‘Posing in the nude is empowering for women’
Rowan Pelling, guest curator of Sotheby’s sale of erotic art, argues that little is as confidence-building as disrobing for art
The naked body’s capacity to surprise and delight is one of the great, constant truths of life and art history. Wander through any of the Western world’s great galleries and you will view an abundance of nude flesh, male and female, human and divine, cherub and nymph.There’s no doubt, however, that since the Renaissance, the emphasis has been on beautiful, naked young women — all the more so in the age of photography, when fashion and other consumer industries use the allure of the female form to boost profits and profile. The gaze behind the canvas or lens has so frequently been male and heterosexual that natural and insistent questions arise about objectification. The male nude is, by comparison, a rarity and has tended to evoke Greek standards of classical beauty, or suppressed homoerotic desire.
This discrepancy has become a natural talking point in the months following #MeToo, when there has never been so much soul-searching about the pressures put on women to disrobe for others’ gratification. Manchester Art Gallery even temporarily removed its most famous exhibit, John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, to start “a conversation” on the constant sexualisation of female subjects. And although the curators in this instance chose the wrong target (the nymphs, far from being passive symbols of beauty, are pagan femmes fatales, about to abduct the Argonaut Hylas for their own devices), there’s no doubt myths, legends and Biblical stories have been plundered over the centuries with the express intention of depicting pert bosoms and peachy bottoms.But can there ever be another narrative? One in which a woman posing naked for an artist or photographer — or for herself — is genuinely empowering?
I have found it hard not to ponder this aspect of female agency while acting as a guest curator on Sotheby’s forthcoming sale Erotic: Passion and Desire, which took place on Thursday.
Take Britain’s favourite muse: it’s very rare — if not unheard of — for anyone to say Kate Moss has been exploited. She has sat naked for Lucian Freud and had her nude body sculpted by Marc Quinn. Sotheby’s included in the sale Chris Levine’s lenticular print She’s Light, which depicts Moss naked from the chest up, nipples proudly on display, and exploitation is the last thing on your mind.Nor is this without precedent in previous centuries. The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich held a riveting exhibition on Emma Hamilton, Horatio Nelson’s mistress, last year; it explored how she was complicit in the promotion of her eroticised self. She posed for many sultry portraits, including George Romney’s painting of her as a topless Cassandra, to aid her meteoric rise through the social ranks to become the wife of Sir William Hamilton. In a similar vein, Veronica Franco, the 16th-century Venetian poet and courtesan, posed naked for Tintoretto to better establish the legend of her beauty and wit, which empowered her as a cortigiana onesta (high-ranking, intellectual sex worker).Yet you could argue that Franco and Hamilton needed the artists as much as the portraitists required alluring sitters — that the central relationship was both symbiotic and transactional. So it was fascinating to come across a painting that transcends all the usual rules.
Enter the woman I like to think of as the wicked viscountess: the Restoration heiress Elizabeth Trentham (1640-1713), the Viscountess Cullen, who featured in scurrilous verse of the day because of her supposedly amoral habits.
Sotheby’s are auctioning a portrait of Trentham posing as An Allegory of Venus that has never been viewed in public before — and what an utterly arresting work of art it is.
For a start, it’s the only known fully nude English portrait of the Restoration era. The reclining society beauty is tilted on her side like Titian’s Venus D’Urbino, but unlike the Titian, her hand isn’t placed in her lap, obscuring her Mons Veneris. Instead it’s raised up, drawing aside a curtain, which has the happy effect of lifting her left breast and better displaying her creamy curves.
But the most startling aspect of the portrait is the subject’s cool, calculated stare straight at the viewer, as if to tease the onlooker for their frustrated lust. This is no artist’s model or courtesan establishing her myth, but an independently wealthy noblewoman renowned for waywardness, who is presumed to have posed naked of her own volition (and very likely commissioned the picture herself). All of which makes it unique in British art history.The spirit of the painting is remarkably modern. You see a woman revelling in the dominion of her naked self and the potential for scandalising strait-laced elements of society. It’s not a million miles away from the revealing photos of Madonna in her photo book Sex, Tracey Emin’s self-portraits, or the wonderfully lush nudes of Vivienne Westwood in her seventies taken by Juergen Teller.
Nor do women always embrace erotic portraiture in the name of eroticism. Germaine Greer, who showed all for the 1960s counterculture magazine Suck, wrote recently about the experience: “Face, pubes and anus framed by vast buttocks, nothing decorative about it. Nothing sexy about it either. Confrontation was the name of the game.”
Few women will be as bold as Greer, but they may still feel they’re confronting social mores when they disrobe for a portrait: the sort of unwritten diktats that say it’s unseemly for a woman who’s not young, thin, or model-perfect to display her skin.I know I felt all this when I was photographed naked, aged 37, by the photographer Circe Hamilton, for an exhibition she was mounting of women of all shapes, ages and professions. I had previously turned down a request to pose nude for GQ and — gulp — Penthouse because of qualms about the way women are presented when they are served up for a largely male audience.
Circe photographed me over two hours in my uncle’s Pimlico flat, as we downed wine, played Roxy Music and I gradually discarded inhibitions. Some of the resulting prints were flattering, some were not, but they were all distinct prisms of me. Was it empowering? I must answer in the affirmative as someone who has worked ferociously at overcoming a teen eating disorder and body dysmorphia. The one I like best has, by a curious process of osmosis, barter and teasing, ended up in the gents’ loos at the Chelsea Arts Club. It may not be feminist of me to say so, but this is one of the proudest achievements of my life. In my defence, I feel my new heroine, the Viscountess Cullen, would thoroughly approve.