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Nudity at the National Gallery

By Steve Orton May 15, 2013 Bookmark and Share

There was a very interesting dustup at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC a couple of weeks ago when a woman attempted to forcefully remove a Gauguin painting from the wall.  The painting was part of a Gauguin exhibit and featured many of his paintings of bare-breasted Tahitian women.

The woman stated that the painting in question, titled “Two Tahitian Women,” was evil because of its nudity and its homosexual overtones, although subsequent statements by her indicated that she might not be mentally stable.

Her mental state aside, the incident does raise an issue about art of nude figures in public spaces.  Nudity in art has become so common in western culture that we have become inured to it.  It has been around since the time of the Greeks, and during the Renaissance it became commonplace, even in such holy places as the Sistine Chapel.

I have heard it said that the ability to render the female nude accurately in oil paint—with her subtle flesh tones, curves, and interplay of light and shadow—is the true test of an artist’s skill.  (Although, I wonder if the ability to paint draped fabric so that it looks like silk, as Michelangelo did in his glorious piece, Doni Tondo—The Holy Family with St. John the Baptist, is a greater test.)  If this is true, then such Renaissance artists as Alessandro Botticelli with his The Birth of Venus and, later, Diego Velázquez with his Venus at Her Mirror, really are great artists.

One has to decide whether all this attention to the female nude (soft and curvaceous) as opposed to the male nude (angular and hairy) is for aesthetic reasons or because most of the artists of the time were men.   But on the other hand, the Greeks did do justice to the male form as did Michelangelo with his David.

In my opinion, the quality of art began to break down with the Impressionists.  As an example, I offer Manet’s painting called The Picnic.  Gone are the fine brush strokes of Velazquez to be replaced by a cruder hand.  Moreover, why is it that the only nude in the picture is the woman while her two male companions are fully clothed?  It would appear that the intentions of the two males are far from noble.  Prurient interests in this painting seem to have replaced the more noble thoughts that gave rise to the image of Venus mentioned earlier. 

And then we come to Gauguin of the post-Impressionist period.  Like his friend, Van Gogh, he appears to have been a tortured soul.  His quest to live a quiet life in the surrounding of primitive nature led him from France to Tahiti where he took up with local women and eventually died of syphilis.  He painted villagers in what was purported to have been their everyday lives.  Many of the women were painted nude as if they were Eves in a modern Garden of Eden.  Never mind the fact that in the late 1800s when he painted these pictures, French colonialists and missionaries had succeeded in persuading most Tahitians to wear clothing and adopt Western ways.

While Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings are certainly colorful, like the rest of the Impressionists, Gauguin makes no attempt to paint a close likeness of his subjects, which has always been my definition of a good artist.  While I appreciate the color, to me the paintings appear crude—almost child-like.  For example, his The Yellow Christ looks like it could have been painted in grade school and would have been less offensive if it had been.    (Interestingly enough, while I don’t like Gauguin, I do like the work of his contemporary, Van Gogh, but that’s art for you.)

While I have a very low regard for Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, unlike the protester in the National Gallery, I do not find them prurient.  Perhaps this is because they are so abstract that the fact many of the subjects are nude almost escapes notice.  (It may be a little like Picasso’s paintings: if there is a nude in the picture, who would know.)  When the figures are rendered so crudely, they are no longer enticing.  What the woman in the National Gallery should have been protesting was not the “evil” nature of Gauguin’s paintings, but rather the fact that they are bad art.

It has been said that “The Tahitian Women” (on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) is worth $80 million.   I think someone is playing a little joke on us.  

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