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Bare necessities

The Naked Portrait
at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Compton Verney

25 July 2007

2:19 PM

25 July 2007

2:19 PM

The Naked Portrait

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until 2 September, then Compton Verney, Warwickshire, from

29 September to 9 December

The advance publicity I saw for this on the whole excellently curated exhibition contained a health warning: ‘Please note this show contains nudity. Children under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.’

The title comes from the phrase used by Lucian Freud for several of his nudes but, alas, for the prurient, there are few images that might disturb or inflame either adults or children, except perhaps one of a woman holding a silk rosette bearing the word ‘Boob’ against her own left breast mutilated (but not removed) by surgery.

The show limits itself to nude portraits and self-portraits from 1900 to 2007 and is a skilful mix of classics of modern art and contemporary work by artists not yet famous, with a fair proportion of photographs and a little sculpture to counterbalance the natural dominance of the paintings. The curator, Martin Hammer, has also written the excellent accompanying catalogue and his selections veer from images so well known as to be, no matter how brilliant, clichés to a sophisticated sense of humour in some of his juxtapositions. It’s a bit of a bore to see, yet again, Lewis Morley’s famous shot of Christine Keeler sitting naked on her back-to-front chair but there’s a welcome smile of relief to see David Frost and Barry Humphries as Dame Edna equally naked in the same posture and snapped on the same chair.

As often in shows of contemporary art the old question of whether size matters is repeatedly posed. The one fault with the catalogue is that it fails to include dimensions in its captions so that you have to see the originals to reflect on the sizes. Jemima Stehli has two standing nude photographs of herself in her studio which work as images for a classic photographic magazine. Yet, because they are shown as glossy prints about eight by six feet, they are little more than the kind of commercial display that would look good in a fashionable shop window.

There are some Diane Arbus photos taken in a nudist camp which display her to me always somewhat condescending voyeurism, but there are also some magnificent Alfred Stieglitz nude studies of his wife and muse, the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, probably the most erotic artistic photographs of the last century apart from the strangely excluded naked portraits by Edward Weston of his two nude muses Tina Modotti and Charis Wilson.

On the whole it’s the paintings that linger in the memory; two classic Freuds, that great Paula Modersohn-Becker ‘Self-portrait on her Sixth Wedding Anniversary’ in which she luminously exposes her pregnancy (without being actually pregnant at the time) and Cecile Walton’s ‘Romance’, a flawlessly executed, gently mocking study of postpartum bliss. The recently delivered mother lies back, exquisitely groomed, her figure having instantly rebounded to model proportions, the baby perfectly turned out in her arms, her first-born standing by gazing in wonder, while a nurse sponges the mother’s legs. A reproduction of this picture in every maternity ward in the country could cause extensive public rioting.

More realistic female nudes are represented by two good Bonnards, Stanley Spencer’s unforgettable depictions of Hilda Spencer and Patricia Preece — but, sadly, no Matthew Smiths — and a vast, distinctly threatening naked Madonna (the singer, I think, rather than the Virgin) by Peter Howson looking like a cross between the work of Tamara de Lempicka and the worst of Soviet Socialist Realism. But then what can you do with a self-created sex icon who has made many millions by exposing part or all of her body? Howson tries to make the picture more interesting by including tiny emblems such as a star of David, the tree and the snake from Eden and a cruciform jewelled dagger. Surprisingly, considering how powerful his female nude portraits are, Schiele is represented only by male figures in which he distorts his own image as drastically as that of any of his female models.

I could have done with more sculpture apart from a fine Rodin ‘Eve after the Fall’, Marc Quinn’s marble of Catherine Long minus her left arm and Eduardo Paolozzi’s self-portrait with the back of his head terraced and the whole thing bolted up like a Frankenstein monster. But the paintings really win over the sculptures and the photographs. There’s a Matisse-like Roger Hilton which is surely one of his best pictures, and finding supreme examples of Balthus and Bacon at his most enigmatic and disturbing on the same wall is, like the show as a whole, an intriguing and always instructive experience.

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