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The <em>Bare</em> story

The Bare story

by Penny Grist

After the opening night champagne and a week of sleep, and then another week of milling around the office in a daze, curators generally move on to the next project. However, in 2012 art historian Professor Terry Smith wrote in his book Thinking Contemporary Curating:

I would love to see curators keeping detailed records of every stage of their thinking and planning and to read statements of how they pre-visualised exhibitions, including how these ideas changed.
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While I was curating Bare: Degrees of undress I did keep detailed records and this piece is an attempt at such a statement. Like a kind of reverse blog, it narrates and reflects on how Bare came together, the decisions that were made and the thought behind the exhibition. In retrospect, it shows how I experience curation as a strange process of discovering what is already there. Even in an exhibition so seemingly actively arranged and interpreted, the process for me was one of recognising when patterns, themes and ideas emerged for themselves. Curating was noticing.

How it began

The exhibition includes ninety of just over a hundred portraits – about 4% of the collection – that reference dressing, undressing or being undressed. The survey of the collection was initially done by India Bednall, a Curatorial Intern in 2013. I asked India to think back on her time at the Gallery and she wrote to me from London:

In July 2013, I was fortunate to undertake a 20-day curatorial internship at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra as part of my Masters of Art Curatorship program at the University of Sydney. My project involved researching the collection, specifically looking for portraits containing nudity, and then writing some articles based on my findings. This was of particular interest to me as the year before I had studied the artistic nude in depth, writing my Honours thesis on the nudes of Edgar Degas. I was intrigued to see how nudity gains deeper meaning in the context of a portrait, where the identity of the subject is known.

After a week of trawling, I found there weren't that many nude portraits in the collection. This was understandable, as nudity is often more palatable when paired with anonymity in art. What I hadn't anticipated finding was a spectrum, on which nudity was merely an extreme. My research expanded to encompass all portraits depicting subjects in various states of undress. I became fascinated with the different meanings conveyed by degrees of bareness in portraits. I discovered that the identity of the sitter - whether actor, musician, model, sportsperson, or national personality - was important to how the bareness was interpreted. Equally, I saw that the sitter's willingness to be depicted in a state of undress conveyed something about their identity.

My four weeks in Canberra flew by, and the project became a subject I was passionate to pursue in future studies.

A year out – a gap in the program and ‘Australians Unclad’

As sometimes happens in a gallery’s schedule, a window opened up and India Bednall’s conceptually solid and intellectually rigorous exploration of the collection was not only the bones of a show but most of the flesh and feathers as well. Most exhibitions are developed over two to three years. The lead-time for this one was much shorter – about nine months, but with the bulk of the work concentrated in the last six months. I came up with the working title of ‘Australians Unclad’ and wrote this in the ‘Exhibition Brief’:

Description: Invites the visitor to think about portraiture in a new way as the exhibition foregrounds the subjects’ state of undress as its organising principle. The visitor’s focus will be immediately thrown to the form of the representation and its relationship with identity rather than accessing the portraits through the person’s biography. Unlikely parallels will form in a display that will be out of chronological sequence and cultural theme. Registering and confronting their reaction to the exposed body prompts three important lines of reflection on portraiture:

  • the contested gaze – the visitor’s own personal curiosity, empathy, admiration, desire, shock or revulsion
  • the social, cultural and personal politics of representation in the context of society’s mores, expectations and conventions
  • identity’s grounding in the space between the public and the private self – brought to the fore as the private body is brought into the public space of a portrait

It is well recognised that clothing and fashion communicate something in a portrait, but the lack of it also does, carrying its own range of statements about the person. Exposed skin, because of the conventions of our society, is in many ways a stronger, more emphatic statement than covered skin.

Sources: the well-trodden path and verge not trampled

The initial aim was for the exhibition to be intelligent, fun and engaging but not overly discursive, didactic or academic. We also wanted to present our collection in a fresh way. A huge amount has been written on the nude in art, one task was to chart a path through this literature. It was important to acknowledge this context in the exhibition without covering every inch of wall with text.

The distinction between the naked and the nude has an entire literature of its own and I referenced this in the exhibition by including in the introductory text the first stanza of The naked and the nude by the British poet Robert Graves. Famous as a World War I poet and author of the classic autobiographical novel Goodbye to All That, Graves also authored the novel I, Claudius and its sequel, which was adapted into an internationally hit TV series in the 1970s. Graves’ poem bears the same name as Walter Sickert’s famous rant on the subject in 1910 in The New Age: ‘The nude has taken on with time some of the qualities of an examination subject … An inconsistent and prurient puritanism has succeeded in evolving an ideal which it seeks to dignify by calling it the Nude, with a capital “n,” and placing it in opposition to the naked.’ Railing against the fashion of ‘drawing from life’ Sickert observed: ‘I would wager that the major part of these enthusiasts could not put on paper a respectable drawing of a boot-jack or a gingerbeer-bottle, both of which at least keep still.’

The naked and the nude, by Robert Graves

For me, the naked and the nude
(By lexicographers construed
As synonyms that should express
The same deficiency of dress
Or shelter) stand as wide apart
As love from lies, or truth from art.

Lovers without reproach will gaze
On bodies naked and ablaze;
The Hippocratic eye will see
In nakedness, anatomy;
And naked shines the Goddess when
She mounts her lion among men.

The nude are bold, the nude are sly
To hold each treasonable eye.
While draping by a showman's trick
Their dishabille in rhetoric,
They grin a mock-religious grin
Of scorn at those of naked skin.

The naked, therefore, who compete
Against the nude may know defeat;
Yet when they both together tread
The briary pastures of the dead,
By Gorgons with long whips pursued,
How naked go the sometimes nude!

Kenneth Clark’s 1953 AW Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art, Washington were published in 1957 – the same year as Graves’ poem – as The nude: A study in ideal form. The Nude is one of the most influential texts in 20th-century art history. His analysis places the nude in art as the antithesis of portraiture – it is no living breathing individual, but an ‘ideal form’. In his concluding statement he declares that the nude ‘does not simply represent the body but relates by analogy to all structures that are part of our imaginative experience.’

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Early in my research I came across The photographer and the nude – a guide to the craft published in 1961. In it Herbert Rittlinger counselled that the photographer ‘must take care to keep out those obtrusive details which only too easily creep into the picture turning it into a mere photograph of an undressed woman.’ For Rittlinger nudes were transcendent ideals in the classical mode rather than everyday modern bodies. Specifically in the context of nude photography, Kenneth Clark argued that ‘our eyes have grown accustomed to the harmonious simplifications of antiquity. We are immediately disturbed by wrinkles, pouches and other small imperfections which, in the classical scheme, are eliminated’. The interesting question was always going to be – where does the portrait sit as a specific person undressed?

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Two art historical studies were a great help. In her 2012 book The naked nude, Frances Borzello observed: ‘One of the biggest changes in the nude over the last half century is the way that the tabooed relationship of portrait face and portrait naked body has wormed its way into conventional portraiture.’ Anne Hollander’s classic 1978 book Seeing through clothes helped me interpret more coherently the semi-clad sitters: ‘Nakedness,’ she wrote ‘is not universally experienced and perceived … both the perception and the self-perception of nudity are dependent on a sense of clothing.’ Hollander charts in this book how ‘all nudes in art since modern fashion began are wearing the ghosts of absent clothes’.

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It was in thinking about how to acknowledge this art historical legacy of the nude that I came up with the idea of the Cosmopolitan-magazine-style personality quiz – ‘Who is your nude alter-ego from art history? – The Bare Game.

Discover your alter-ego from art history – play <a href="http://www.portrait.gov.au/content/bare-game">The Bare Game</a> now
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Discover your alter-ego from art history – play The Bare Game now

Then, there was the social and cultural history context for nakedness and nudity. Ruth Barcan’s book Nudity: A cultural anatomy published in 2004 was crucial in considering this. Professor Barcan argues that ambiguity about the meanings of nudity arise at the most fundamental level from the situation in which we are all born naked like any animal, but every human society decorates, adorns or clothes the body in some way. Her book explores how any reflection on this ambiguity will always involve consideration of the nature of our humanity and ask what it is to be human. ‘Nakedness’ she writes ‘… has had to bear the weight of being the bodily state considered most ‘natural’’ resulting in its ‘contradictory moral loading.’

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Another great debt I must acknowledge on the theoretical side is Dr Michael Carter’s Fashion Classics (Berg, 2003) which analyses Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Restarus, sociologist Georg Simmel’s theories of clothing and J.C. Flugel’s The psychology of clothes. Dr Carter taught me at Sydney University and the way I ended up thinking through the patterns in making the distinction between nakedness, nudity and bareness owe much to his teaching.

Our most significant forerunner internationally was the 2007 the National Galleries of Scotland exhibition The naked portrait: 1900–2007. Curated by Martin Hammer, this major international survey exhibition sought to demonstrate that ‘naked portraiture has been a widespread, international phenomenon over the past hundred years.’ Hammer noted in the catalogue that the difficulty in drawing the line between a nude where you know who the model was and a naked portrait immediately ‘questions assumptions about the nature of portraiture.’ Does one have to have set out to paint a portrait rather than a nude, or is a nude, by virtue only of being named, become a portrait? Is there something in the intent to reveal a sitter’s inner life that argues against a named nude being a naked portrait? There was a risk of becoming tangled in these questions of definition rather than using them to tackle the themes and content of the works themselves.

In his first chapter Hammer notes the ways in which nakedness jolts the viewer into partly unconscious visceral reactions such as empathy and recognition of difference. A big influence on my thinking was Hammer’s analysis of the innate ambiguity in the meanings of nakedness as well as the public and private dynamics within naked portraiture.

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All this reading clarified what our exhibition was not able to do:

  • offer broader perspective outside Western art
  • present a social history of nakedness
  • critique attitudes to the body in society and celebrity culture
  • survey current portraiture practice involving nudes as represented in Australian contemporary art
  • survey all the naked portraiture, Australian and International, that is held in Australian collections

What the exhibition was: A collection show that takes apart a concept. That concept was not so much one of ‘nudity’, but one of ‘states of undress’ of which nakedness is one. The NPG is a young institution this is the first time we have mounted a major temporary exhibition remixing our own collection around a concept, rather than a particular style or portraiture or a historical, physical or temporal theme. The task for this exhibition was to explore an idea just using this material … almost.

One loan

While we were developing the exhibition, some generous collectors in Melbourne offered a loan to us for our permanent galleries: Large Head by Lucian Freud. Freud is one of the 20th century’s leading figures in making naked portraiture. Its subject is Leigh Bowery, a performance artist from Melbourne known for extraordinary costumes and his multiple piercings. He was famous in London in the 1980s although almost unknown here. As an acknowledgement of this wider international context, and a portrait of an important Australian, it was an ideal inclusion in the first section of the exhibition introducing the idea of the modernist nude.

Working from the collection – finding patterns and the first project meeting

Striking from India’s initial survey was that almost all the sitters within the collection who appear in states of undress are creative people or sports people. A high proportion of Indigenous people are represented. Most of the sitters have left something on and they are mostly men with their shirts off. The arrangement and parallels drawn between the works would be crucial to allowing visitors to see them in a new way. Grouping them by the sitters’ profession or chronology, or by the medium of the portraits, would not reveal the cultural meanings in as interesting a way. What I could demonstrate from this group of works defined a subset within the portraiture genre and then collected by the National Portrait Gallery would be the interesting thing.

I began curating visually – setting and background, body position, eye contact, what parts of the body were showing. Layered on to this I also considered the atmosphere of the works – both emotionally and in terms of the cultural moment to which each belonged. The final layer of thought in making this initial grouping reflected on the naked and the nude in the history of literature and art and led me to search the works for direct allusion, classic poses and obvious symbolism. These were the groupings then:

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Some of the ideas that emerged through this initial grouping lasted until installation – such as the ‘Dressed on your own terms’ grouping exploring the notion of nakedness within colonisation. ‘The self stripped bare’ where nakedness becomes a metaphor for exposing the mind’s workings became the exhibition theme ‘stripped bare’. ‘Private space and time’ also went the distance and gained additional works. From this exercise I was able to clarify that the argument had to be about what part the exposed skin was playing within the portrait – was it acting as a metaphor? a symbol? a joke? a footnote?

The curator plays only a part in all the things that must happen before a show opens and project meetings are where everyone from all the different parts of the gallery come together. At the first meeting I took the team through the selection of works and the patterns I had discovered. It was wonderfully reassuring when our Associate Registrar Maria Ramsden told me that it looked exciting because she was seeing the works in a new way. Registration are the closest to the collection – responsible for the cataloguing, preparation, movement and installation of the works, they see them countless times – so to get Maria excited was a good sign!

I became so caught up in the different parallels, permutations and myriad connections that emerged that I was disappointed I had to select only one for the actual hang. This sparked the idea of the rolling projection within the exhibition re-organises selections of the works into these alternative groupings – as a prompt for visitors to find their own parallels within the show.

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A note from the Director … and (oh my!) what to call it

Up to this point we had been sticking with the working title of ‘Australians unclad’. It wasn’t quite right but it was what we had. Initially we thought the issue was the ‘Australians’ – a bit self-explanatory and stuffy – and then we thought the issue was that it needed a subtitle, and I emailed many of my colleagues including our Director Angus Trumble, to help with coming up with one. It turned out that the issue was the ‘unclad’. I came back from lunch to find this handwritten note from Angus.

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While being generally delightful and reassuring in the way I was thinking about the permutations on the theme, it did contain that fateful phrase “are you wedded to …?” Printing out lists of every synonym for naked and being forced to repeatedly explain to colleagues what the show is about so they can help you with the title was a very helpful thinking exercise for the exhibition as a whole. All the suggestions the group started to move towards … I kept saying ‘I can’t write to that’ without really being able to say why. It was an exercise in the negotiation of the euphemisms and the finely calibrated connotations that we weave around the subjects with which we are uncomfortable. And there was the added difficulty that we were not actually mounting an exhibition with much full-frontal nudity or nakedness.

This was the list of suggestions we were working from:

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It was our Exhibitions Officer Tegan McAuley who first let that wonderful word pass her lips ‘What about Bare?”. Yes!

It was the only word missing from the suggestion list! I think I was deliberately avoiding it because of it being a homonym with the animal. ‘Is ‘bear’ a problem?’ I asked my colleagues – they agreed that it certainly wasn’t!

Mapping bareness

Experimenting with how to best interpret the patterns and parallels across the works was the next task. Embedded within our everyday language is this constant battle with the paradoxical, unresolved, contradictory nature of nudity and nakedness. Nakedness can be both innocent and guilty, pure and wicked, a sign of vulnerability but also a sign of confidence, it makes you look closer at the same time as wanting to avert your gaze. It is this ambiguity that gives many of these portraits their energy.

I did a workshop with the Canberra Youth Theatre who created SKIN, a live performance installation in response to their exhibition and to be staged within the exhibition space.

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I presented this fantastic group of ten young people with pairs of portraits and asked them to put them in different categories and tell me why. This is a write up of one of these exercises.

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I also did a succession of mapping exercises where these groups of ideas informed the structure of the show. Very early on I thought of stringing ‘meta-text’ – single words that could flow freely between the works through the exhibition – so you could walk through the exhibition and understand without further reading why they had been displayed in this order in this way. I was very lucky that our Designer, Tim Moore, was able to take this strange idea and run with it. I also used a succession of commonplace phrases as the theme titles – ‘occasional nudity’, ‘a state of nature’, ‘scantily clad’, ‘are you decent?’ The aim was for the works to be seen in a new way but for it to seem familiar, for it to be, to a certain extent, obvious but also able to initiate deeper reflection in visitors.

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Particular patterns flow between the words. The most striking were the dynamic of exposure, revelation and concealment and the oscillation between a sense of confidence and a sense of vulnerability. I did not want to arrange the works according to these patterns because it would have seemed contrived. Works of art have their own presence, to enlist to them to a theme that does not embrace that whole presence in its complexity feels awkward. I wanted these underlying patterns to be discovered and make people think without implying that they defined the works. After going through these exercises, reframing the idea of bareness as somewhere in between the naked and the nude became a guiding concept. A sense of control also emerged as crucial to what bareness does in portraiture. It is as if each sitter is stating: I am revealing something about myself (but I am not naked). This portrait is constructed (but I am not nude). I am deliberately appearing in a chosen degree of undress (I am bare).

Wrangling the writing and tangling the design

We decided to include the usual labels, identifying the work and the artist but not to provide the usual biographical material as you see in the permanent galleries. The interpretation of the portraits focuses on the role the bareness plays.

I gave Tim Moore that first grouping of works and he designed around them. Then I tried to write around them. I thought I had thought it through. But some just would not write themselves into place. The concept, the work itself and the theme struggled against the grouping and placement – forever veering off into the banal or clichéd. Most of it worked beautifully and slipped into place. I was corresponding with some of the artists and it was reassuring to know from Janet Dawson and Brenda L. Croft among others that I was on the right track in interpreting their work. Some things had to change.

Firstly, the group of groups did not work. While there is plenty to say about the comfort instilled by a sense of shared bareness, it was not a strong element in these portraits. The ones that were about personal relationships ended up in the section with private human moments, the dressing rooms in a section about private space and two works were cut from the list. The portrait of the Golden Girls by Robin Sellick floated for a while.

The Golden Girls – Australia’s swimming team at Athens, dress up in gowns for a fun photoshoot – only their feet are bare. They finally found their place when I added in our portrait of Annette Kellerman. She is to our eyes completely clothed in her bespoke one-piece swimming costume which covers even her feet. She is the only sitter in the exhibition, so far as I know, to be arrested for indecent exposure – on a Boston beach wearing this costume. It was a perfect pairing to introduce at the beginning of the exhibition, the idea of a default degree of dress within a particular society in a specific era.

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The most wild and revealing images in the show are all Norman Lindsay’s circle of bohemian family and friends in 1890s Victoria. They were hard to place. In the original groupings I had them all over the place – but they were so different from anything else in the show. They came together as a strange group within the section dealing with nakedness as a sign of freedom and liberation from the shackles of the dominant societal order.

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The key to rethinking the groupings was being clear about what aspect of the sitter’s humanity or identity the bareness emphasised in the portrait. Also crucial was the distinction between the roles of bareness in a portrait being to emphasise the communication of body language, as opposed to emphasising the symbolism of a part of the body left bare.

It was also important to realise where the atmosphere or intent of the portrait did not fit within these two physically determined categories, in spite of fitting the pattern. For example, Max Dupain by Olive Cotton was originally with the group of sitters with their arms back behind their heads and Janet Dawson’s portrait of Michael Boddy was with the other reclining nudes. They both fitted the physical pattern, but the more powerful story available was they were both portraits of husbands by wives – the theme of bareness reflecting intimacy and private human moments was the grouping in which they belonged.

The arrangement of the works was the interpretation, just as much as the written text and the two had to develop dynamically in parallel. This final map of the themes emerged.

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There were other changes too – even though there weren’t so many, they completely mucked up Tim’s design! It absorbed some weekend time to fix and then one Sunday we sat together at Tim’s computer and went through my lists of mapped words. We selected the meta-text – the words not only had to have the conceptual accuracy, but to feel comfortable together at another level. Words, like visual elements in art, have their own presence, atmosphere and look. They had to feel right. Once the key concepts and arguments are discovered and clarified, this is where the curatorial process gets a little hard to describe – because Tim and I were ‘able to tell’ what was working. These trails of large yellow words separated by squares and arrows flowing between the works tied the exhibition together intellectually and visually.

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What to make of all this

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If every curator did this exercise it would look different for each curator and each subject. I think my way of working is to find patterns. However, maybe the success of curating by pattern in this case was a result of the actual selection being pre-determined by a conceptual category within the existing restrictions of portraiture and the National Portrait Gallery collection. The complexities of humanity and identity as themes to explored through representation of the human form also made the finding of patterns – both visual and symbolic – easier and clearer. Physical states are so entangled with society, culture, gender, sexuality, era, age, and they lend themselves to this kind of visual analysis.

In reading over this part of my draft of this piece, Senior Curator Dr Christopher Chapman wrote a note: ‘Even an exhibition of red-haired people would reveal cultural meanings – would this work for red-brick buildings? Or pine trees? -?’ I think it could, as long as the parameters of the pre-determined group, the way into the subject and its underlying complexities meant that you could say something interesting about the concept or theme. I think the key might be that the concept should have some innate contradictions that are fundamentally unresolvable but fascinating to unravel. Or maybe every subject matter has this element, and the curator’s task is to find it.

The strange thing about reflecting back on exhibition development in this way has been that once an exhibition is up and holds together all the decisions made seem obvious and inevitable. Some ideas that I had early on survived intact, appearing in the Gallery exactly as I imagined them – for example the ‘meta-text’ and the Bare Game. However, thinking back, it is almost impossible for me now to imagine why ‘Unclad’ was ever the title given so few of the sitters were nude, why ‘Bare’ was not the clear winner from the beginning, how I could have struggled to find those key strands of identity and humanity as the organising ideas and why Annette Kellerman was such a late addition? It all falls into place as soon as the concept is clear. The trick is knowing the point of clarity because I thought I had it several times before I really did.

It is a strange feeling when an exhibition is up and you walk into something that has existed only in small two dimensions and in one’s head for such a long time – overwhelming and a little frightening. I did not know whether visitors would embrace it or shy away from such a bizarre arrangement as being too esoteric and impenetrable. Happily, so far the response has indicated the former. There is another chapter of the Bare story still to be written: 55 works will travel as the regional touring Bare: Degrees of Undress.

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