Nude or Naked

As the Australian art world is a little chafing dish in a world of bubbling cauldrons, it seemed improbable that an artist’s work could become fodder for broadsheets and tabloids, radio and television—for weeks on end. Those who knew of the photographer Bill Henson’s dark-toned and occasionally disquieting works were more or less confined to that chafing dish. However, in May 2008, Hetty Johnston, the executive director of Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to combating child sexual assault, walked into a Paddington art gallery and then reported what she saw to the police. In fact, she suggested they prosecute the photographer—and the gallery. If only those sterling folk in blue had consulted their records to find an earlier sortie where they had behaved like the Keystone Cops, the ensuing fiasco might have been avoided altogether.

The last time politicians bothered to turn their heads in the direction of the art world, like cattle anticipating a fresh hay bale delivery in a paddock, was January 1982: the occasion of the fourth Sydney Biennale. Critic and curator Elwyn Lynn in his catalogue introduction anticipated that, as in times gone by, there was less likelihood of sophisticated tolerance, and more likelihood of abrasive confrontation. He was right. There was a melée over a large painting by the Chilean-born artist Juan Davila, called Stupid as a Painter, 1981. Davila’s work was as close as any painting came to being subversive, not for its stated political aims, but for destabilising the viewers who struggled to maintain their composure in front of his provocative work.

When it went on show at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney in April that year, its explicit and sexualised subject matter scandalised some good folk. The Vice Squad visited and confiscated the work, which caused the state Premier, Neville Wran, to step into the fray on the side of the art world. Lynn arranged for a truck to collect the painting from the gallery and deliver it to the University of Sydney, where he was the Curator of Contemporary Art in the Power Institute. There were murmurs of disquiet at the university, but Lynn was determined to get the picture. He went to see the deputy Vice-Chancellor, who said: “I don’t want to upset the donors of this place.” And Jack said, “Come on now, this is a university!” So they hung it with a curtain around it, and a sign saying visitors had to be eighteen years old to step behind the curtain. The sign was stolen every day.

Today, in a climate (both local and international) where the despoliation of children, and the blatant erosion of their rights, is hotly debated (I say “blatant”, because there was never a time in history where children were not vulnerable, but the concealment of dark acts was complicit and complete) and where the response to this terrifying reality has been frequently hysterical and unhelpful, it was only a question of time before works whose aesthetic made them vulnerable to misinterpretation would find themselves in the magnesium glare of the do-gooder’s searchlights.

Two worlds collided. One, the dark-toned and mysterious offerings of a photographer, and the other, a crusade with legitimate claims underpinning its clumsy actions. Henson found himself vilified in any number of intersecting circles—once the majority of the alerted had established that he was not the American Henson, who made the Muppet movies.

The work in question was a typical Henson work. A naked girl on the edge of adolescence stands in consuming darkness with a thread of light as bright as a snail’s trail delineating her against the velvet blackness. Her eyes are cast down, not to avoid the viewer but rather, lost in thought. She is posed, but the pose is deliberately awkward and provisional. Her arms and hands (possibly with chewed fingernails) entirely conceal her pubic area. There is not so much as a bat squeak of sexuality about her. Thus the notion of it being pornographic is farcical.

What is pornography? It is printed, spoken, photographed or filmed material, which is specifically intended to create a fast short-circuit to physical release. It does away with the niceties. It is generally breathtakingly crude, bland, predictable, and leads quickly to the desired result while heightening the search for even more intensified pleasure. All over the world people are hunched over their computers in search of such experiences.

But equally, there is another branch of pornography which has been given the nod by the Christian church. It involves female saints such as St Agnes and St Agatha who, guarding their virginity, have been dragged to brothels, stripped of their garments, then mutilated and killed while defending their dignity. These stories seem to reflect some unfathomable sadism attendant to Christian beliefs. And while the following might appear to be the obverse, it is not unrelated. Women in Afghanistan in their blue cages, with a grille for the eyes, can be whipped if a glimpse of their wrist appears as they shop in the markets for produce. They can be dragged from the street should a gust reveal an ankle. This virulence, detached from any vestige of rationality, is again linked to religious beliefs.

Henson’s image of the pre-adolescent lass, which created such press pandemonium, demands to be seen in the context of Henson’s oeuvre. He is perhaps the best-known artist working in the medium of photography in Australia today. His svelte waifs, lingering around broken vehicles in indeterminate landscapes, are an adumbration of the writer J.G. Ballard’s unidentified domains and their edge of sexual dissolution and menace. Both the well-informed and the untutored viewer respond to Henson’s photographs in the same way they would respond to a work created by the paintbrush or the engraving tool. Henson has manipulated the light, or rather the lack of light in his photographs, so that his images disappear into an unfathomable darkness or seem to phosphoresce. This is the antithesis of the kind of visual drama arrived at by concentrating light in the manner of a Georges de La Tour painting or a Rembrandt. One ceases to think of these works as photographs but rather as some sort of untranslatable visual experience—the medium actually disappears as the viewer is drawn through the surface and into mystery. It is impossible for the viewer with some grounding in the tradition of Western painting and literature not to overlay a viewing with memories of deposition scenes, morbid medieval northern landscapes, and the nubile body of Donatello’s David.

Henson’s artistry with the camera finds a parallel in the mysterious paintings of his partner Louise Hearman, whose first solo show in 1987 had artists queuing to buy her small dark visions on masonite. She is the closest thing Australia has to Goya. Her canvases, in which consuming darkness is also a staple, insert incongruities into landscapes that derive extraordinary energy—and menace—from the fact that they often disappear right under your nose; a country lane sinks into oblivion, a river bank dissolves, a house is swallowed, a slavering mastiff springs from nowhere. We are accustomed to the fat little putti who cavort across Baroque ceilings, but we are not accustomed to the innocent disembodied heads of infants that make their appearance amongst her foliage or pierce her clouds. These incongruities are the visual equivalent of those apparitions that we formed while reading fairy tales as children and upon which childhood anxieties settled and condensed. They are only accessible in the context of a dream and have no rational associations outside it. Hearman’s works are untitled, which is entirely fitting for the unclassifiable sensations she urges upon us.

Presumably, Henson’s work urged some perfectly classifiable sensations on Hetty Johnston. One of course is attention seeking, another is misplaced indignation. A series of bubble cartoons framed in the mind is irresistible: Johnston, armed with a spray can, trawling around the galleries of Europe, taking aim at those naked cherubs floating indolently among adults on the soaring ceilings of Baroque churches; Johnston hunting down Boucher’s Odalisque on a cloud of blue velvet, with her plump and very young bottom exposed to all eyes; Johnston flinging a blanket over Cranach’s nubile Venus, twelve if she’s a day, and with an expression of considerable maturity on her feline features. One could go on, but then this would degenerate into some kind of indulgent travelogue.

What comes next? House to house searches for the Brownie Box camera photos of each and every one of us all rolling naked on a blanket in the back garden or hosing down the family pet wearing nothing but a nappy? And what of those collectors who own a Donald Friend or two—he who specialised in provocative renderings of naked and nubile Bali boys? Spare a thought for the collectors of Norman Lindsay’s repulsive watermelon nudes. Will owners be required to submit their watercolours and gouaches to an auto da fé in Martin Place or Town Hall Square? In the case of Lindsay, this might be no bad thing.

A more appropriate target for wrath would be those untouchables: the retail corporations, newspaper proprietors and large advertising companies, who daily assault our senses—and on occasions our sense of decency—with their brazen advertising campaigns increasingly linking consumption, competitiveness, good looks, comfort, and self-absorption to sex—and for that matter to sex with younger and younger individuals.

Our government would do well to turn its attention to those enclaves where the commodification of young flesh has being going on for some time. In 2006, the Australia Institute published a paper called Corporate Paedophilia, which specifically pointed the finger at several large retail organisations, for “sexualising children” in advertising and marketing. One retailer mounted a law suit the following year, but withdrew it this year. Perhaps they saw only a pyrrhic victory before them.

Our hapless Prime Minister, caught in the crossfire, with more than enough on his plate, had Bill Henson’s image passed under his nose like a ripe cheese, and delivered an unrehearsed opinion. The papers amplified it endlessly. This had the unexpected result of shining a spotlight on the history of the nude’s place in Western painting and delivered some potted art history lessons. One such came from Christopher Kremmer, a research scholar at the University of Western Sydney, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 9, and as one Herald letter-writer observed: gave a “cultural and religious lineage within which an artist such as Bill Henson properly sits”.

One of the ironies of the debate which, like a rushing stream, is plucking all manner of flotsam and jetsam in its wake and bumping it along, is that an apparently inconsequential event has ricocheted around the international art world, and has tainted a hard-working, well-meaning new government with philistinism. Such is the unexpected power of art. (No one will readily forget how Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses prompted the Ayatollah Khomeini to pronounce a fatwa on him in 1989.)

One legitimate line of commentary generated by the Henson brushfire was the fact that the photograph of the pre-pubescent girl, whose natural habitat was the art gallery or studio wall, thence to a collector’s private domain, had been breached. The photo appeared in cyberspace, where no one could guarantee its integrity. This could charitably be considered an error of judgment on the part of the gallery owners.

As has been repeated ad nauseam in the press, Henson is a singular photographer with an international reputation. Robert Storr, formerly a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, now Dean of Yale’s School of Art, and an admirer of Henson’s work, suggested that it was widely recognised and respected both in Australia and internationally. “Teenagers and pre-teenagers have sexuality, they take their own sexuality seriously. In this case they are photographed intelligently and beautifully, so it is hardly a cause for scandal.” He added that Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, whose central figure was a twelve-year-old prostitute, was a mainstream film, raising eyebrows neither then nor now. How then, could anyone be shocked by Henson’s work?

Distance has its blessings. It’s a truism that Caravaggio created a whole body of work with a number of the Roman cardinals’ predilections for young male flesh in mind. We can look at these works now and they appear benign enough, just masterful elaborations of the hand and eye creating a miracle of flesh, light and shade. But at the time of their creation Rome was gripped by Counter-Reformation frenzy, and while politically it was wise for cardinals to approve only those artworks which were sanitised, non-sexual and contributed to the lofty aims and charitable deeds of Christianity, in private, young flesh was at their carnal beck and call. One sees the same hypocrisy at work today.

It is a misfortune that the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Henson should be the scapegoats in this saga, but there is one opportune development. Now that there is a concentration of community views, all focused like a sharp ray of sunlight through a young boy’s magnifying glass, the creature that will be squirming and feeling the heat is that crass and unlovely one: the advertising community, for whom no campaign can be too suggestive and in bad taste if it helps the manufacturer to sell the product.

Another exercise in doubtful judgment appeared hard on the heels of the Henson debate when the journal Art Monthly placed an image of a naked six-year-old girl on the cover of its July issue. The lass was partly concealed by a opaque black square, which only exacerbated the notion of her nakedness. The cover was pure provocation and perfectly in tune with the contemporary bandwagon thinking: if something is transfixing the public, find a way to use it to your advantage.

Looking at the little girl gazing out at us with a fair level of insouciance from the cover of Art Monthly, we are struck by the notion that this benign work may never have raised an eyebrow except for the timing of its publication. The picture is then amplified by a photograph and story in the Australian. The young lass (now eleven) poses with her artist father Robert Nelson, artist mother Polixeni Papapetrou, and her nine-year-old brother Solomon. Everyone is dressed except the artwork—its black box removed. There is nothing remotely sexual about the image, but what is striking is the almost identical demeanour of the six-year-old in the painting and the eleven-year-old in the Australian’s page-three colour spread. Her expression is fixed and inward, as if the little girl is transfixed by herself—it is a study in narcissism.

What has been overlooked in the melee of targeting advertisers is the behaviour of parents, whose own narcissistic imperatives propel their children into the limelight: to have their picture taken, their portrait painted, getting someone to notice it, even hoping to profit by it. This type of narcissism, which once appeared in the European courts of the late eighteenth century, where children were dressed and paraded as miniature adults, is now a standard feature of contemporary culture. Consider the tots taking part in fashion parades, beauty contests and miniature sporting events, observe the well-preserved middle-aged mothers trawling their daughters around the fashion stores and deriving endless satisfaction from a subliminal sense of being interchangeable with their daughters.

One element which has as yet been overlooked in the media scrum, but probably detected by the art world, is the careful posing of the six-year-old. It almost replicates an earlier nude who is enjoying a picnic with a couple of gentlemen in suits. This was Manet’s celebrated Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,painted in 1863, which caused a wholly anticipated fracas. But Manet himself was paying homage to earlier works by masters—including Titian’s Fête Champêtre.

Another idea that will strike the viewer is this. Would a painting of a nude by Henson have elicited the same unthinking response as his photograph? This is related to the issue of time lag—of emotional distance. The sculptor Edvard Eriksen who, in 1913, created The Little Mermaid on Denmark’s harbour, must have begun with a live model, we assume. Yet, how old she was, and under what circumstances she posed are irrelevant in any contemporary scrutiny of the work. What is certain is that from the first sketches and the plaster or clay macquette to the finished cast work in bronze, the subliminal current of emotional connection is all but severed in the arduous process of realising the project. Perhaps the average viewer intuits this, and thus distrusts the photograph with its apparent simultaneity.

When does nudity equate to sexuality? At what point can a nude image be guaranteed to excite someone? What is the engine that distils voyeurism? Will the strange seepage of consciousness cause the average observer to start looking at all art—where naked flesh is exposed—in a new and jaundiced way? As Kenneth Clark put it in The Nude:

“The English language, with its elaborate generosity, distinguishes between the naked and the nude. To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel in that condition. The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone.”

He also establishes, with breathtaking brevity, that the nude is “an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C., just as opera is an art form invented in seventeenth-century Italy”. Yet, in one form or another, the nude has been extravagantly prominent in Western art since man (or woman) first took a paring knife to a piece of amber, or fashioned the rotund abbreviated little statue the Venus of Willendorf.

Thus the nude has always been an expression of mankind’s self-awareness, although what is ultimately depicted in clay, stone, bronze, oil paint, and the photograph may bear only scant resemblance to the template which inspired it. The Western world embraced the nude, especially when its credentials had been established by reference to a mythological, biblical or historical past, which conferred an unchallengeable respectability.

There was a temporary reversal of this outlook when a variety of prudery overtook Victorian society (Queen Victoria herself was anything but prudish). It also manifested itself in the traders, administrators and missionaries who swarmed over England’s new empire and who were troubled or outraged by the nudity or near-nudity of the overwhelmed tribal cultures. Are we seeing some kind of revival of prudery today, is it being perpetrated by the same iron-clad philistinism and self-interest, and is it causing the wrong quarry to be hunted? If we are seeing a revival, it bumps along in the sidecar of its opposite, an overwhelming tide of deliberately provocative imagery.

As Kenneth Clark pointed out, even when the depiction of the nude became less fashionable, its discipline as an academic exercise and as a display of rendering skill never diminished. He also said: “Consciously or unconsciously, photographers have usually recognized that in a photograph of the nude their real object is not to reproduce the naked body, but to imitate some artist’s view of what the naked body should be like.” (Or, in the case of Henson, what it might feel like to inhabit that naked body.)

We can find in Bill Henson’s photograph a kind of physical purity. The flesh looks wistful and disoriented, but surprisingly unsullied. There is no sagging flesh, no wrinkling, no marks and growths, the only discolouration is the manipulated light of the setting. His male and female nudes are an essay in the contemplation of what it is to be no longer a child, but nowhere close to adulthood—a sort of no-man’s land.

There is another interesting question raised by Henson’s nude adolescents. And that is the evolution of the idea of perfection in the human form: male and female. The canon of female beauty has undergone an astonishing metamorphosis since the armless Venus with her thickened waist and poor posture first established it in Western eyes. It shifted to the prim rosebud-lipped Madonna of Flemish exactitude, to the suety abundance of Rubens, thence to the slender ankles and delicately shod feet of Watteau’s coquettes. From there it would be determined by the whims of the fashion world and the film industry.

Every culture has its own idea of the ideal human form. Ours has arrived at a sorry divide. On one side are the Dolly Partons and the Pamela Andersons, and on the other, desperate schoolgirls, glued to images from the catwalk, refusing to eat until they are matchsticks with skin sagging from their fleshless buttocks and a fine soft animal down slowly growing over the bodies. The idea of an impossibly slender body has been responsible for this, and it has been largely a post-1960s phenomenon. (Models from the 1960s, as fashion magazines from that time demonstrate, still had flesh on their bones.)

And what of the changing canons of male beauty? Does anyone believe the famously muscled Laocoön of antiquity struggling with pythons is a representative of Hellenistic manhood? Perhaps not, but the fantasy still survives in the cult of the weightlifter and the body builder at the local gymnasium. Nonetheless the male ideal has suffered less in depiction across the centuries. We have only to see the male models striding in Speedos (or their postmodern equivalent) at some suburban fashion parade, to be reminded of the solemn perfection of classical Greek marble statuary.

On July 10, Bill Henson spoke candidly when he opened a photographic exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra, “Picture Paradise: Asia-Pacific Photography 1840s–1940s”: “The greatness of art comes from the ambiguities … it stops us from knowing what to think …” While eluding any questions on his own recent dilemma, he was expansive about the art censorship which his recent exhibition had pointedly activated. His most valuable observation was this:

“We should be absolutely clear that we cannot know, or fully grasp, the experience that others have when they are alone—staring quietly and intently into this strange little mirror on the world—when they bring life experience to bear in each encounter with a photograph.”

But there may have been a whiff of sophistry about his suggestion that photos from the past were more impressive for “the mysteries they reveal” than the visual veracities they hold. These photos were taken as bald documents, and did not attempt to manipulate mood. It is the mystery which remains undisclosed which makes these images so compelling. Equally curious is Henson’s comment about Captain Cook’s arrival on our shores. As nothing like Cook’s Endeavour had ever sailed into Botany Bay and entered the Aborigines’ world before, “they had no eyes to see what was right in front of them”. This comment is strangely obtuse. Aborigines would have seen this unknown thing with a clarity beyond our imagining.

But Henson was right to discuss the virtues of ambiguity, the shades between black and white, to mourn the “reduction of … nuance” and to argue for the avoidance of the stereotype. No matter how much manipulation of light had taken place in preparation for a photo, no matter how otherworldly the props, or oddly juxtaposed the elements, there remains, Henson acknowledged, a “literalness” to the photo, which paint and clay cannot replicate.

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