Nudes Without Desire

Earthly Bodies: Irving Penn’s Nudes, 1949–50

Catalog of the exhibition by Maria Morris Hambourg
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, January 14–April 21, 2002; the Art Institute of Chicago, June 1–October 6, 2002; and the San Francisco Museumof Modern Art, May–July 2003
Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Bulfinch/Little, Brown, 95 pp., $75.00

Dancer: Photographs of Alexandra Beller by Irving Penn

Catalog of the exhibition with an introduction by Anne Wilkes Tucker and an essay by Sylvia Wolf
an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, January 12–May 12, 2002; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 17– June 16, 2002; and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, September 18–October 20, 2002
Nazraeli, 65 pp., $50.00

In the mid-Sixties, a most entertaining solution to a biographical mystery was offered by Mary Lutyens. The mystery concerned the six-year-long unconsummated marriage of John Ruskin and Effie Gray, which was annulled in 1854, after Effie revealed to her father that Ruskin had still not “[made] me his Wife.” “He alleged various reasons,” Effie wrote: “Hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason…, that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.” In a statement Ruskin wrote for his lawyer during the annulment proceedings, he corroborated Effie’s account: “It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”

What did Ruskin see on his wedding night that repelled him so? What were the “circumstances” of Effie’s unclothed body that caused him to shrink from her for six years? Mary Lutyens ingeniously proposed that “Ruskin suffered a traumatic shock on his wedding night when he discovered that Effie had pubic hair. Nothing had prepared him for this. He had never been to an art school and none of the pictures and statues on public exhibition at that time depicted female nudes with hair anywhere on their bodies.”

Lutyens’s imaginative reconstruction of the awful wedding night—the author of The Seven Lamps of Architecture gazing with petrified horror at his bride’s pubic bush—takes its tragicomic force from our shared memories of all the marmoreal vulvas we have seen in museums and in books like Kenneth Clark’s The Nude. Ruskin’s belief that his wife was abnormal came not so much from his ignorance of female anatomy as from his knowledge of Western art. He had imagined women were quite different. If he had never seen a painting or a sculpture of a nude woman, the “circumstances” of Effie’s body might not have seemed so strange, so like a betrayal. They might even have been arousing. Of course, Ruskin was not the only arty young man whose sex life was derailed by early museum visits. Clark himself displays an aversion to the human body in The Nude—he writes of “shapeless, pitiful” art school models, of “the pitiful inadequacy of the flesh,” of the “inherent pitifulness of the body”—that could have come only of formative art experience. “In almost every detail the body is not the shape that art had led us to believe it should be,” Clark rather artlessly remarks, as if a boy …

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