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The Great American Nude


As one of two major summer exhibitions, the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science in Greenwich, Connecticut, celebrates the American nude with a survey of the subject from its beginnings in Colonial times to the cutting edge of contemporary art. The Great American Nude, organized by the Bruce Museum and on view from June 15, 2002 through September 8, 2002, consists of over 50 paintings, drawings, sculpture and photographs drawn from museums in New Britain, Hartford, and New Haven, Connecticut, and Amherst and Boston, Massachusetts, as well as from private collections. (left: Benjamin West (1732-1820), Musidora and Her Two Companions, 1795, oil on canvas, 20 1/2 x 28 1/2 inches, Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc.)

The nude has been a constant and enduring theme in American art despite our country's Puritan beginnings. From early academic nudes in a European tradition by John Trumbull, Washington Allston, and Benjamin West to the more candid and unapologetically naturalistic nudes of Thomas Eakins and the sensual figures of John Singer Sargent, and from the Pop humor of a Tom Wesselmann to the wit and historical irony of the Starn Twins, the nude human form is a recurrent obsession of American artists.

The Great American Nude offers a representative survey of its rich history while it addresses the time-honored paradoxes involving how the body is portrayed: the difference between the naked and the nude, the sensual and the pornographic, the cerebral and the corporeal. It also investigates the nude's gradual liberation from academic constraints, prudery and moral censure. The show explores, on the one hand, the lingering and indigenously American ambivalence about the decorousness of the unclothed, and on the other, a joyously frank embrace of the sheer physicality of the all-American nude.

The American nude comes in many shapes and sizes, both genders and all ages, young and old. It can be as chaste and restrained as a classical marble or as potent and provocative as a full frontal photograph. The varied emotions and broad range of the nude's functions render the figure by turns a goddess, an innocent, a bather, a hero, a seductress, a social provocateur. This exhibition suggests the breadth of emotions conveyed in mankind's fascination with its own form -- from the idealized classicism of Benjamin West's Musidora and Her Two Companions of 1795 to the unblinking realism of contemporary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

No less varied is the broad range of media in which the nude has been rendered and the artists' stylistic approaches to the theme -- academic, realistic, abstract, surrealist, and photographic. While life studies from the live nude model have been at the core of academic art instruction since the Renaissance and practiced for much of this country's history, the uses of the nude ultimately were as varied as the individual artists themselves.

The exhibition also addresses the subject's history, beginning with the academic formulation of the classical nude in late eighteenth and nineteenth century art. Classical art itself had, as early as the fifth century B.C., emphasized sensual aspects of the male body; by the late classical period, the female nude came to play a significant role in Greek art. The idealized form of Greek art became the standard for academically trained artists, who worked from the live, nude model. The show includes examples of classical idealization in depictions of the male nude, from the ravishingly beautiful late eighteenth century chalk drawings of John Trumbull to the 1876 oil by J. Alden Weir and the numerous academic studies of American artist John Singer Sargent. (left: Graydon Parrish (l970- ), Remorse, Despondence and Acceptance of an Early Death, 1997-1999, oil on canvas, 41 x 119 inches, Purchased by the Trustees of Amherst College, Amherst. MA)

The nude remains an important subject in contemporary art. In twentieth and twenty-first century presentations, the nude has become a vehicle for complex social, societal and self-image issues. It has been influenced by the changing mores and sexual emancipation of society brought on by the feminist movement, the gay movement, the rise of AIDS, and the increase of violence in all aspects of society. A work such as the Starn Twins' Nipples takes a well-known image drawn from the sixteenth century and updates it into one that is sexually charged with provocative implications. Graydon Parrish's Remorse, Despondence and Acceptance of an Early Death deals head-on with the consequences of sexual activity resulting in AIDS.

Contemporary approaches to the nude are diverse, not only in style but also in the meanings they attempt to convey. Artists such as Patricia Watwood and Gregory Gillespie use a traditional approach -- a straightforward, realistic style -- to investigate purely contemporary issues of identity. In Music and Poetry Patricia Watwood utilizes an allegorical subject, luscious surface and painterly bravado to show a white woman in an Ingres-like pose being serenaded by a black man representing music. Gregory Gillespie creates an unusual image of a nude displaying an imaginary pregnancy. Randy Melick's work utilizes his extraordinary draughtsmanship and classically-derived style with modern subjects in such works as John the Raptist. (right:Milton Avery (1893-1965), Nude with Bright Pillows, 1961, oil on canvas, 17 1/4 x 23 3/4 inches, Collection Renée Nelson)

Many artists use the nude to question and elucidate female identity and its meaning in contemporary society. Lisa Yuskavage plays the ravishingly beautiful surfaces of her serious paintings against her intentionally stereotypical images of female identity -- particularly the air-headed sex kitten of such works as Asschecker. Perhaps the quintessential image of the new femininity is Robert Mapplethorpe's photograph of female body-builder, Lisa Lyon, in a very masculine Charles Atlas-like pose, which plays her muscled physique against her beauty. Jeff Koons, who was in real life married to an Italian porn star-turned-politician, depicts the nude with an unapologetic sexual directness in such works as Doctor's Delight.

Similarly, depiction of the male nude has undergone significant changes. The nude male as a subject in itself, not merely an academic study, became popular in the final decades of the nineteenth century in the photography of Edweard Muybridge and Thomas Eakins as well as in numerous painted images. A century later gay liberation would put a new perspective on the male nude, demonstrated in the work of such artists as Robert Mapplethorpe. In our time, even the classical male nude, such as that painted by Michael Leonard, would be revamped by its close-up investigation into a more direct and sensuous image. (right: George Bellows (1882-1925), Nude with a Parrot, 1915, oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 31 inches, Collection Audrey Love)

The nude is a particularly important subject in photography, where our expectations about the "reality" of the nude image make it all the more immediate and direct. Ernest James Bellocq's poignant image of a prostitute, her face scratched from the surface of the negative to protect her identity, deals in a very real way with the disgrace of a sexual identity that was not acceptable to society. Andres Serrano, who has produced a compelling body of photography that deals with basic issues of death, religion and sex, investigates the sexual identity of people not normally considered in sexual terms. In The Mode/, part of his Budapest series, he photographed a woman in her eighties who has made her living as an artist's model for several decades.

Spencer Tunick's 123rd Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, NYC 2 shows brown, black and white bodies lying on the pavement in front of an ironic sign proclaiming "Joe's Meat Market." Tunick's works are powerful in part because they challenge assumptions about the nude, taking it out of the studio and literally onto the street, transforming it from a private and intimate subject into a public display.

The exhibition also contains artworks by Maurice Prendergast, Ethel Thayer, Milton Avery, Lee Krasner and Philip Pearlstein, and sculpture by such artists as Hiram Powers, Frederick MacMonnies and Gaston Lachaise. Among the photographers are Diane Arbus and Edward Steichen.

An illustrated color catalogue for The Great American Nude, which includes a complete checklist of the exhibition, features an introduction by Professor William Gerdts, who is renowned for his expertise on the subject, and catalogue entries by Bruce Museum Curator of Art Nancy Hall-Duncan.

The Great American Nude is generously underwritten by Dr. and Mrs. Raymond R. Sackler, Mr. Nicholas Hall, Mr. Richard Knight, Dr. and Mrs. Gregory Hedberg, and members of the Bruce Museum Board of Directors including Phil Alexandre, Hugh Bareiss, Mary Bell Case, Tom Clephane, Bruce Cohen, Joel Coleman, George Crapple, Kathy Fuld, Pam Goergen, Swan Grant, Suzanne Hascoe, Dennis Keegan, Susan Lynch, Susan Mahoney, Frank Manley, Alice Melly, Juan Meyer, Linda Munger, Steve Myers, Helen Nitkin, Dee Osborn, Lynne Pasculano, Gerry Puschel, Chuck Royce, Leah Rukeyser, Ned Stiles, and Martha Zoubek.

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