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.