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Porn maybe, but no prudery or prurience

This exhibition on the Victorian nude reveals our own obsession with sex

The nude is at once the supreme technical exercise in Western art and the most powerful vehicle for our deepest emotions and ideas.

The exhibition, “Exposed: the Victorian nude” (until 27 January), like several other Victorian shows in recent years at the Tate Gallery and at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is therefore very wide-ranging and the organisers have wisely broken it down into six sections.

The first, “The English nude”, considers the distinctively English treatment of the nude between about 1830 and 1870. William Etty’s early, magnificent mythological and historical nudes, which astonished visitors to the Royal Academy in the early 1820s, fall outside the queen’s reign, but his “Britomart redeems faire Amoret” (1833) has its rich and sensual drama.

William Mulready was the most conscientious teacher of life drawing at the Royal Academy. His “Bathers” and “Bathers surprised”, both painted when he was over 60, concentrate, like his drawings, on colour, surface and texture rendered with a cold and hard photographic realism, which surprised French critics at the 1855 Paris International Exhibition.

The nude was highly regarded by the Aesthetic Movement and it was absolutely central to the classical revival pioneered between 1860 and 1880 by Leighton and Poynter. This development introduced a new continental assurance and sophistication in the treatment of the nude, well represented in this exhibition by Leighton’s early “Daedalus and Icarus” and his late “Bath of Psyche”.

The third section, “The private nude”, illustrates the use of the nude for individual and special purposes. Etty’s “Candaules showing his wife to Gyges as she goes to bed” is as close as he ever went to pornography. The pre-Raphaelites, even the poetic wing of that movement, generally disdained the nude, but Rossetti experimented with it for one of his richly sensual and symbolic half length female figures, the “Venus verticordia”.

Alma-Tadema was the Victorian artist most gifted in the distinctive rendering of particular surfaces and textures, and his “Tepidarium” demonstrates the rich, seductive power of this skill when applied to the female nude.

The demands of the reform of art education in Britain and of the classical revival gave a new importance to the study of the living model, and the fourth section of the exhibition is dominated by superb life studies by Leighton and Poynter. In sculpture the realistic modelling, imaginative poses and poetic subject matter of the so-called “New sculpture” are well represented in bronzes by Leighton, Alfred Gilbert and Onslow Ford. Following French fashions, the nude became widely used after about 1880 to add sexual sensation even to scenes from the early history of the Christian Church and from the lives of the saints.

In the fifth section there are examples of this tendency by P.H. Calderon and C.W. Mitchell, both incongruously combining altars and female nudes. The final section carries the subject into the 20th century, including the ruthless and claustrophobic realism of Sickert’s bedroom scenes together with Tuke’s sunlit and open-air bathing boys.

The exhibition is deeply concerned with issues relating to sexuality, reflecting late 20th-century rather than Victorian ideas. Referring to the use of the nude in high art, Charles Eastlake commented: “The styles of art in which the living form can be least dispensed with are precisely those which, by the abstract character of their imitation, render it least objectionable”. But this exhibition rather reflects Mulready’s less tortuous prose scribbled in one of his sketchbooks of female nudes: “Female beauty and innocence will be much talked about, and sell well”.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 119 November 2001