Can the female nude survive the #MeToo era?
Is it time to reassess the place of the nude in the Western artistic canon? In January this year, artist Sonia Boyce and curator Clare Gannaway challenged the appropriateness of Victorian paintings featuring naked girls, such as JW Waterhouse’s ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’, in Manchester Art Gallery. Performance artist Emma Sulkowicz even protested against the New York Museum of Modern Art’s display of the ground-breaking Picasso, ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’. There are increasing calls for paintings that might be seen as objectifying women and girls to be removed or carefully contextualised by museum labels. Meanwhile, feminist art critics have long drawn attention to the dubious sexual conduct of artists such as Picasso and Gauguin, and the #MeToo movement has raised the temperature on debates that have long troubled the art world. Although the consensus has been to focus on the artworks rather than the lives of the artists, doubts are being aired about this policy and some museums are introducing trigger warnings. The Boston Museum of Fine Art, in an exhibition commemorating 100 years since the death of the brilliant Viennese artist Egon Schiele, provide labels acknowledging his alleged sexual transgressions.
The nude represents something unique about Western art – both idealisation of the human form and a visual language and expression of the erotic and sensuous in human experience. Great artists, from Titian in the sixteenth century to Lucian Freud in the twentieth, have painted nudes from live models and transformed how we see the naked human body. But a US feminist activist group, the Guerrilla Girls, have drawn attention to an imbalance in the representation of women in art with their iconic campaign poster ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’
The #MeToo campaigners have taken this further, casting suspicion on male artists’ motives in painting female nudes. When the American artist Chuck Close was accused of sexual harassment by several women asked to pose nude for him (although, elderly and disabled, he had not physically attacked them), was the National Gallery in Washington DC right to cancel their proposed exhibition of his work? What are the implications, for art and society, for penalising artists for being rude to their models, or of questioning the very legitimacy of the nude as an art form?