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.”1 “In his ignorance he believed her to be uniquely disfigured,” Lutyens wrote in another discussion of the subject.2
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’s or a girl’s first sight of his mother’s or father’s or nurse’s naked body is naturally preceded by the sight of Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Praxiteles’ Hermes.
Photography, which might have been expected to arrive on the scene as a kind of rescue mission of the body, bent on restoring it to its native naked state, in fact only perpetuated and elaborated the stylizations and bowdlerizations of art. Leafing through books of early nude photography, such as Graham Ovenden and Peter Mendes’s Victorian Erotic Photography and Serge Nazarieff’s Early Erotic Photography, one is only secondarily struck by the photographs’ eroticism; the first, overwhelming impression is of their debt to painting. That many of these daguerreotypes and calotypes were made as figure studies for painters—and in several cases can be linked to actual paintings they covertly assisted—only complicates the plot of the art/photography relationship. It does not change the fact that the early photographers of nudes posed their models, arranged their backgrounds, and took their pictures with salon painting dictating their every move.
One of the best known of the photographs linked to a painting is Julien Vallou de Villeneuve’s camera study, taken around 1850, of a nude woman holding a drapery to herself, who is standing beside a chair with her head averted; it is believed to be the source of the nude woman holding a drapery to herself who stands in the center of Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece The Painter’s Studio, looking over the seated painter’s shoulder as he works. In comparing the two nudes—especially when seeing them both in black-and-white, as Aaron Sharf reproduces them on page 131 of his book Art and Photography (1968)—one is impressed with how much more real, even more photographic, the painting is. Villeneuve was a painter and a lithographer before he became a photographer, with a taste for “anaemic, erotic scenes of feminine intrigue and despair, of would-be lovers hidden in boudoirs,” as Sharf characterizes his lithographs of the 1820s and 1830s. When he took up photography, he simply continued his sentimental program. In the photograph associated with The Painter’s Studio Villeneuve works within well-trodden conventions of narrative painting—his nude could be a Susannah hiding her nakedness from the elders or a nymph surprised by a god or satyr. In another respect—in the rather desperate way she is clutching the drapery and trying to hide her body with it—she could be an allegorical figure representing photography’s fear of unmediated actuality. The realist Courbet, in contrast, regards it with poignant fearlessness. His nude, in the intensity of her absorption in the painter’s activity, has allowed her drapery to fall away from her body, which is posed in profile, and shows a protuberant belly and out-thrust buttock and full round breast. This is a most vital and real and sexy woman. Her body, though not idealized, is hardly “shapeless” and “pitiful.” She holds the drapery more out of habit than prudery; she is an artist’s model, a working woman (the drapery is one of her working tools) thoroughly accustomed to nakedness. The contribution of the Villeneuve photograph to the Courbet masterpiece was surely a minor one; it gave Courbet a hint, perhaps, about the rendering of the angle of the model’s shoulders and head. Whatever nineteenth-century photographers of the nude gave to contemporary art, they took back a thousandfold in their own abject dependency on it.
In the twentieth century, photographers of the nude continued to borrow from art—largely from Symbolist, Post-Impressionist, and Modernist painting and sculpture—but less abjectly. These borrowers believed they were making art themselves, and some actually succeeded in doing so. Edward Weston pursued the nude genre more assiduously—and, I think, more brilliantly—than any other practitioner. His earliest nudes, made in the Teens and early Twenties of the century, look as if he had been studying paintings by Whistler and Munch as well as photographs by the Photo-successionists. In the mid-Twenties his gaze shifted to the European abstract art that the Armory Show of 1915 had introduced to provincial America and that the cranky but prescient Stieglitz kept on view in his 291 Gallery. In 1927, Weston wrote in his journal of his search “for simplified forms…in the nude body.” A year earlier—in an act that his biographer Ben Maddow sees as seminal for the abstract work to come—Weston photographed the toilet in his flat in Mexico City. “‘Form follows function’—who said this I don’t know—but the writer spoke well,” Weston wrote, and continued,
I have been photographing our toilet—that glossy enameled receptacle of extraordinary beauty…. Never did the Greeks reach a more significant consummation to their culture—and it somehow reminded me, in the glory of its chaste convolutions and in its swelling, sweeping, forward movement of finely progressing contours—of the “Victory of Samothrace.”
Maddow tactfully notes that “in this new venture, [Weston] was following a precedent which was perhaps stored below the surface of his memory: the famous urinal that Marcel Duchamp sent to the historic Armory Show… which had been photographed by Stieglitz at the time.” Whatever its etiology, Excusado (as Weston named the photograph) is a work of remarkable presence and force. In its beauty of form and complexity of texture it might even be thought to surpass the abstract nudes—the famous pear-shaped nude, for example—that followed. Be that as it may, Weston’s nudes of the late Twenties and Thirties—his studies of limbs and breasts and buttocks that resemble the pared-down forms of Modernist sculpture and functionalist design—belong among the works of photography that most convincingly support its artistic claims. They not only imitate but are works of Modernist art.
“His nudes are indeed examples of strict, yet marvelous form,” Maddow writes—and adds: “But the function—and there is no need to specify which function—refuses to vanish, remains inextricable in the photographs, and can never be wholly theorized away, even by the photographer who made them.” In the opening chapter of The Nude, Clark extends the “function” to every artistic representation of the unclothed body, writing that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow….” But by the end of the book, Clark is obliged to create a category called “the alternative convention” to accommodate the pear-shaped, fat, flabby, or aging bodies (rendered by Cranach, Dürer, Rembrandt, Rouault, Cézanne, Rodin, among others) which do not turn him on and thus make a mockery of the early dictum. That Clark allowed this contradiction (and several others) to remain in his text may not be mere inattentiveness. It may be a signaling of his recognition that the subject is more unruly and complex than he anticipated and than his sleek treatise can handle.
Two exhibitions of photographic nudes by Irving Penn—one at the Metropolitan Museum and the other at the Whitney—give further evidence of the nude genre’s resistance to easy generalization. Indeed, both exhibitions have an atmosphere of difficulty and unease that is at odds with the crisp confidence of their respective catalog essays. The fifty nudes in the Met show are selected from photographs made in 1949–1950, but not shown until 1980, when the Marlborough Gallery exhibited seventy-six of them under the rubric “Earthly Bodies.” (The Met has retained the rubric.) The Marlborough show was an event in photography—nudes like these had never before been seen. Rosalind Krauss, who wrote the Marlborough catalog essay, gamely struggled with the photographs’ strange originality, and offered an original and strange argument that related the work (and all of photography) to collage. Little else was written about the nudes. A kind of awed hush settled around them. In her catalog essay Maria Morris Hambourg is content to assume the greatness of the work and to tell us how adorable the eighty-two-year-old photographer is. “A gentle man who scarcely speaks above a whisper, Penn is unfailingly polite,” she writes, and continues,
Attired like any American in blue jeans and sneakers, he has the unassuming modesty of a simple man, which he likes to think he is, or a monk. Although he avoids unnecessary chatter, he is a preternaturally good listener…. He is completely present and seems to have all the time in the world for you. This exquisite sensitivity is wedded to a highly analytical and decisive mind and a meticulous and unsparing professional demeanor…. Beneath this public face is a supremely tender soul protected, like a younger brother, by an absolutist’s will.
Even as I pick on Hambourg, I sympathize with her plight. Penn’s nudes are slippery. They almost force one to talk about anything and everything but themselves. And this may be where their singularity lies. The photographs immediately raise questions about their making. One doesn’t take them in and only later wonder how they came to look the way they do. These photographs (in most cases) have been meddled with—and meddled with in such striking ways that the image takes second place to the technique by which it was produced. Like the nudes of Weston’s classic period, the Penn nudes are faceless fragments of the body that evoke the forms of Modernist art. But where Weston delivered his Modernism through ordinary photographic means, Penn released his images only after putting them through an extraordinary darkroom ordeal. Step One was to obliterate the image by overexposing the printing paper to such a degree that it turned completely black in the developer. Step Two was to put the black paper into a bleach solution that turned it white. Step Three was to put the white paper into a solution that coaxed back the image, but only up to a point—the point where the earthly bodies exhibit an unearthly pallor and, in certain cases (such as the catalog cover picture), a flat abstractness that human bodies assume only in primitive and Modernist art.
Another difference between Penn’s nudes and Weston’s lies in the type of body they depict and in the photographer’s relationship with his models. Weston photographed lissome young women with whom he only rarely didn’t sleep. Penn photographed heavy women (in the majority of cases) whom (in all cases, including a few slender women who posed for him in the early days of his project) he kept at a monkish distance. The women were strangers, hired artists’ models. “The relationship between us was professional, without a hint of sexual response. Anything else would have made pictures like these impossible,” Penn reported in his book Passage: A Work Record (1991). That Weston slept with his models is an unsurprising but irrelevant piece of information—the photographs are completely realized works that raise no biographical questions. Penn’s nudes, in contrast, have an unresolved and unnerving character—“experimental,” you could call them—and thus invite biographical speculation. To learn of Penn’s lack of desire for his models causes a penny to drop in regard to the mercilessness of many of the images. The idea seems to be to make beautiful pictures of ugly bodies.
The series to which the cover picture of a standing figure belongs is the most extreme example of this tendency. The radical stylization Penn achieves with his darkroom hocus pocus does not obscure, in fact augments, the ungainliness of the body, which is framed from the thighs to the waist and features a large belly that pours down over the pubic triangle. In other versions the framing moves up from the belly to include breasts that echo the stomach’s stylized pendulousness.
Hambourg connects these radical images to a more conventional nude Penn made in 1947 (Nude 1 in the catalog) and then connects it to a prehistoric sculpture of a fertility goddess, known as the Venus of Willendorf. (“Whether he had seen a reproduction of the little statuette in Vienna or not, he was in touch with the same instinct that called forth that Venus from her Neolithic sculptor—the recognition that the mysterious, procreative power of the female body is of such majesty that it has symbolized creativity since the dawn of art,” she writes of the nice man in blue jeans.) But the 1947 nude, though it bears a certain resemblance to the primitive sculpture in its monumental frontality, has an entirely different character from it—and from the nudes in the 1949–1950 series. Nude 1 harks back to the nineteenth century, to the dark, painterly images of the Photo-succession, and only accentuates the decisiveness of the move into the twentieth century that Penn made two years later.
Even the most (so to speak) conservative of the 1949–1950 photographs, employing standard props of nineteenth-century photography—a black velvet robe and a velvet chair—reflect the urgency of the photographer’s desire to take his place among the makers of Modernist art and to distance himself from his photographic precursors. The stark whiteness and flatness of the body created by the bleaching solution is set off by the dark tactility of the velvet robe, which mysteriously withstood the insults of the darkroom, and is draped around the waist and hips and thighs in such ways as to underscore their resemblance to forms that Matisse, Arp, and Schlemmer, among others, have put on the map of our associations. But Penn does not stop there. The originality of these images lies in their perversity. The desireless Penn avoids the poses developed by classical art to display the body’s beauty; he is interested in poses that testify to the body’s grotesquerie. In a number of the photographs with the velvet robe, for example, the model sits in such a way as to create an eccentric puckering of her stomach on one side. The sweeping curves of the white body, the abstract forms, the art references—all these recede before the anomalous bulge, which looks like a third breast and rivets the eye like a gravy stain on a white dress. Penn’s gaze is not unfriendly. If the art school models do not arouse his lust, they do not invite his scorn, either. On the contrary, one can almost read a kind of gratitude into the photographs—a sort of salute to heavy bodies for the opportunity they have offered a young fashion photographer to break ranks—and to make art.
The show of Penn’s nudes at the Whitney, called “Dancer,” is the product of four occasions in 1999 when a heavyset dancer with the Bill T. Jones Dance Company named Alexandra Beller came to Penn’s studio and posed and danced for him naked. In her catalog essay, Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where the show is also on view, can’t resist a bit of curatorial one-upmanship. Comparing the dancer to her rivals at the Met, Tucker writes, “Beller is compact and muscular where the earlier models were flaccid and overflowingly fat.” But there is a more significant difference between the women at the Met and the woman at the Whitney; where the former were rendered as faceless fragments, the latter is photographed in her entirety.
For good reason, the classical works of twentieth-century nude photography—by Stieglitz, Weston, Callahan, Cunningham—are faceless. There does not seem to be any way that a naked person in front of a camera can fail to betray his or her sense of the, as the case may be, silliness or pathos of the situation. Whether the object of the exercise is art photography or pornography, the model does not know what to do with his or her face. Probably the most comic examples of facial at-a-lossness are to be found in photographs of men showing off erections; and, of course, the most pathetic in examples of child pornography. But the expressions on the faces of subjects of ambitious art photographs are no less problematic. The photographer cannot invent the expression on the face as the painter and sculptor can. The mystery of who scratched out the faces on some of E.J. Bellocq’s nudes is easily solved in the light of this discussion. Bellocq himself must have made the savage marks when he saw his picture spoiled by the all-wrong expression on the face of the model. But in other cases, Bellocq made head-to-toe photographs of unclothed New Orleans prostitutes that entirely escape the problem of the face. As one scrutinizes these pictures, trying to account for Bellocq’s strange success, one notices the smiles on the faces, and receives a sense of the fun the photographer and the model are having. They are horsing around. The silliness of the situation, far from helplessly leaking out of the photograph, is acknowledged, is its subject. It is what gives these photographs their wonderful warmth and life.
The Penn nudes at the Whitney are another exception—face and body have no quarrel with each other—but Penn’s dancer has nothing in common with Bellocq’s larkily relaxed whores. With regard to this photographic encounter, it is only the viewer who has trouble keeping a straight face. As Beller, with lowered eyelids or averted gaze, strikes one absurdly theatrical attitude after another, Penn photographs her with an almost religious solemnity. In his book Worlds in a Small Room (1974), Penn remarks of the Moroccan village elders he has photographed, “They are simple people but their burnooses and turbans of white wool are spotless.” I felt a similar condescension—an unspoken “but”—waft out of Penn’s ponderous pictures of this assertive, squat woman, who is as alien to him as the amazingly tidy Arabs.
The last eight photographs, taken at a final session, have a different character from the preceding nineteen. They show the dancer in motion and have a mysterious blurred painterliness. They were taken at three-second-long exposures, and thus record the model’s movements as ghostly afterimages. In one example, the model has acquired wings and two heads, as if she were a mythological creature in a Symbolist painting. In another, where her head is thrust back and the motion of her body is recorded by the blurred doubling of her limbs, one receives a sense of ecstatic dance. These images evoke but by no means return to the nineteenth century; they shimmer with newness and strangeness. But they cannot change the show’s overall daunting impression. When Penn showed the “Earthly Body” series to Alexander Liberman in 1950, Liberman was unimpressed, and so—when Liberman brought him the work to make sure he was right—was Edward Steichen. It took thirty years for Penn to dare to prove Liberman and Steichen wrong. But the Libermans and Steichens are not always wrong. Not all experimental work works, and sometimes rejection is a form of protection. The first nineteen images of “Dancer” illustrate the perils of renown. Someone should have dared to protect Penn.
April 11, 2002