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Victoria's Secrets

An amusing and eye-opening exhibit reveals the lengths to which Victorian artists would go to justify their portrayals of nudity. Has anything changed?

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There is plenty of uncovered flesh but not much nakedness in the Brooklyn Museum of Art's Exposed: The Victorian Nude, a survey of the ways in which the Victorians corseted the nude in moral precepts and social aspirations. Organized by Tate Britain in London, the show includes about 150 images made by both unfamiliar and well-known painters, sculptors, and photographers working during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901). Of course, the way these Victorians "dressed" the nude is a topic of serious historical interest, but the show is also seriously funny -- and it's not just the Victorians who provide the smiles. "Exposed" is an occasion to laugh at ourselves.

The naked body, as everyone knows, aroused anxiety in the Victorians. The nude could represent both the highest ideals and the basest impulses; it reflected many of the most controversial issues of the day, from public health to the demands of suffragettes. As a result, most Victorian artists felt obliged to justify their use of the nude in various respects. Some emphasized a particularly English take on the subject, such as the story of Lady Godiva. Others called upon the lofty ideals of classical art and myth. Still others explored the ramifications of a bohemia where women -- often fallen women -- posed in studios and parlors before the discerning eyes of artists and connoisseurs. One popular approach late in the era was to fashion portentous melodramas around a naked figure. Who could complain about impropriety if the subject was martyrdom? There were even a few wonderfully brave artists, notably Aubrey Beardsley, who aspired to work of no redeeming value whatsoever and instead celebrated naughtiness for its own sake.

Certain Victorian painters of the nude, such as Edward John Poynter and Edwin Long, were talented academicians, and many of the best-known figures of the time, such as Edward Burne-Jones, undeniably brought a gift for romantic fancy and illustration to art. (Their work often looks best in books.) "Exposed" also contains, in addition to more conventional works of art, some unexpected fascinations, such as pornographic jottings by the great J.M.W. Turner and a film clip of a Victorian lady undressing that conveys what wearing all that clothing was actually like. Considered as art, however, what the Victorians achieved with the nude amounts to little when compared with the robust work of French artists across the channel. But art per se is not really the point of this show: The curators are instead using art as a pretext to examine a culture's ideas about the body. And so they include, without embarrassment, many examples of kitsch, in which artists disguise an interest in sex with high-flown rhetoric. Even the sugared classicism of Frederic Leighton, for example, makes me think of piggy little prelates quoting Latin aphorisms while enjoying tender virgin flesh. The funniest piece of kitsch in the show is Faithful Unto Death: "Christianes ad Leones!," painted by the aptly named Herbert Schmalz, which presents a group of curvy Christian babes who are tied to stakes and about to be fed to Nero's lions.

Almost as amusing, in its way, is the earnest approach of the exhibit's creators. About Faithful Unto Death, for example, one writes: "The combination of nudity with impending violence establishes a frisson between the idea of the artistic body (each figure has a smooth pudendum) and mutilated flesh, signified by the animal blood marks on the arm of the stoic upright woman and the gruesome traces of blood and bones in the sand." The presentation of the show is itself entertaining. Tasteful classical music from the era is piped into the galleries. To calm the savage breast? To elevate the spectacle of a potentate purchasing naked slave girls? The walls are painted in a candied turquoise, purple, blue, and orange, a kind of postmodern riff on nineteenth-century decoration. If the Victorians covered the naked body with morals and melodrama, in other words, we drape it in showbiz and academic discourse. In both periods, sex sells.

Exposed: The Victorian Nude
At the Brooklyn Museum of Art; through 1/5/02.


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