Thursday, July 12, 2012

Body of Art

I shan't be going to the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery this year, for the second year running. I need help to get there, and last year my helper was in Africa. This year, I don't fancy fighting my way through the crowds heading for the Olympics but I have a catalogue, so I've seen photos of the prizewinning pictures, including the portrait entitled "Auntie" by American artist Aleah Chapin. It's a nude, an older woman with pendulous breasts.

I was amused by Brian Sewell's response to this. In The Evening Standard, he wrote,
Silhouetted against a white ground embellished with meaningless blotches of ochre, this ancient crone stands life-size, full-frontal and stark naked, heavy breasts drooping low, skin stretched and sagging, looking as though, par-boiled and with the lividity of death about her lower quarters, she has just escaped from a cannibal’s cooking-pot. This is the figurative realism of the new American academic painter — no sympathy gentles the stark observation of every detail, nor is desire roused; instead, this painting stimulates revulsion.

Had the painter stopped at the neck, this would have been a portrait of sorts; had she included the shoulders, it would still have been a portrait; but below them it becomes a grotesque medical record, the body disproportionately large. Did Miss Chapin not see that in her obsession with the ghastliness of ageing flesh, she had enlarged this repellent body beyond the scale of the head and given primacy, not to the implications of the face — the eyes purblind, the slight smile a rictus, the tousled hair perhaps some indication of character — but to the belly-button and the breasts. Could the judges not see this too? Just think: the National Portrait Gallery took down the nudes of Freud to award a prize to this. 
Maybe some people will be revolted, perhaps because the only nudes they usually see are the photoshopped variety in porn magazines. Someone has commented on Sewell's verdict:
I know you don't have much experience of these things but this is what the majority of women you see shopping in John Lewis who are the same vintage as Auntie look like when undressed. Shocking I know but I'm sure their husbands are in similar shape and love them all the same.
The reference to Sewell's "experience" is about his sexuality, I suppose, which appears to be confused.

I find Sewell's opinion strange, since he compares this painting with the paintings by Lucian Freud, many of whose nude subjects were not conventionally attractive, including the grossly obese Sue Tilley. If Sewell had studied life drawing and painting, as I did, he'd have found himself faced with an assortment of models, some young and beautiful, others past their best. All were interesting subjects, not to be dismissed with comments about their "ghastliness". I remember one older woman who was a regular subject. When dressed she wore a corset reinforced with whalebone (or the equivalent). When this was removed, her flesh fell into folds like a Michelin Man, marked for the first half hour or so by perpendicular lines left by the whalebone, so that she looked as though she'd been encased in a basket. I didn't find her body revolting. No one should be referred to as revolting, unless their behaviour warrants it.

I prefer David Lee's view of Auntie, from his Jackdaw magazine:
Auntie seems not to be fully in the present and invites thoughts of how in old age personalities, histories, gradually dissolve. It is a nicely judged picture, and there’s love in it.
Poor Brian. One wonders how much love there is in his life?


theotheralig said...

Sewell has commented in exactly the way I would expect of him. My body is probably close to that of 'Aunty'. Yes, I am overweight, yes, gravity has been unfair. I also bear the scars from my cancer surgery and have a huge scar from navel to pubis. I do not like to look at myself in the mirror but even I would not call myself revolting. I wonder with what sort of bodies Sewell surrounds himself.

Margaret Nelson said...

Yes, Sewell was being true to form.

Like you, I bear scars from my encounters with surgeons; a hysterectomy scar, and one where my left breast used to be. I don't mind seeing myself in a mirror but don't spend much time looking at it. A self-portrait with the mastectomy scar in pencil once featured in an art exhibition. I don't know if anyone was revolted, but no one told me if they were.

Auntie seems to be thinking, here I am, saggy bits and all, and I'm happy in my skin.