The number of visitors of the exhibition “Nude: Masterpieces from Tate” exceeded 50,000 in October. In the art world, people remarked that nude exhibition got such a high interest in Korea because the Confucian culture of Korea has traditionally excluded nudity. However, the nude achieved an artistic level, beyond the eye-catching erotic level. The Argus looked into the value of nudity through its history over the last two centuries.
What is Tate?
Tate (originally Tate Britain) opened its door to the public in 1897 by Henry Tate. Today, the art gallery preserves the national collection of British artworks including paintings, drawings, engravings, photos, and installation art.
This exhibition is now on an Asia-Pacific rotation tour. After visiting Sydney in Australia and Auckland in New Zealand, the nude collections of the Tate Gallery first chose Korea as its first venue in Asia. Open until Dec. 25, the exhibition features eight themes in six rooms.
The Argus arrived at the Seoul Olympic Museum of Art located in Olympic Park, Songpa-District on Monday. The reporter gained direct access without any wait, and immediately entered the exhibition hall filled with a few single visitors.
Exhibition Room 1. Historical Nude
Nude artworks in the 18th-19th century often featured historical events, ancient myths, and stories from the Bible and literature. Since historical paintings were for the elite, the topics or expression techniques were classical. In the 19th century, learning how to paint a nude was an essential part of training in art education. By observing the model, the artists could grasp the whole structure of bone and muscle, and gestures depending on the movement of the human body. Based on this understanding, garments were able to be drawn on the body in later paintings. In other words, drawing nude was just regarded as advanced work.
While most of the nude models were male athletes or soldiers, there was a lot of controversy on the use of females as nude models. Also, it is unusual to find female artists in the early 19th century because women were not allowed to enter art school. Anna Lea Merritt was one of the rare female artists who entered art school at that time. Through her painting Love Locked Out, which features a boy not a man, we can assume that female artists were not free to draw male nudes at that time.
Exhibition Room 2. The Private Nude
The very next space is comprised of paintings of the 20th century. At this time, artists began to draw real people in real, more naturalistic scenes such as a house or a bathroom. This transition highlights the intimacy between artist and model. For example, a French painter Pierre Bonnard drew his wife in Nude in the Bath.
Previously, nudes were regarded as preparation for the next process, but each artist’s characteristics and creativities came to be remarked. As new art trends appeared, such as Impressionism and Fauvism, nudity has come to be recognized as one distinct genre in the field of painting.
Exhibition Room 3. The Modern Nude
As nudity no longer became based solely on historical events, it had become a way of exploring new methods to describe the human body. In the previous exhibition rooms, it is easy to see the form of the body, which was ideally and elaborately depicted, was changed into a more geometrical shape.
Inside of the third exhibition room filled with modernism nude sculptures made from stainless steel, bronze, lead, and wood, has its own space apart from the others.
Most of the sculptures expressed a story rather than stimulating the senses. Dame Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture titled “Figure of a Woman” showed the body most plainly without any erotic stimulation. Utilizing red sandstone, it has gentle and blunt curves which create a warm atmosphere and may remind image of mother.
Exhibition Room 5. The Realist & Surrealist Nude
In the middle of 20th century, Realism and Surrealism existed in two dominant forms of describing nude artwork.
The Surrealists portrayed nudity through unconsciousness and dreams. In these works, the human body looks unrealistic because of disparate settings and weird commodities. However, after World War I, European artists avoided to paint abstract figure of Modernism and started to put efforts into realistic portrayal. They also adopted the nude as a symbol of grim reality after undergoing disastrous wars.
Exhibition Room 6. Body Politics & The Fragile Body
In the past, trends such as Romanticism, Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism explored the materiality of the human body and focused on emphasizing aesthetics. However, nude artworks of late 20th century, located in last exhibition room, send both social and political messages. Criticizing the tradition that male artists created female nudes for a male audience, female feminist artists started to create artwork featuring male nudes.
In fact, there were few male nudes in the previous gallery rooms, but at the end of the exhibition, I could finally see male nude as well as challenging works against the viewer’s stereotypes on age, race, gender, etc. For instance, one photo of the “Self-portrait” series by John Coplan illustrated his aged body. Furthermore, photos of three naked infants who had been given birth just one hour, one day, and one week ago, were on the next wall.
Nude artwork has always been denied and criticized by society but it has been recreated constantly. Through this exhibition, it was capable of seeing the transition of the nude from historical nude to recent nude. Nudity may be closely linked to humanity more than any other theme in art.
By You Seo-yeon
Reporter of National Section