Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sex Is Not The Enemy

Edouard Manet (1832-1883) - Olympia (detail), 1863

The painting of the nude in the 1860s . . . as the critics of the critics of the 1860s never tired of saying, is . . . curiously hybrid, marked by modernity in an incoherent way. If it is chaste, and it sometimes is, it is rigid and inanimate with its own decorum; and if it engages with sexuality, it does so in ways which verge on violence or burlesque.

Something is wrong here: a genre is disintegrating . . . The nude is not a matter of sexual health but of artistic conventions, and it is these that were foundering in the 1860s. If there was a specifically bourgeois unhappiness, it centred on how to represent sexuality, not how to organise or suppress it . . .

One might expect these problems - especially the way they seemed to invite a reading in terms of some general cultural doom - to produce lot of bad criticism. One might especially predict at the end of a genre, a squad of Cassandras inflexible for truth and purity; and, sure enough, they existed. In the face of Cabanel's Venus and Baudry's Perle, Maxime du Camp put paid to the salon nude in general. "Art", he wrote in 1863, "should have no more sex than mathematics." The mark of the nude in art was chastity and abstraction: "The naked body is the abstract being, and thus it must preoccupy and tempt the artist above all; but to clothe the nude in immodesty, to give the facial features all those expressions which are not spoken of, that is to dishonour the nude and do something disreputable." The nude "ceases to be honest when it is treated so as to intentionally exaggerate certain forms at the expense of others", when its poses are "provoking", its attitudes "violent", and its whole language contorted and unnatural.

The vocabulary is torturous - trying to speak of sex and yet not speak of it - but the message is clear. Desire is no part of the nude: the nude is human form in general, abstracted from life, contact, attraction, even gender.

From Olympia's Choice by T. J. Clark