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  • Fiona Prior

Nude: Art from the Tate Collection

Nude: Art from the Tate Collection

Curated by Emma Chambers (Tate) and Justin Paton (AGNSW), Nude: Art from the Tate Collection spans two centuries and a vast range of human aspirations, emotions, ideas and perceptions. The exhibition has pieces of idealised fantasy, of heartbreaking reality, of unnerving realism and surrealism ─ along with extraordinary modes of visual expression that mark the attitudes, experiments and politics of the times in which each was created.

image: The Kiss (1845) by Auguste Rodin

And all the works seem to have a story as compelling as their surface! Whether it be the Greek myth in which an exquisitely idealised Psyche bathes, preparing herself to meet with her lover Cupid – and we all know how that one ends; or the saddest of real-life tales like the self portrait of troubled artist John Spencer, naked and flaccid, looking earnestly at the Patricia Preece (lover of artist Dorothy Hepworth), who would never allow him to consummate their relationship although she was critical in the collapse of his first marriage. Spencer’s Double Nude portrait presents a confused and naive man looking at the form of a naked woman who, although initially encouraging of his romantic overtures, has no interest in making love with the painter who has given her his heart and home.

Possibly the most tragic story was Francis Bacons painting of his deceased lover. Bacon met George Dyer when Dyer was burgling his home, and advised the thief that if he didn't sleep with him, Bacon would call the police! They had a tumultuous relationship which continued (and ended) on Bacon’s ascent to professional stardom. The story goes that Dyer was so overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation at yet another triumphant Paris opening of Bacon’s work that he returned to their hotel room and committed messy and violent suicide.

And the most political? Well, there is politics aplenty in Nude, some examples more surprising than others. For example, a guerrilla-headed nude, the original first adorning the side of a NYC bus in the 80’s with the caption ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’ by the activist group the Guerrilla Girls is rather loaded; or the provocative full frontal of the gorgeous Paul Rosano painted in the 70’s by his artist girlfriend Sylvia Sleigh, in a decade when women were intent on highlighting the gender hypocrisy of the time; but also 1904’s dramatically romantic nude sculpture The Kiss by Rodin (also the most famous artwork of this exhibition), initially considered too risqué for public consumption and kept in a barn for 12 years! All things are relative.

image: The Knight Errant (1870) Sir John Everett Millais

The most amusing prize would go to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Millais’ The Knight Errant. Originally the image of a naked young woman tied to a tree being saved by her knight in shining armour (literally) was considered far too provocative for the times, as the damsel was looking directly at her saviour rather than averting her head and lowering her eyes as all naked and well brought up damsels should do in such a situation. After public outrage the head was amended appropriately!

Most beautiful? I loved the very real and very in beautiful photo series of three naked young mothers by Rineke Dijkstr. Each is holding her very new baby (one hour, one day, and one week old, respectively). Exuding love (and on a hormonal high in all probability), beauty, and the contradictory blend of strength and vulnerability, the young women look out at the viewer from the photos while they hold their tiny babies proudly and protectively.

A long list of well-known artists await you at Nude: Art from the Tate Collection, including Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Lucian Freud, Joseph Turner, Auguste Rodin, Louise Borgeois, Tracey Emin (whose The Last Thing I said to You was Don’t Leave Me Here is both poignant and funny – I’m usually not an Emin fan) and Ron Mueck.

image: The Last Thing I said to You was Don't Leave Me Here (detail, 2000) by Tracey Emin

From the hairless, perfect and idealised nudes of the classic period to those hairless, almost cartoonish, pumped up bodies of reality TV and contemporary porn (the latter not in this exhibition), our relationships with our own and others bodies continues to be one of fascination.

Nude: Art from the Tate collection

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Until 5 February

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