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Exposed: The Victorian Nude

In today’s society with its half-naked poster girls, the unclothed body in art is not so unusual. But in Victorian England the situation was quite different, as an exhibit at the Munich House of Art shows.


John Watson's "Academic Study", 1855, illustrates the dilemma of art, desire and morality

They splash around innocently in pastoral streams, lounge coyly on velvet divans, and wrestle wild animals in the nude.

From nymphs to fairies, goddesses and Greek athletes, the subjects vary, but the intent stays the same: reveal the natural beauty of the human body without the stifling garments of everyday Victorian life.

Contemporary visitors to the Munich House of Art’s newest exhibit "Exposed: the Victorian Nude" will hardly be riled by the subject matter. After the last hundred years of developments in art and morality, nothing should be surprising any more.

Between morality and artistic freedom

During the age of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), however, museum visitors would probably have been taken aback by what they considered "morally dangerous" works of art. If the civilized ladies and gentlemen thought otherwise, as many of them surely did, they kept their thoughts to themselves.

Every naturalistic representation of the naked body was deemed immoral in England during the second half of the nineteenth century. Even anatomical studies were regarded skeptically. The common view among the population was that artists who depicted nude men or women where of dubious character and their works of poor artistic quality.

This view was echoed by art historians who, even through the last half century, continued to regard Victorian nude painting in a disparaging manner. In fact, many art historians simply skip over this aspect of English painting, referring only briefly in passing to it as "academism" and "mannerist".

A chronology of public morals

The Munich exhibit, organized in cooperation with the Tate Gallery in London, attempts to present the Victorian nude paintings in a new light, as an artistic attack on the prudish public morals of the time.

Alison Smith, the curator of the exhibit, has organized the works in six main thematic areas documenting the developments throughout the period. From the old masters of the early Victorian era, through the fantasy creations of the Pre-Raphaelites and the academism of the Victorian Classicism, up to the experiments with Impressionism, the exhibit shows the changes in morality and the slow acceptance of nudes as proper artistic subjects.

In contrast to continental Europe, England had no history of nude painting. Initially the nude was considered an exclusive subject. The majority of paintings focused on more socially-acceptable motifs such as portraits, landscapes, historical and literary scenes.

By the mid-nineteenth century, English artists began going to Paris to study. While there, they became acquainted with styles and painting techniques. Influenced by the disciples and followers of Ingres, the English artists began to focus on the classical nude in ancient Greek surroundings.

Back in England, the classical nude subject matter protected the artists from accusations of immorality. For the prudish Victorians, the naked figures in classical painting were no longer sensuous, but rather academic and therefore acceptable.

Hidden desire

Under the guise of academism and historicism, the nudes began to increase in popularity. They lost their risqué nature and started to appear in museums, galleries and even in magazines.

Once this stage was reached, artists and collectors began exploring the subject of the private nude. These paintings were not intended for public display, where standards of taste and morals had to be maintained. These works were more personal and expressed wishes outside the mainstream, some even divergent to it.

Finally around 1900, artistic conventions concerning the naked body relaxed. Naturalism was accepted, even desirable as attitudes changed regarding health and beauty. This was the beginning of the body cult of the 20th century, which has continued to the present day.

Although the exhibit concentrates primarily on the nude in painting, it also presents other media such as photographs, advertising and print illustrations. These media were especially significant in breaking down the resistance to nudity and altering public morality.

Many of the questions raised at the exhibit concerning public morals, sexuality, the human body and desire are still relevant to the contemporary museum-goers

"Exposed: The Victorian Nude" runs through June 6, 2002.

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