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Louise Bourgeois’s. Arched figure 1993: powerful and unforgettable. Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation Purchase 2016 © The Easton Foundation.

Review: The naked nude from the Tate

One senses that summer is around the corner when Australia’s major public art galleries unveil their summer blockbuster exhibitions – Versailles at the National Gallery in Canberra, David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria and Nude from the Tate at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. They all promise to be big, glitzy designer exhibitions and with a huge popular appeal.

Sydney’s Nude is the first cab off the rank. It seems to tick all the right boxes: nudity sounds sexy and spicy, while the Tate is high in the cultural capital stakes.

It is not a tightly curated exhibition that argues a thesis, but more of a popular summer show built around the themes of the nude, naked and undressed with all their many connotations within cultural history. It is also a show that sparkles with a number of famous names, including Picasso, Matisse, Turner and Rodin.

Henri Matisse. Draped nude, 1936 © Succession H Matisse. image © Tate, London 2016

The exhibition has been co-curated and co-created between London (by Emma Chambers curator of modern British art at the Tate) and Sydney (by Justin Paton head of international art at the AGNSW). Although most of it is drawn from the holdings of the Tate, there is a sprinkling of pieces from the Sydney gallery and the Lewis Collection.

The hero image for the show is the bulky marble The Kiss made by Rigaud, who worked in Auguste Rodin’s atelier, and carved the marble block based on the original carved by Rodin himself for the Musée du Luxembourg. The master may have had a hand in finishing this copy. The literary source was Dante’s Inferno, where the adulterous lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, while reading the Arthurian legend of Lancelot, got carried away when they reached the spot of Lancelot’s first embrace of Queen Guinevere.

Auguste Rodin The kiss, 1901–04: made by Rigaud, it has grown a little tired through over exposure. © Tate, London 2016

Francesca’s husband, not being the literary kind, simply killed them in an act of domestic violence. The observant viewer who is able to remove his or her gaze long enough from the amorous couple, will notice the book in Paolo’s left hand. A little like Rodin’s Thinker, The Kiss is a grand image of erotic love that has grown a little tired through over exposure and it is difficult to imagine the excitement and controversy that the work caused when it was first acquired by the Tate in 1953.

For me, a much more powerful and timely piece of sculpture is Louise Bourgeois’s bronze Arched figure (1993). This is a new acquisition by the AGNSW, with this copy cast in 2010, the year of the artist’s death. The figure in an arched form was one of the obsessive images in Bourgeois’s oeuvre and grew out her interest in physical, emotional and psychological dimensions of fear and pain.

The arch of hysteria, as she termed it, is a clinical state where the muscles contract and the body is cast into a form of paralysis brought on by an extreme emotional state. The mattress suggests a domestic situation, while the substitution of the female model with a male nude subverts the assumption that hysteria is a female condition. This sculpture and her accompanying blood red drawings are powerful and unforgettable.

One of the other great highlights in the exhibition is the all-time showstopper in painting, Stanley Spencer’s Double nude portrait: the artist and his second wife (1937). It is a painting that you never forget and I remember being mesmerised by it on first encounter in the mid 70s in London. It is just such a virtuoso piece of painting and of psychological observation. It is painfully explicit, clinically observed eroticism, but contains wit and a hint of pathos.

Many would know that Spencer’s second marriage was never consummated and the situation is summed up with the uncooked leg of mutton, otherwise inexplicably presented in the foreground. It is a remarkable treatment of the human flesh by one of the quirkiest and most significant artists that Britain ever produced.

At the opposite emotional end of the spectrum is the wall of Pierre Bonnards, one of the supreme masters of painting the female flesh and one of the most influential artists for the development of the course of modern Australian art. The knockout piece is Bonnard’s The bath (1925).

Pierre Bonnard The bath, 1925: a tragic, loving painting. Tate: Presented by Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill through the Contemporary Art Society 1930 © Estate of Pierre Bonnard. image © Tate, London 2016

There are a number of approaches to the viewing of this painting, like the brutal geometry in truncating the bath and the body, the play with light and water and the strange colour and light on the flesh. The historical circumstances are somewhat depressing, as it is a painting of the artist’s muse and by that time wife, Marthe, who at that stage was in her fifties and was suffering from tuberculosis, where a popular treatment in those days was many hours of water therapy. It is this tragic, loving painting on a considerable scale that celebrates beauty and redemption.

The exhibition thematically meanders through the historical nude, the private nude, the modern nude, real and surreal bodies, paint as flesh, the erotic nude, body politics and the vulnerable nude, but for all of its trumpeting of risk and daring, it remains essentially a rather puritanical summer exercise without someone like Robert Mapplethorpe rocking the boat.

Picasso’s Nude woman in a red armchair, 1932. © Succession Picasso image © Tate, London 2016

There are at least a dozen memorable pieces, including the Hockney homoerotic etchings (1966), Sickert’s Seated nude: the black hat (c.1900), Picasso’s Nude in a red armchair (1932), Matisse’s Draped nude (1932) and de Chirico’s The uncertainty of the poet (1913), but there are many predictable Christmas stocking fillers. Also, there are the selfie magnets, such as Ron Mueck’s Wild man (2005).

This show may not set the Sydney Harbour on fire, but it is an enjoyable summer excursion with more than simply eye candy as the reward.

Nude: Art from the Tate Collection is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until the 5 February 2017

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