"Naked Before the Camera"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 852,
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York
Through September 9, 2012
The Met’s tiny Howard Gillman Galleries would be easy to miss, if it weren’t for the marquee tricked out in clown lights declaring “Naked” at the entrance. The signage promises a soft-core smorgasbord of glitzy T&A entertainments for the male gaze. While a stab at humor from one of the world’s most venerable museums is appreciated, the flashy marquee sells the exhibition short. “Naked Before the Camera” — a show of nearly 90 photographs spanning from the mid-19th century to 2009 — is more contemplative than titillating. The works run the gamut from the pseudoscientific motion experiments of Edward Muybridge to Hannah Wilke’s exhibitionist self-portraits, with early ethnographic photographs and gay bodybuilder porn thrown in for anthropological good measure. These photographs of undressed men and women testify to art history’s ongoing back-and-forth between eroticism and sublimation, between an overt pleasure in the body, and an alchemic desire to redirect pedestrian horniness into the stuff of artistic genius.
The title’s semantic decision, “Naked,” instead of the artier term, “Nude,” is interesting. In 1951, the conservative British art historian Kenneth Clark wrote “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form. ” Clark — who later became widely known as the presenter of the BBC Television series “Civilisation” – summed up the humanist dialectic of the naked and nude thusly: “to be naked,” he wrote, “is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word ‘nude,’ on the other hand, carries [the notion] of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.” In “Ways of Seeing,” Marxist critic John Berger turns Clark’s dialectic on its head. A nude, he suggests, isn’t a sublimated or ennobled body, but commodified (usually female) body offered to the male viewer. Put briefly, “a naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude.”
One might imagine “Naked Before the Camera” as an illustrated argument between Clark and Berger. The tension between idealization and realism, sublimation and sex, nudity and nakedness, is written all over the walls. Try as it might — as a medium — photography sucks at sublimation. Victorian pictorialists like Oscar Gustave Rejlander emulate the grandiloquence of 19th-century painting in their staged allegorical photographs, but they can’t get away from the unmediated corporeality of the body posing before the camera. A slew of nudes from the 1850s — most of them taken in France — occupy a liminal grey area between anatomy study, high art, and erotica. Take, for instance, French photographer Julien Vallou de Villeneuve’s “Reclining Female Nude,” 1853, a photograph that may have served as a model for Gustave Courbet’s “Woman with a Parrot.” The model reclines on an ottoman, assuming the sinuous pose of an odalisque. The orientalist pretense is meant to evoke a heady exoticism; and the artifice of the situation is patent in the mannered articulation of the body and the theatrical props. Likewise, an anonymous daguerreotype from 1850 entitled “Seated Female Nude” shows a woman with her back twisted three quarters from the viewer. The “lady at her toilette” trope seems like a throwback to the stone-cold classicism of Ingres’s “Valpinçon Bather.” Yet, as a photo, the pose is irrevocably awkward.
Thomas Eakins’s 1883 portrait of himself and student going au naturel on the beach (one of hundreds of similar images) is pure Hellenic homoeroticism. With their pert buttocks and lean legs, teacher and student are a Polykleitian meditation on the male physical perfection, yet they are unshakably real and erotic. Eakins (along with his friend Walt Whitman) wrote the book on proto-hippie nudism, but you can’t help but read desire boiling beneath the surface of nonchalance and neutrality. These early nudes exemplify the inchoate awkwardness of a nascent medium struggling to define itself against the example of painting. Their classicism is undercut by the unimpeachable indexicality of these images, something French critic and semiotician Roland Barthes once called the “having–been-there” temporality of photography. There’s something fascinating in the failure of these aspirational photographs. They try to be “nudes” in the classical sense, but remain imminently naked. An 1856 photograph by the obscure Franck-François-Genès Chauvassaignes is a notable exception in that it forgoes all academic pretenses. A gaunt, vacant-eyed model slouches languidly in a filthy studio. Her aquiline nose, emaciated body, and horsey, mannish features foreshadow the prostitutes of Toulouse-Lautrec and early Picasso.
The sublimation drive is by no means limited to 19th-century photography. It continues and crystallizes in modernism, as Brassai, Man Ray, and Weston truncate and fragment the female body into a kind of abstract sculpture. Their cold high modernist distortions of the human body are arguably the most coolly objectifying images in the exhibition. There’s a statuesque classicism to Irving Penn’s Venus of Willendorfian nudes, to Robert Mapplethorpe’s androgynous Patti Smith, and even to Diane Arbus’s once-shocking “A Naked Man Being Woman.”
As an exhibition, “Naked” is a testament to the staggering polyvalence of photographic nudity. It can emancipate or objectify, titillate or repulse. It can transgress social norms or reinforce deep-seated power structures. As the majority of the photographs do present naked women for the viewing pleasure of men, gaze politics inevitably come into play. The inclusion of one of Hans Bellmer’s “Doll” photographs — the only image on view that doesn’t depict an actual person — is as symbolic as it is bizarre. Bellmer’s mutilated and reconstructed dummy isn’t a living, desiring subject but a total construct of a man’s desire. Hannah Wilke seems to be addressing this in her nude self-portraits. Wilke anticipates the feminist thesis of Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills”— a thesis that says identity is an over-determined construct made up of coded poses, costumes, and gestures. But Wilke goes a step further, suggesting that — as art historian Lynda Nead puts it — “there is no recourse to a semiotically innocent and unmediated body.” Even nakedness is a costume.
To see images from the Metropolitan Museum's "Naked Before the Camera," click on the slide show.