Alison Smith with Robert Upstone, Michael Hatt, Martin Myrone, Virginia Dodier, Tim Batchelor; Exposed - The Victorian Nude (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2001)
The primary value of exhibition catalogs lies in the illustrations of the works, accompanied by some information about the circumstances of their creation and the artists’ biographies. This satisfies a particular in need in cases like the Tate’s exhibition of the Victorian nude since many of the works are in private collections or small provincial museums, and accordingly have never before been illustrated. In this light Exposed is a valuable document.
The actual text, if it is to be worth our time, should, in addition, be long on fact and short on opinion, especially in the case of the 19th century nude where – in a situation of academic faggotry run wild – the verbiage of aesthetic disapproval is often used to mask religious and moral prejudice.
In this respect, the commentary of Smith and her confrères is agreeably even-handed and largely ignores the digladiations of the odious Steinem and her ilk. It is against this temperate background that I suggest corrections in those cases where I find the influence of the intolerant has broken through.
Both instances of repugnant observation are the work of Virginia Dodier from New Mexico and, perhaps incidentally, both cases have to do with photography. Regarding (No. 89), Plüschow’s lovely portrait of four Italian girls, Dodier says, "This image of four pre-pubescent, beautiful and undoubtedly poor Italian girls completely undressed and standing against a wall conveys a palpable sense of discomfort and vulnerability, degradation and humiliation – key ingredients in pornography. We do not know who they are or how they were induced to pose for Plüschow, nor if they posed on more than one occasion or worked for other photographers. Surely they were paid, whether in money or in food." Bullshit. There’s nothing like doing a little research if you’re going to be an art historian. Two of the models may very well have posed for this Plüschow photo as well where their obviously posed looks of distress should warn us against drawing hasty conclusions from facial expressions. And if they are in this photo they look anything but vulnerable, degraded and humiliated. In fact they seem to be quite enjoying themselves. While we’re at it, why are "discomfort…vulnerability, degradation and humiliation" "key ingredients in pornography" I rather enjoy pornography, but the last time I checked I didn’t much enjoy feelings of discomfort. Perhaps there are those who get an erotic thrill from images of vulnerability et al. (de gustibus and all that), but those "key ingredients" would disqualify 99% of sexy and nude photos (presumably even those of children) since their subjects don’t really appear to experience vulnerability etc. (unless you stipulate that being undressed analytically entails vulnerability). Incidentally, by Dodier’s bizarre definition, is pornography but is not.
In fact the models don’t look vulnerable, degraded and humiliated in No. 89 either. They have your basic Children Posing for 19th Century Photos look, not unlike the Fatima urchins: . If any criticisms could be leveled at No. 89, it is that the figure on the left should be cropped out. Her eyes are unfortunately closed and the other three form a kind of Three Graces frieze. But that’s as may be. Still, isn’t it possible that the girls actually had fun posing for these photos? And indeed there is nothing wrong with accepting pay for anything you do. On the contrary.
And then there is the gratuitous and unfounded comment that the girls were “undoubtedly poor” and working for food. Dodier reiterates her bluestocking social snobbery regarding (No. 91), where she says that the model was "probably working class" and adds "It can be assumed that the photographer was male, that the purchaser was male and affluent, that the model was paid for posing, and that the photographer made a profit." Oh, those horrible men! I thought historians didn’t "assume" anything, that they looked up the records and, if they couldn’t establish the facts, they shut up, especially if their assumptions are intentionally inflammatory. Dodier practices what might be called George Bush art history, viz. if you don’t have the facts, just make a few up to establish your point because Jesus would want it that way. And again, what’s wrong with selling your services and making a profit (although personally I would not pay good money for a photo of the model in No. 91). Dodier’s social assumptions are pure regurgitated Karl Marx; I assume she’s just another one of those artsy America haters.
But why are we supposed to care what social class they came from? Why make the comment? When I go to galleries or museums I don’t run around wondering what social class the models sprung from (although I think some English people do). Is it just because they are nude? I doubt whether Dodier would waste ink speculating about the the social standing of the children in Bouguereau’s Sur la grève, or insinuating what a horrible exploiter of children the artist was. (Incidentally Plüschow’s photograph is far superior to Bouguereau’s painting.)
Presumably the idea is that being nude, or at least posing nude, is irredeemably Working Class, indulged in only by women so bestialized they would happily lick their own pussies for a crust of stale bread. But, as other works in the exhibition show, the models we know something about, largely the English models, were sometimes other artists like Hetty Pettigrew and quite often women of exceptional self-possession and lively intelligence. Why not extend this assumption to the Italian girls? Is it because they are Italian and the Italians are closer to beasts than the English (or New Mexicans) are? Dodier refrains from this sort of racist insinuation in her comments on Plüschow and von Gloeden’s photos of Italian boys. I suppose women in her view are just inferior.
Dodier returns to the fray in her comments of Edward Linley Sambourne’s nude photos Nos.100-105), but this commentary replaces racism with a similar age-related prejudice. The works on exhibit include a series with a model named Dorothy and two fake (because they were obviously shot in a studio) upskirt photographs . One of the Dorothy photographs showed her pussy but seems to have been cropped to include her face (We cannot tell because prudery or feminazism (The two are indistinguishable, really) caused it to be excluded from the exhibition). Dodier writes, "It is difficult to conjecture what possible use such a pose could have had to Sambourne in his work for Punch – this is more a ‘beaver shot’ than anything else. When we consider that Sambourne knew the actress was only a child, the image and his reasons for taking – and enlarging – it become even more disquieting." She adds à propos of the upskirt photos, "As post-modern commentators have noted, the fragmentation of the body for the purposes of sexual voyeurism began with the invention of photography." Once again Dodier lets her own "Victorianism" get in the way of responsible scholarship. Why are these photos supposed to have anything to do with Punch? Art is usually created for the pleasure of the thing and attractive nude women are a pleasurable sight. Sambourne’s age is irrelevant unless one assumes that the "middle-aged" – and indeed the elderly – should be denied sexual pleasure. In fact Dorothy’s youth seems to contribute to her attractiveness, since 19th century artists were struggling to escape the big butt canons of proportion that came down from the Renaissance, and one of their means was precisely the observation of real women, their models, instead of relying on ruler and compass guides to human proportions. Dorothy’s pictured "aplomb" has two sources worth noting. On the one hand Sambourne was clearly trying to escape from the stiffness of much portrait photography due in large part to the clumsiness of available photographic techniques. Clearly film speed and contrast control had improved to the extent that Sambourne could take "42" shots of the models in one sitting (No. 96) and the models could assume poses (Nos. 98 and 99) that could not have been held for too long with any degree of spontaneity. It also allowed Dorothy to move in front of the camera, even though she had to pause for each shot, and thus provide an initial taste of the potential for photographic models. It is perhaps unfortunate that Sambourne chose to experiment with high contrast lighting from the skylight, which might be responsible for the murkiness of the photos. On the other, the immense speed and flexibility of photography compared to studio painting and even sketching allowed artists to experiment freely with poses and compositions because they were no longer held back by the great investment of time required by manual techniques. The three exhibited Dorothy poses were the work of an afternoon, and one can only speculate how many decades - or centuries – would have had to elapse before painting or sculpture could have evolved away from endless Knidian imitations to dabble in these offbeat poses.
As regards these post-modernist commentators, references are lacking so we have no idea whom Dodier is talking about (Nochlin?). But whoever, they may be, somebody is just flat wrong. If the pompous academic phrase "fragmentation of the body" is supposed to mean images of body parts, the source is by and large the Japanese print as mediated by Degas and the motive is not particularly difficult to state. Artists were and are looking for what they refer to as a more graphic composition, namely a flatter pictorial space unlike the artificial stage space of Old Master painting. Body parts are a semi-abstract result of this quest, reaching extremes in artists like Georgia O’Keefe. Another source is advertisers’ desire to show particular products. If you want to sell rings, you use a hand model; if you want to sell lipstick, you shoot lips. Exhibiting these products via the un-"fragmented" image of a model’s entire body would be just loony. Also unexplained is the meaning of the sinister sneer behind phrases like "fragmentation of the body" and "sexual voyeurism." I suppose she means that people get an additional sexual excitement from seeing a fingernail, for example, and not the rest of a woman’s body. I suppose that is true for some people, though I for one usually am more turned on by photos that include a model’s face. In fact when photographers include photos of body parts in a layout, it is usually for variety. A combination of long and tight shots provides pace to a photographic layout. The same camera distance throughout would simply be boring. Close ups of cunt and tit are exciting for the same reason we like to get close to cunt and tit during sex. But they are more exciting if photos showing the whole model including her face accompany them. Dodier and her "post-modern commentators" also seem to be making the nasty and unstated (unstated because all you have to do is say it out loud to expose its absurdity) insinuation that "sexual voyeurs" enjoy images of body parts because it either makes the model anonymous or allows the viewer to engage in some sort of sadistic Jack the Ripper fantasy. When you see a cropped photo of a pussy, you see, you are really butchering the poor young thing in your imagination. Maybe there are people like that (Krafft-Ebbing may have a few examples), but I venture to say, not many. I personally prefer intact bodies and I personally find a pleasant personality (or the painterly index of a pleasant personality) more stimulating than pure neutrality (One reason that Picasso’s nudes are neither arousing nor disturbing is the distortion makes them neutral; they are not real women). But I’ll take neutrality over a bitch any time.