Exposed: The Naked Portrait has brought full-frontal nudity to Newcastle. A bold move in the face of the icy winds that howl along the Tyne. I might be an adopted daughter of a city on the same latitude as Copenhagen, but the mere thought of getting my kit off here when there’s an ‘r’ in the month chills me to the bone. Perhaps it’s not a surprise, then, that the Laing’s latest offering left me – if heartened by its intentions – just a little cold.
Now, seriously, I know this is my problem. I thought that a person writing for Erotic Review and fresh out of a PhD on sex and food would be the perfect person to go and look at naked portraits. I was wrong. I’m still engaged by an artfully-exposed bit of flesh here and an odalisque or two, but in a world of body positivity and pornification, sending nudes and Slutwalk, I think I’ve become inured to nudity.
Even naked celebrity has lost its power. Michael Fassbender getting it all out there in Shame, the J Law leak, and Kim Kardashian breaking the internet have taken away so much of the mystery away – for better or worse. I’ve spiralled into porn-culture ennui. Surrounded by a proliferation of buttocks and boobs I just want someone to lighten the mood with a jazzy cardigan or an artfully-placed comedy fruit. Perhaps I need a stint of enforced, post-capitalist sexual puritanism to restore some semblance of normality. (Then again, perhaps not.)
Setting to one side the psychosexual crises that it provoked, however, this exhibition is an impressive collection of impressive work. Curated in partnership with the National Gallery following a small exhibition of twelve portraits, Exposed explores just what that headline concept means, whether it be
‘the revelation of a shameful secret or the achievement of longed-for publicity […] acute vulnerability or complete self-assurance’.
On opening the gallery’s imposing double doors, complete with frosted glass that never seemed more appropriate, you’re met with a brief incursion into the ‘nude’ – that is, the classical ideal more concerned with artistic practice and human geometry than any representation of the individual. It’s this ‘nude’ to which Exposed’s naked portraits are set in opposition: portraits of specific, identifiable individuals, created with a degree, at least, of complicity between artist and subject.
The first part of the exhibition, Bodies of Desire, explores eroticised, idealised images from Verelst’s Nell Gwyn to Mario Testino’s Naomi Campbell, by way of Lewis Morley’s iconic Christine Keeler (complete with chair). The second part, Reclaiming the Body, considers postmodern and feminist approaches to nudity through images that are sometimes playful, sometimes disarming, and exquisitely diverse. Come expecting cute girls in soft focus, stay until Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas have changed the way you look at naked women forever.
If the original Keeler bromide print and contact sheet isn’t enough to impress you, an enormous mother and child by Chantal Joffe, or a colossal stained-glass Gilbert and George, whose bright pink bodies glow against a lurid yellow background that is, in fact, a magnified image of urine, might just do the trick.
But even if the naked body should be timeless, Exposed ultimately feels a little dated. The current nineties-noughties revival is out in force on the gallery walls. I’ve no objection to the gorgeous images of Linford Christie and Jacqui Agyepong. I admire the brazen joy of Vivienne Westwood and Germaine Greer getting their kit off in their older years. I can even tolerate more pictures of Kate Moss and Sam Taylor-Wood’s sleeping David Beckham. But without a more explicit link to today’s ubiquitous bodily exposure, the collection feels somewhat detached from the modern world. If the more recent works are recognisable to modern eyes, they still seem lightyears away from an era when all of us can curate our own naked portrait galleries in the privacy of our own homes, just by playing with an iPhone.
Exposed: The Naked Portrait runs until Sunday 3rd March. Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.
Featured image (top) Ishbel Myerscough; Ishbel Myerscough; Chantal Joffe (‘Two Girls’), oil on canvas, 1991, © National Portrait Gallery, London. For all other image captions, hover cursor over image.