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May 1, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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The Body Laid Bare

A Google ad for Auckland Art Gallery’s new exhibition, The Body Laid Bare: Masterpieces from the Tate, is captioned: “Masterpieces from Picasso, Matisse, Rodin and many other renowned artists.” The artwork which illustrates the ad is Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, a 19th century figura serpentinata of naked marble bodies in romantic embrace. Plastered on the cover of pamphlets distributed across campus, the intertwined figures represent a history of Western art’s ability to do just as the title suggests: lay the body bare.

Each time I’ve seen Rodin’s figures in their various states of reproduction I’ve wondered if the rest of the exhibition is more diverse than the imagery used to sell it to the public. The title of the exhibition is a nice reminder that the body — the female body specifically — has for centuries been stripped and manipulated by the minds of male artists. The female nude comes in various forms, from Delacroix’s exoticised visions of the “Oriental” harem, depicting piles of languid, submissive (and curiously white) female bodies awaiting penetration; to Picasso’s dismembered and “othered” bodies of prostitutes in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The female body as (re)imagined by the male is a defining trope of Western Art History that has been heavily criticised since the 1970s, when the gender gap in art institutions first came into question — which is not to say issues of representation and recognition in art have been entirely redressed today.

A recent article by Jori Finkel, published in The New York Times, questions the lack of female artists included in the Desert X biennial, an open-air installation of 16 art works across Coachella Valley. When asked about the gender imbalance of the show, Neville Wakefield, the curator, responded “I’m not a quota curator.”  It’s a response typical of the art world, where straight white men are accorded a status of natural default, and affirmative action is considered contrary to the notion of “Great Art” which, we can assume, could be made by anyone —  that “anyone” is so often a white male is suggested to be coincidence. Finkel goes on to describe the four artworks produced by women as being “less spectacle-driven and more contemplative,” a stereotype often attributed to art made by women which simply isn’t true of the works at hand — one being a 3 x 30 metre wall covered in bold black and white patterns. Exhibitions curated by women often also give precedence to male artists, as in the case of Nancy Spector’s 2008 theanyspacewhatever at the Guggenheim Museum, which focused on the Relational Aesthetics movement but left out key female figures.

In the gallery’s shop, full of books, lamps, and fine jewellery, there is a collection of exhibition-specific merchandise, including a publication commissioned in relation to the exhibition — which is in this case wrapped in a fleshy pink cover, panelled by a close-up of Frederic Leighton’s The Bath Of Psyche: the melancholy face of classical European beauty. Also for sale: the Guerrilla Girls’ manifesto-mocking The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist printed on a hot pink tea towel, a token of stereotypically female labour. The work is a list of sarcastic aphorisms detailing the pleasures of being a woman in the art world: “not having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius”; “working without the pleasures of success”; “having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs”.  The Guerrilla Girls were a collective of artists intent on fighting the deeply embedded sexism and racism of the art world, formed in response to the 1984 MoMA exhibition An International Survey of  Recent Painting and Sculpture, in which only 13 of the 165 artists featured were female, and even fewer were people of colour — none women.  Another one of their works, commissioned but rejected by the New York Public Art Fund, is a billboard asking: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” This observation was based on a count taken in 1989, but a more recent count on their website shows that by 2012 the Metropolitan Museum’s statistics had barely changed.

Upstairs, in the gallery, the loosely chronological arrangement of the show exposes art history’s tendency to exploit the female figure as a medium for artistic experimentation — often contorted, amputated, and simplified to near-nothingness. As the art on display develops — from early voyeuristic scenes in the painter’s studio and “primitive” renderings of erotic bodies, to Giacometti’s decapitated Walking Woman I — female-made works crop up to counter those by the better-known masters. Louise Bourgeois’ Arched Figure subverts the traditional male bronze by placing the subject in the involuntary state of a seizure, headless and helpless in the face of its objection; while Tracey Emin’s The Last Thing I Said to You was Don’t Leave Me Here II, in which Emin sits naked with her back to the camera, insists on the artist’s agency over the depiction of her body by allowing her to be both vulnerable and autonomous: a multiplicity the female figure is so often denied. It’s a shame the exhibit’s advertising did not hint at its inclusion of contemporary works.

I left with a renewed appreciation of the formal diversity of the nude across genres and historic periods, perhaps due to something inherent in the body’s capacity to express inner psychological states and respond to external stimuli — including the artist’s hand. I wonder what the Guerrilla Girls would think of the show.

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