I hate this art, I thought as I walked through the Brooklyn Museum’s daffy show of 19th-century Victorian nudes. It’s visually deadening, unctuous, and manipulative—all no-no with no mojo.
“Exposed: The Victorian Nude” is rife with paintings of naked ladies fondling tumescent snakes, sculptures of lithesome slave boys and girls doing the same, and prints of Peeping Toms, along with a bevy of almost pornographic photographs. It’s the sort of naughtiness you’d expect from a Britney Spears special: nothing genuinely raunchy, just saccharine, mindless sluttiness.
Most of the art in “Exposed” is so bound up, hackneyed, and pseudo-symbolic, the show could have been called “Kinky: When Sex Was Constipated.” Whatever, much of this art isn’t simply bad, it’s laughably, mawkishly, gaudily bad—bad in ways that aren’t even good, in that ironic, wink-wink way the art world likes. So bad it’s possible to say that, but for exceptions like Turner, Whistler, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose portrait of a topless Venus is really hot (as is the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Sickert, and William Orpen), the artists in “Exposed” represent a low point in British art. During the decades of Queen Victoria’s 64-year reign (1837-1901), English writers produced masterpieces, and continental artists changed the course of art, but these capable Englishmen (and a few women) skillfully backpedaled into one of the fustier dustbins in art history.
Yet the show is that rarest of birds and freaks of nature: an exhibition overflowing with bad art that isn’t a bad show. Low point or not, only a sourpuss could fail to have fun in front of art this insane. “Exposed” also makes you think about art history’s winners and losers and how some of its losers—these, for example—are better than others, and that every dustbin has a silver lining. “Exposed” offers museumgoers a vivid lesson in one of creativity’s more observable mysteries: what happens when the what of art, the subject matter, gets too far out in front of the how, or technique. In “Exposed” the what is flagrant: These nudes are calculated to produce a buzz. That so few do can be ascribed to how they were made, which is in ways that are labored, tedious, and conventional.
To understand this, go to “Exposed,” and imagine contemporaneous nudes by Courbet, Degas, or Renoir here. They’d blow all the work in this show away. You’d see how turbo-charged, intuitive, and sexy the French are, even if you don’t like them, and how academic and facile the English artists are—how their surfaces lack luster, life, and pleasure. You’d grasp why a work of art’s physical presence is its life’s blood, why matter equals meaning, and even why a Mondrian or a Malevich would be more titillating than these nudes.
“Exposed” also proves that skill should not be defined narrowly, as competence. All the artists in “Exposed” are competent; few are any good. Still, the Victorian nude, with its smuttiness, hysteria, blatant and latent misogyny, come-hither looks, and relentless academicism, leads to some pretty peculiar stuff. To cheesecake, beefcake, and calendar art; Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell, and Vargas; nudist magazine photography, the kind of kitsch the Nazis revered; and, although his art is more unsettling, subversive, and concentrated, perhaps even to John Currin, who flirts with the conservative side of painting, and who once brilliantly described Moby Dick as “the biggest nude in the universe.”
A number of the nudes at the Brooklyn Museum superficially relate to Currin’s. Among them, the lumpen bathers in William Mulready’s paintings, the moony girl with budding breasts in Annie Swynnerton’s New Risen Hope (which the catalog suggests is “a statement of female emancipation,” but which looks like kiddie porn), or Gwen John’s Whistler-esque, Keane-eyed portrait of an anorexic.
But no matter how horny these works try to make you, they fizzle. Look at Herbert Schmalz’s neurotic b&d painting of snowy white slave girls tied to posts. As one English critic put it when this show premiered at Tate Britain last year, “There’s no pubic hair or hint of cleft.” The same goes for Tepidarium, Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s steamy little 1882 picture of a stunning redheaded vixen, lounging naked on a bed. Apparently fatigued from pleasuring herself, she cools her private parts with a feather fan and gazes longingly at a phallic object. It’s teasingly risqué, but as with almost all the work in “Exposed,” the mundane surface, nebulous color, and tangle of influences make what starts out sizzling turn tepid. Brazenness devolves into banality, and the painting dies.
As I made my way through the exhibition, accompanied by a soundtrack of period music, something about the show’s packaging and the way the work was splashy, shallow, and accomplished at the same time made me realize that “Exposed” is the 19th-century prequel to “Sensation,” the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 exhibition of puppet-master Charles Saatchi’s collection of young British artists. Both shows have hyped-up, provocative titles, the promise of flesh, and are filled with what Clement Greenberg called “art that wants to be loved in a hurry.” In their time, many of the “Exposed” artists were stars. Some were members of the Royal Academy (where “Sensation” debuted); several provoked tempests of taste in the teapot of the London art world, much the way the YBAs do today. Good or bad, however, the current crop of English artists are unequivocally of their own time, and have helped to define it. Not so the artists in “Exposed,” nearly all of whom shunned theirs. Now time returns the favor and they look as out of it as ever. Still, you shouldn’t miss the chance to go see for yourself.