By Mona Molarsky
Do women have to be naked to get into the museum? The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest photo show suggests that—in 2012—the Guerilla Girls are still on target.
From kitschy Victorian peep show prints to mid-20th-century studies of the body’s geometry, there are memorable images in the show. Several of the finest photographs here are also among the best known. Two of Edward Weston’s pictures of his lover Charis Wilson, sprawled naked in the sand dunes at Oceano, Calif., (1936), have been admired for more than half a century. Despite their familiarity, they remain fresh, fierce and sensual.
But ultimately, The Met’s assembly of more than 60 photographs from the museum’s big collection serves up a narrow slice of a very wide field, heavily favoring male photographers and female models. “Naked before the Camera” is a survey that pays more attention to soft porn and peep-show imagery than you might expect from an art museum. Any claims that the show offers a social history of the photographed nude are belied by the sparse information provided about the context of these images, including the photographers, their models and the market for these works.
The show is divided into three sections, each addressing a different topic. The first concentrates on 19th-century photographs made as aids for painters. The second focuses on medical, ethnographic and erotic photography. Only the last focuses on 20th- and 21st-century images that would generally be considered art in their own right.
In all three groups, the vast majority of pictures were posed in studios or studio-like settings and present the nude body detached from the world beyond. In many, the face of the model is partly or completely hidden.
All too often, what remains are studies of anatomy and composition, some more beguiling than others. A beautifully composed “Ariadne” (1867), by English photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander, recreates a pose from Titian’s “Venus and Adonis”—an attempt to measure the painter’s anatomical accuracy, according to wall notes from the curator.
Irving Penn’s intriguing “Nude No. 57” (1949-50) plays with foreshortening to highlight both the elegance and awkwardness of a female torso, knees and thighs, while Bill Brandt’s “South Kensington” (1979) offers an extreme perspective on two long legs—from shins to buttocks—stretched out like the evening’s dinner on a matte black sofa.
The few male nudes in the exhibit are treated with similar detachment. “Arm” (1935), by Man Ray, frames a masculine shoulder, bicep and elbow like a piece of abstract sculpture. A wasp-waisted male torso from the 1930s by fashion photographer George Platt Lynes twists toward the viewer to display his perfectly muscled back—a pretty pin-up picture if ever there was one, high on design value, low on content.
Most disturbing is “Sharkey” (1980) by a photographer named Jim Jager, who published soft-porn magazines featuring black men. Jager posed his African-American model with a large, wooden staff, as if he’d just emerged from the jungle with his spear. Strangely, the curator’s wall text provides no information about the race of the photographer or his clients, nor any comment about the racism inherent in the image.
One of the things missing from this show are images of naked people going about the everyday activities of their lives—swimming in lakes, diving into fountains, sunbathing, getting dressed for parties or changing out of costumes backstage. With a few notable exceptions—which include one Lady Ottoline Violet Anne Cavendish-Bentinck Morrell’s blurry shots of 10-year-old girls frolicking in her garden (circa 1916); Garry Winogrand’s memorable image of a streaker, “Easter Sunday, Central Park, New York” (1973); and John Goodman’s compelling 1976 portrait of a naked couple standing in front of their Commonwealth Avenue apartment building in Boston—there is little to suggest the wide variety of situations in which photographers have recorded people naked.
But the show’s most glaring omission is one of gender. Only eight of the more than 60 photographs in the show were taken by women.
Predictably, Diane Arbus is represented by two images, including her sourly satirical “Retired Man and his Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp One Morning, N.J.” (1963), which shows a self-satisfied, middle-aged couple sitting naked in an ordinary American house. The sags and wrinkles of their flesh offer stark contrast to the airbrushed curves of a girly picture hanging on their wall. If ever a black-and-white photo embodied a grayness of spirit, this is it.
The dramatically lit torso of a slender woman with her head thrown back, by French-Polish photographer Germaine Krull (1897-1985), offers a tantalizing glimpse of one female photographic vision that flourished in Europe between the world wars. But without other images by the artist, we are unable to make sense of the work or get an idea of what Krull might have been up to.
The same can be said for the photographs of Hannah Wilke, who is represented by two prints of herself posing in an abandoned building in Queens. Both are part of her “Snatch Shot with Ray Gun: So Help Me Hannah” (1978) series. Wilke, as the wall text in the exhibition informs us, “was one of a number of artists in the 1960s and 1970s who began manipulating their own bodies in photographs and performances to call attention to rituals of self-presentation.” However, the two images chosen for the show aren’t enough to convey the context or the radical nature of what she was doing.
“Maybe female photographers simply aren’t interested in the naked body,” an elderly woman standing next to me at the exhibit mused, when she heard me exclaiming over the pitifully small number of female artists in the show.
“Do you believe that?” I asked. “No, not really,” she conceded, laughing.
Imogen Cunningham. Ruth Bernhard. Eve Arnold. Lola Alvarez Bravo. Susan Meiselas. Nan Goldin. Sally Mann. Francesca Woodman. These are just eight of the hundreds—probably thousands—of accomplished women who have photographed nudes. Each has her own, individual vision of the human body. Yet none of these important artists were included in The Met’s history of the nude in photography.
Rarely has that famous 1989 observation by the Guerrilla Girls been more apt. Women, it seems, still have to be naked to get into the museum.
Naked Before the Camera
Through Sept. 29, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave., 212-535-7710,
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