Allen Ginsberg Likes Himself Naked


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February 4, 1965, Vol. X, No. 16

Chamberlain’s Nudes

By Nicolas Calas

Allen Ginsberg writes that he now likes to see himself naked “because for years I thought I was ugly, I still do, but no longer look at myself through my own eyes…I feel desirous, longing, lost, mad with impatience like fantastic old bearded Whitman to clasp my body to the bodies I adore.” He gives this explanation in a foreword to a current exhibition of Wynn Chamberlain (Fischbach Gallery, 799 Madison Avenue; through February 19).

Those who have read “Kaddish” know that Ginsberg likewise exposes the nakedness of his soul. His attitude toward nakedness is Jobean, and although the literature of confession is sizable, I believe that poetry eludes the craftsman who is unable to insinuate. “Beauty, so difficult,” as Ezra Pound has said. A Greek god is never seen as naked; Hermes or Apollo is represented as in the nude. No contemporary writer or painter dealing with this subject can afford to ignore Sir Kenneth Clark’s definition of the problem: “To be naked is to be deprived of one’s clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word nude, on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtones. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body reformed.”

I do not see eye to eye with Ginsberg when he speaks of “Chamberlain’s nakeds, for those are nudes: they are paintings of a “reformed” version of photographs of naked people. But when Ginsberg explains that he likes to see himself naked because he feels desirous, he is pointing to an aspect of the problem that is essentially modern, going back to Goya. The main difference between Goya’s “Maja” and a Titian Venus is that the former is desirous in that she sees her nudity through the eyes of another.

…Chamberlain’s nudes advancing toward the spectator emerge from a land reduced to a cold green and greet him in their warmless color with a hard-edge grin. When Chamberlain’s “sketch” is a photograph taken from a nudist magazine, the figures in the group are corrected to fit into the pattern of a painting in which figure and ground have equal value. But in paintings made from his own photographs of naked groups, the pattern is usually present in the “sketch.”

…According to Ginsberg, “Chamberlain has painted…modern Joves, Ganymedes, Aphrodites.” With Oscar Wilde I believe that beauty ends where an intellectual expression begins. When translating photographs of naked people into paint, Chamberlain selects for models poets and artists. Since Gaugin created a new image of the earthly paradise, Greek gods have no place in our gardens of delight.

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