NEW YORK, NY.-
Depicting the human body has been among the greatest challenges, preoccupations, and supreme achievements of artists for centuries. The nudeeven in generalized or idealized renderingshas triggered impassioned discussions about sin, sexuality, cultural identity, and canons of beauty, especially when the chosen medium is photography, with its inherent accuracy and specificity. Through September 9, 2012, Naked before the Camera, an exhibition of more than 60 photographs selected from the renowned holdings of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
, surveys the history of this subject and explores some of the motivations and meanings that underlie photographers fascination with the nude.
In every culture and across time, artists have been captivated by the human figure, commented Thomas P. Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan. In Naked before the Camera, we see how photographers have used their medium to explore this age-old subject and create compelling new images.
The exhibition begins in the 19th century, when photographs often served artists as substitutes for live models. Such studies for artists were known to have been used by the French painter Gustave Courbet, whose Woman with a Parrot (1866), for instance, is strikingly similar to photographer Julien Vallou de Villeneuves Female Nude of 1853. Even when their stated purpose was to aid artists, however, the best of these 19th-century photographs of the nude were also intended as works of art in their own right. Two recently acquired photographs, made in the mid-1850s by an unknown French artist, are striking examples. Not only are they larger than all other photographic nudes from the time, they stand out due to an extraordinary surface pattern that interrupts the images and suggests a view through gossamer or a photograph printed on finely pleated silk rather than paper. The elegant Female Nude harkens back to an Eve or Venus and is vignetted by the camera lens as if seen through a peephole, while her male counterpart is shown in strict profile in a pose that recalls precedents from antiquity. Each figure draws from the past while being presented in a strikingly modern way, without any equivalent among other 19th-century studies for artists.
Not all photographers of the nude were motivated by artistic desire. The second section of Naked before the Camera includes photographs made for medical and forensic purposes, as ethnographic studies, as tools to analyze anatomy and movement, andnot surprisinglyas erotica. The lines between such categories were not always clearly drawn; some photographers called their images studies for artists merely to evade the censors, while viewers of the G. W. Wilson Studios Zulu Girls (1892-93) or Paul Wirzs ethnographic photographs of scantily clad Indonesians from the 1910s and 1920s were undoubtedly titillated by the blending of exoticism and eroticism.
Beginning in the fertile period of modernist experimentation that followed on the heels of World War I, photographers such as Brassaï, Man Ray, Hans Bellmer, André Kertész, and Bill Brandt found in the human body a perfect vehicle for both visual play and psycho-sexual exploration. In Distortion #6 (1932) by André Kertész, a womans body is stretched and pulled in the reflections of a fun-house mirrora figure from a Surrealist dream that stands in stark contrast to the images of perfect feminine beauty by earlier photographers.
In mid-20th-century America, photographers more often communicated an intimate connection with their subjects. Following the example of Alfred Stieglitzs famed portraits of Georgia OKeeffe, photographers such as Edward Weston, Harry Callahan, and Emmet Gowin made many nude studies of their wives. Callahans photograph of his wife and daughter, Eleanor and Barbara, Chicago (1954), for instance, gives the viewer access to a private, tender moment of intimacy.
In the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s, artists began to think of the body as a politicized terrain and explored issues of identity, sexuality, and gender. Diane Arbuss Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N.J. (1963) and A naked man being a woman, N.Y.C. (1968), Larry Clarks untitled image (1972-73) from the series Teenage Lust, and Hannah Wilkes Snatch Shot with Ray Gun (1978) are among the works featured in the concluding section of the exhibition.