Warning: don't let the coy title fool you. Auckland Art Gallery's latest show is all about the nude - or the naked, depending on how you look at it.
About 100 world famous artworks have travelled, via the Art Gallery of New South Wales, from Tate London to Auckland.
It's a chance to see paintings, sculptures and photographs, which rarely leave the British gallery, by artists like J.M.W. Turner, Auguste Rodin, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, Tracy Emin and Marlene Dumas. We asked three of those with a special interest in the show for their thoughts on The Body Laid Bare.
AN ARTIST'S PERSPECTIVE
Nga Puhi, Tainui, Manihiki, Rakahanga
Body Laid Bare means to be human. We are all born into this world naked. A blank canvas, primed with epistemologies, painted by our lived experiences and then framed in time and space.
This year I turn 40, and with that statement I survey 40 years of not only emotional recollections but 40 years of physical memories: my first period, first kiss, grazed knees, pregnancy and all the bits in between.
My body's story is both universal and personal, experiencing both the internal and external gaze. However, my body is not solely my own; I have my mother's voice but sing like my father. I see my last moments with my father, bathing him after his stroke. His stories and strength seemed vulnerable and fleeting.
This is the power of the naked body, laid bare. This potency is not because it is solely a naked body but because it is made up of political and iconic parts. From the soles of our feet to genitalia, breasts, hands, head and heart; our mortal bodies are repositories that hold mana, memories and meaning.
But whose meanings? Meanings have often been determined by colour, class and power and representation, positive and negative, is integral in formulating identity. However, historically indigenous bodies have been misrepresented by the Western gaze - objectified and stereotyped into either exotic sexualised beauties, animalistic savages or naive primitives who are in need of a colonial teacher.
These depictions impact the way in which we see and feel about ourselves in society. Indigenous visual artists become cultural conduits who bring about a contextual and aesthetic metamorphosis in the way they represent their collective and individual bodies (bearing in mind to ensure robust research methods as to not maintain cultural status quos).
This exhibition is to be viewed in the context of Western art history that is explorative, generous and exciting. Revealing the body in its entirety celebrates the human condition: birth and death, love and loss all with scars that honour the Body Laid Bare.
● Leilani Kake is part of Pacific Bodies, a project by Auckland Art Gallery in partnership with the British Council NZ. Pacific Bodies is a three-part webisode series featuring interviews with 10 New Zealand-based Pacific artists. These webisodes will be released throughout April, May and June on Auckland Art Gallery's YouTube channel.
A CURATOR'S PERSPECTIVE
Auckland Art Gallery assistant curator
Depictions of bodies can shape our aspirations and idealisations of what an 'ideal' figure can look like, making us want to conform to a specific ideal and marginalising those who don't.
In saying that, I think images that challenge these idealisations can be powerful tools in making us think about the effects of this social pressure on ourselves and other people.
It's fascinating to see how the female body has been variously moulded according to the tastes and anxieties of different social contexts. The nude female body has consistently been idealised into specific character types: the classical Venus, the sexualised and seductive pin-up model, the exotic 'other' to name a few.
These idealisations have reappeared throughout history to reinforce power imbalances between genders or have been critiqued to question existing social structures. It's interesting to see how, in the 21st century, we are still very anxious about the amount of skin a woman displays in the public realm and how this can be interpreted. The current debates involving Emma Watson and Beyonce, for example, show that the exposed female body is still subject to public discussion and scrutiny.
I think the proliferation of social media and shared digital spaces are creating an interesting and complex environment for the depiction of female bodies. On the one hand, there is a greater diversity of visual 'voices', body types and, to a certain extent, a greater agency for women in the visualisation of their own identity, which can help self-empowerment. But this image production is not without its issues as evidenced by cyber bullying and the widespread sharing of private nude photos without consent.
WHAT YOU'LL SEE
TJ McNamara, NZ Herald art writer
From the ancient Greeks to the present day, the human body laid bare, idealised or real,
has been a vehicle for expressing human energy and heroism and by contrast, sadness and suffering.
This show is widely varied in time and expression. The Kiss, the 3.5-tonne marble sculpture by Rodin, is the best-known and most conspicuous piece. The couple are monumental marble and, like all lovers, are filled with energy and desire yet doomed.
It means the figures stand for all those driven by the fierce force of sexual attraction, but there is also a hidden pathos.
The power and passion of this work is a fine lead-in to the many other situations and emotions found in this exhibition. The shyness of adolescence, for example, is quietly expressed by Gwen John's thin Nude Girl. John, coincidentally once Rodin's mistress, was for many years overshadowed by the work of her brother Augustus John. Now her painting, considered and quiet, is rated far above his flamboyant dash.
The opulent curves of the Picasso nude and the warm colour of the Matisse are in contrast to the directness of Kitty Pearson, a consciously raw portrait by Alice Neel or the savage red drawings by Louise Bourgeois (also represented by a superb sculpture, Arched Figure, which is full of tension).
How different is the soft, romantic classicism of the 19th century academic painters? Both Lord Leighton, President of the Academy, and Laurence Alma-Tadema were superb draughtsmen who used their skill in drawing to create an idealised vision of the classical world edged with myth and idealism. Here you'll see Tadema's Roman women bathing and Leighton's demi-goddess Psyche, which have their counterparts in Auckland Art Gallery's own collection.
More than a 100 representations of the figure, some naked and some of them more respectably nude, show successive generations exploring new meanings in the unclad human figure and the modern photographs in the show are a marvellous part of it.