LEIPZIG.- LEIPZIG.- The representation of the unclothed human body has exuded a great fascination ever since time began. The exhibition Nude Visions invites visitors to embark on a journey through a collection of depictions of the human body spanning 150 years. More than 250 original photos, books and folders with studies from the nude will be on view, including masterpieces from each period: from photographs dating from the 19th century which seek their models in Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance, up to Surrealistic experiments and fashion and lifestyle photography. The exhibition illustrates changing ideals of beauty and moral perceptions, and reveals once again the constant attempt to balance between educational openness, titillation and curiosity.
Without any doubt, there is nothing which draws the attention of the observer to it so much as the naked human body. This comment of the journalist and photographer Kurt Freytag in1909 is as true today as it was then. The exhibition turns this fact to its advantage and deals with the historical, aesthetic and ideological development of images of the human body in photography. The show is divided into seven chapters devoted to the meaning and function of the unclothed human body in photography, and tracing the history of the medium: Academies and Exotic Pictures in the 19th century, Art photography around 1900 (Pictorialism), Avant-gardes of the 20s and 30s, Artistic positions after 1945, Naturism, The Male Nude and Glamourous Nudes. The first coloured Daguerreotypes of curvaceous ladies with blushing cheeks dating from 1855 meet the unflatteringly in-your-face and voyeuristic self-portrait of the photographer Frank Stürmer from 2004. These two photos mark the two ends of the spectrum covered by the exhibition, which illustrates the evolution of nude photography over sixteen decades by the example of more than 250 eminent works.
Nude photography is always, too, a process of negotiation between revealing and concealing. This exhibition makes clear the ambivalence of what is visible and what is unseen, of shame and curiosity, of legitimation and provocativeness. How nakedness is treated is closely bound up with the specific social context in which it occurs, the ideas of morality and the aesthetic ideal of an era. The motif of the nude is always influenced here both by the historical artistic tradition and reactions to contemporary impulses, which are interpreted by the photographer. Thus the movement for womens emancipation, for instance, led to new ways of looking at both the female and the male body, as seen for example in the work of Herlinde Koelbl. Images which were still regarded as being scandalous at the beginning of the 20th century, triggering moral misgivings and controversy about a subject perceived as being delicate, would hardly bring a blush to the face of anyone living today. It is not only the motifs which have moved on, but also the reproducibility of the images and the extent of their media coverage impact on the awareness and significance of nakedness in society.
The origins of the history of nude photography lie in the so-called academies, which provided painters, graphic artists and sculptors with study objects in the 19th century and which followed the historical artistic models of Classical Antiquity and the Renaissance. Nude photography soon increasingly became emancipated from being a mere model for painting and sculpture, and developed artistic ambitions of its own: photographers discovered in the art of the fin de siècle, with its debt to Symbolism, the nude as a reflection of emotional states and yearnings. In the outgoing 19th century, with its bias towards the exact sciences, the human body served as an object for the study of movement, such as in the celebrated series shots by Eadweard Muybridge showing the sequence of motions in human movement.
Whereas historically staged scenes and compositions are still created in the sheltered environment of the atelier at the beginnings of photography, we find the first open-air nudes after 1870. Wilhelm von Gloeden, Guglielmo Plüschow and others took advantage of the light in the Mediterranean South to stage their visions of an earthly Arcadia. As a feature of the Lebensreform back-to-nature movement which gained ground from the turn of the century onwards, especially in Germany, nude photography became a torchbearer of the Naturist movement. The ornamentally arranged groupings of naked dancers which Gerhard Riebicke for example photographs, mainly in the German countryside, became a symbol for the liberation from the moral constraints of civilization and industrialization. The aesthetic of athletic bodies engaged in sporting activities or dancers in motion was taken up in the heroic physical ideal of the National Socialists and can later still be found in the cult of bodybuilding.
A new, more radical vision was developed by the Avant-garde movements after the 1920s, with their abstract and surrealistic experiments, such as the stories narrated in a play of light and shadow by Frantiek Drtikol or the deformed bodies in the works of Hans List. The theme of glamour plays a crucial role above all in fashion photography. That chapter poses the question as to what role is played in the debate on fashion by the way of showing the unclothed female body, by male desire and how perceptions change in the course of cultural history. Glamour can be seen in the erotic images from the Atelier Manassé, shown in soft focus, in Bert Sterns portraits from the last sitting of Marilyn Monroe, up to and including Helmut Newtons photos. In addition to these, selected works by amateurs as well as the male nude as an expression of gay emancipation will also be presented in pictures, particularly by Will McBride or Herbert Roettgen, who placed the representation of the naked male body in the focus of their work as an expression of their homosexuality, an emblem of their coming-out.
The depiction of the naked torso is shrouded in an aura of scandal and has always been a political bone of contention, whereby images of the bare human body send signals which differ according to their historical context: the photographic artists of the 1970s, working within the framework of body art and performance events, declared the directness of their own physical experience to be a political necessity. In retrospect, their work can be seen as a last desperate attempt to grapple with the vanishing concept of the subjective personality before the transition to the post-modern age. The private spaces of life too are meanwhile also illuminated in a quite different way than 25 years ago. The photographer Thomas Ruff deals in his works, which he imbues with a diffuse haziness by digital means, with the theme of the exhibitionism which can go as far as pornographic exposure of ones own and others nakedness in internet forums. Nude Visions shows that the representation of the naked human body always also has something to do with the quest for insight into what human beings (and ones own self) really are and what role they play in society.