The Art of the Naked and Nude

The Naked and the Nude exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery explores the human body sans clothes – the most popular subject of art since the days of stick figures in caves.

Cover of The Nude by Kenneth ClarkSo what’s the difference between the naked or the nude in art? It’s the tension between the real and the ideal – that cool perfection of classical sculptures, and the raw meat flesh look in the work of artist like Lucian Freud.

I walked into the exhibition and Kapow!, was  hit by the contrast between a photo of a hairy, beer-y belly (Steve Carr’s ‘A Shot in the Dark’) and a lovely 1920s bob haired nude (‘The Awakening, or Vanity’ by Leonard Booth).

The show moves through themes including life drawing and photography (with a note that now mostly in photography that controversy about nudity arises). Tim Veling’s series of photos ‘Pre-marital bliss’ seems especially honest, as the couple eat Choc bar iceblocks.

A section on ‘The body in part’ notes that the human form is “especially eloquent and expressive when seen only in part”, and William Sutton’s ‘Robed Male torso’  and a leg sculpted by Rodin prove that point.

There’s a lot to take in – Evelyn Page’s familiar 1929 painting ‘Summer Morn’ with its luscious pink flesh, a Goldie nude and one by Graham Sydney, Baloghy’s Antipodean take on Eduoard Manet’s Olympia.

But the images that resonate most with me are amongst the smallest. A couple of polaroids of torsos by Paul Johns.
And two works from the 1950s by New Zealand engraver John Buckland Wright. ‘The Judgement of Paris’ features that classical scene where Paris has to choose the most beautiful goddess of three rather winsome ladies. It’s pretty, very pretty. His other work is darker, weightier and kind of spooky, ‘Three Bathers’ shows 3 figures engulfed in cloth unwinding their garments like shrouds.

The exhibition runs until 18 April 2010, and it  looks like the fleshy delights of  the Christchurch Art Gallery don’t end here. In the upcoming exhibitions are Provocations:  The work of Christine Webster featuring unsettling photography and the eerily lifelike, unearthly nakedness of works by sculptor Ron Mueck.

For more about the nude and naked in art, search the library catalogue: