancient form, soft and hard, shaded and white, live and dead—with varying degrees of self-consciousness and opportunism.

The pictures form the bulk of the book, and there is a fine mix. There are some well-known artists such as Robert Doisneau, George Platt Lynes, Eadweard Muybridge (though no Warhol or Mapplethorpe, although there is the inevitable single picture of Lisa Lyon in her naked splendour, here by Joel-Peter Witkin). There are some very striking and impressive images: some are experimental in blending human and stone models in composite images; some are telling snaps—Hitler by the Discobolus; some very carefully arty; some commercial images of a more meretricious sexiness – though it is a book you could leave on your coffee table in most communities.

The catalogue is not scholarly in the sense that here is no bibliography of extended notes on any of the images. The other Exposed ( Exposed: The Victorian Nude —the exceptionally well-made catalogue from the Tate in London) is a different order of production. It is also hard to see any agenda in the sequence of photographs. There is little thematic linking, and no real sense of history here: von Plüschow, von Gloeden, Max Koch were important predecessors of Rist and are major figures in thinking how classics and eroticism played a part in the culture of modernism, but there is no joined up thinking about them here. Perhaps the structure of the exhibition is best considered in the light of Alastair Blanshard’s opening sentence: “Looking at naked bodies is a confronting business”. (Late at night and in the spirit of James Davidson’s revisionist account of ancient Athenian sexuality I first misread that last word as “comforting”, an uplifting if unlikely thought.) These images are best seen as a repeated confrontation: between us and them, antiquity and modernity, stone and flesh, light and texture, permanence and fragility. I am sure I will use these pictures in my teaching, and their provocation and beauty are worth a good few hours browsing and reflection.