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The modern female nudeBY: Robert Zaller 12.22.2012
Two New York shows featuring the female nude have thrown fresh light on the shifting vocabularies of the world’s oldest artistic subject.
Lee Friedlander: “Nudes.” Closed December 22, 2012 at the Pace Gallery, 32 East 57th St. New York. (212) 245-6734 or www.pacegallery.com.
Egon Schiele “Schiele’s Women.” Through December 28, 2012 at Galerie St. Etienne, 24 West 57th St., New York. (212) 421-3292 or www.gseart.com.
No object in nature combines vulnerability and assertion, idealized form and carnal immediacy, as does the female body. It’s at once the most approachable of subjects and the one most surrounded by taboo. Depicting it has always been one of the supreme challenges of art.
The female body is above all the object of desire par excellence, at least for the majority of the mostly male artists who have represented it. To express that desire too directly risks lapsing into personal exposure or (if the manipulation of others’ desire is intended) pornography.
Greek classical art seemed to have hit upon a winning formula, in which candor and idealization balanced and reinforced each other. Christianity razed the temples and destroyed the statues of pagan antiquity, and a thousand years of official censorship descended upon the West (although graffiti no doubt persisted).
The classical ideal returned with the Renaissance, and despite residual ambivalence and anxiety it did duty until the Romantic era, when Gustave Courbet shockingly put hair back on the female pudendum in The Source.
Later 19th Century French painters such as Manet accustomed the public to more graphic representations of the nude. With the advent of photography, the facts of life were readily available to the prurient and squeamish alike, but this new technology didn’t simplify the problem of representation.
Painting and photography would in fact draw upon one another’s languages in depicting the female nude, and they can be fruitfully seen too as in dialogue with one another. Photography became a tool of painting as well as an alternative to it.
Beyond classical goddesses
Egon Schiele (1890-1918) juxtaposed photographs with his drawings and paintings, some taken by himself and some by others in his studio. Man Ray (1890-1976) would strive to erase the boundaries between photography and painting. Francis Bacon (1909-1992) famously painted his nudes only from photographs, never from live models.
Art photography at first depicted the nude in classical poses, but it was clear early on that this approach wouldn’t do— partly because actual nudes aren’t classical goddesses, and partly because the nude in painting had moved on. Painting was in fact far ahead of photography in its sophistication, not only in the frankness of Expressionist representation but also the post-classical commentary of Picasso and Matisse, who referenced the old ideal only to deconstruct it.
Photography took its hint from that notion in the work of Edward Weston and others, who tried to resolve the curves of the female figure into quasi-abstract forms. These works seemed to possess their own daring and candor, but we can wonder at this point whether there wasn’t a degree of prudery in them too.
Woman as procreator
Lee Friedlander, who began photographing nudes in 1977, offers a post-Modernist perspective on these issues. As the commentary for this fall’s Pace Gallery exhibit points out, the nude is no longer in fashion as a subject of art photography, and one may say much the same thing of painting, an occasional figure such as Philip Pearlstein aside. Friedlander is thus working somewhat against the grain, as well as trying to work out new language of his own.
Not to beat about the bush, the most striking element of Friedlander’s nudes— or at least a goodly number of them— is their abundance of pubic hair. This takes us at once away from the classical model, as Courbet recognized, but not— as Courbet wished— in the direction of a new Romantic idealism that focused on woman as procreator.
Friedlander’s nudes are just as they are: shaggy creatures about the middle. Some are put to contorted poses, others are laid out on cheap couches or unmade beds, and there’s an assortment of debris about them that suggests the artist’s unretouched work space— tubes, jars, cigarette butts and the like. Many of the shots are taken from above, often framed by a cheap lamp that cuts the figures into alternating planes of light and dark.
Open chemise, lifted skirt
In short, candor and artifice are superimposed on one another, so that the models appear as their unglossed selves while the artist ruminates on the more abstract forms into which they may be resolved. The result is intimate and distanced at the same time.
The Pace show also offers a selection of Weston and the more recent Bill Brandt to point out the sources of Friedlander’s language. But the exhibition of Egon Schiele a couple of blocks away at Galerie St. Etienne— 51 drawings, mostly from private collections— shows a far more primary and significant forebear.
Only some of the work here depicts fully nude models, but nudity is Schiele’s subject even when his models are fully clothed. Usually, he prefers them in déshabille of some sort, with stockings and shoes, an open chemise or an uplifted skirt.
No artist emerges except from his milieu— in Schiele’s case, his immediate precursor and acknowledged master was Gustav Klimt, although the emerging Expressionism of Kokoschka and others was perhaps equally significant— but Schiele went so far beyond his influences as to be genuinely revolutionary. A century on— his brief life ended in 1918— his work is still revelatory, and, however well situated now in the European tradition, it still retains its power to shock and surprise.
This power derives above all from the economy, precision and sensual flow of Schiele’s line. Rodin and Matisse achieved a similar virtuosity in their draughtsmanship, but the sensuality is all Schiele’s own.
At the same time, Schiele’s nudes and partial nudes are flayed and truncated; a Nude Seen from the Back shows a torso in gouache outline with arms raised but hands and lower legs cut off, while the modeling and grayish-green watercolor suggests an X-ray in which the spine and internal organs are revealed.
It’s a take on the memento mori tradition of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, with its notion of the skeleton under the skin; but Schiele has synthesized rather than contrasted these elements, so that the figure is simultaneously dynamic and vulnerable, thrusting and exposed. And he was 20 when he did this! Nothing like it had ever been achieved and, despite enough imitators, nothing like it has been accomplished since.
Schiele’s early subjects were poor working-class girls, some of them adolescent or even pre-pubescent. Later Schiele acquired a menagerie of his own, including a free-spirited model, Wally, whom he later abandoned for a more respectable wife (and her sister, with whom he was also intimate). He saw them all with an eye that was at once clinical, compassionate, and erotic.
As time went on, these models were partially abstracted but never idealized, and yet they all existed powerfully in Schiele’s characteristic negative space, part of a private mythology of desire that his matchless responsiveness of hand and eye has given to us for all time.
Crouching and contorted
Schiele drew generally from above, imposing the male gaze as well as his own artistic vision. He worked in broken planes of color, and his anatomical exposures were candid to the point of ruthlessness.
Klimt had depicted female genitalia realistically, but Schiele stripped away all evasion. He also posed his models in crouching and contorted positions, as only Rodin had done previously.
All these innovations are reflected in Friedlander, as is the partial truncation and the mask-like facial expressions of Schiele’s models. To see the two artists side by side is to realize how profoundly and indelibly Schiele molded the 20th-Century perception of the nude, and how pervasive his vocabulary remains.
As Titian shaped the Renaissance nude, so Schiele has shaped the modern one. But there’s perhaps no greater compliment to Schiele’s work than Friedlander’s own.
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