For a 21st-century gallery, a Victorian collection can be an embarrassment. Tate Modern got around the problem by offloading its Victoriana on to Tate Britain, but York Art Gallery decided to make the best of it.
As the birthplace of William Etty, York found itself lumbered with a major collection of work by a minor Victorian artist whose reputation nosedived after his death. While Etty’s statue still dominates the gallery forecourt, most of his paintings languish in the stores. For contemporary audiences, though, he has a USP. An avid frequenter of the life room, Etty acquired a mastery of flesh tones and a penchant for painting nudes that many of his fellow Victorians regarded as pervy. As the Times critic objected in 1822: ‘Nakedness without purity is offensive and indecent, and on Mr Etty’s canvases is mere dirty flesh.’
Now, as luck would have it, contemporary art has become as obsessed with body issues as a women’s magazine. Flesh has returned with a vengeance as a subject for art, and York has cleverly capitalised on its Etty connection to make it the focus not only of its contemporary acquisitions policy but also of its latest exhibition, titled simply Flesh.
Spanning 600 years between the 14th-century Master of San Lucchese’s ‘Dead Christ with the Virgin and St John’ and Ron Mueck’s contemporary ‘Youth exposing a stab wound’, the show’s 70 works present a selective overview of the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, with a few unnatural ones thrown in. The displays sweep us along from the gleaming male musculature of Etty’s ‘The Wrestlers’ and the sumptuous female cellulite of Rubens’s ‘Ceres and Two Nymphs with a Cornucopia’ via the mortification of Gina Pane’s ‘Azione Sentimentale’ — an exercise in artistic masochism that makes Marina Abramovic look like a wuss — towards inevitable death and decomposition.
It’s not a show for the squeamish, but at least the meat is well hung. In one gallery, a row of natures mortes features Chardin’s ‘Still Life: Kitchen Table’, with its politely painted salmon steak, alongside a workshop copy of Rembrandt’s rather less polite ‘Slaughtered Ox’, with its shadowy female figure mopping blood from the floor beneath. The adjacent wall displays contemporary vanitas subjects: Helen Chadwick’s egg-timer-shaped ‘The Philosopher’s Fear of Flesh No 1’, juxtaposing photographs of a plucked chicken breast and a hairy human stomach, and a drawing by Berlinde de Bruyckere titled ‘The Wound’ that appears to have been painted in blood.
Rembrandt’s ‘Slaughtered Ox’ was the inspiration for Francis Bacon’s famous ‘Figure with Meat’ in the Art Institute of Chicago, in which Velázquez’s ‘Pope Innocent X’ is sandwiched between two sides of beef. For the carnal Bacon, meat was the ultimate memento mori: ‘Of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses,’ he said in 1965. ‘If I go into a butcher’s shop I always think it’s surprising that I wasn’t there instead of the animal.’ That was the year he painted the picture on show here of ‘Henrietta Moraes on a Blue Couch’, posed like a scrap of pork belly in a yawning hippo’s mouth.
Bacon had a fetish for mouths and oral diseases, and would have relished the displays in this exhibition of Victorian modeller Joseph Towne’s wax replicas of skin conditions and Katarzyna Mirczak’s photographs of 19th-century Polish convicts’ tattoos preserved in formaldehyde, in one case complete with chest hairs and a nipple. He would have been less impressed with Jonathan Yeo’s paintings of plastic surgery, more revolting for their slickness than their subject. But the show’s most exquisitely macabre exhibit is a sequence of watercolours documenting ‘The Death of a Noble Lady and the Decay of her Body’ in the tradition of Kusozu, a genre of Japanese illustration specialising in step-by-step depictions of decomposing women. Sam Taylor-Johnson’s time-lapse video ‘A Little Death’ performs a similar operation on a putrefying hare.
For a regional museum with limited resources, York has had a jolly good stab at an ambitious subject. Inevitably, there are a few gaps. Lucian Freud is represented only by his etching ‘Girl Sitting’ when the occasion clearly calls for the fulsomely painted flesh of his benefits supervisor, and Damien Hirst is nowhere to be seen, leaving Sarah Lucas to represent the former YBAs with one of her wriggly, stuffed-tights sculptures titled ‘Nuds’ (after her mother’s habit of sunbathing ‘in the nuddy’). There’s no record of Stuart Brisley’s notorious 1972 performance in which he soaked in a bath alongside rotting offal, but Carolee Schneemann’s carnal bacchanal ‘Meat Joy’ (1964) — involving chickens, fish and buckets of paint being flung about while couples writhe to the sound of Millie’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’ — more than makes up for it. Meanwhile Adriana Varejao’s wall sculpture ‘Green Tilework in Live Flesh’ — in which expanded polyurethane foam entrails burst through a bathroom wall — packs enough blood and guts for an abattoir.
Unlike so many shows in our national galleries, Flesh is not over-padded with minor works from the permanent collection, though Harold Gilman’s ‘Interior with Nude’ is a rather dull picture that only reminds us of how sexless nudes by the Camden Town Group could be — unlike Sickert, Gilman lacked a dirty mind. Which brings us back to Etty and another omission: his 14ft canvas depicting ‘The Sirens and Ulysses’ in Manchester Art Gallery. The sensation of the 1837 RA Summer Exhibition, Etty’s painting dared to contrast the shell-pink flesh of the nubile sirens with the greenish corpses of their decomposing victims, prompting The Spectator’s critic to declare it ‘a disgusting combination of voluptuousness and loathsome putridity’. In other words, a gift to this exhibition. Come back Etty, all is forgiven.