Sie. Selbst. Nackt. @ Museen Böttcherstraße, Bremen

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Sie. Selbst. Nackt. @ Museen Böttcherstraße, Bremen

Postby CAP » Thu Dec 26, 2013 5:01 pm

Sie. Selbst. Nackt (You Self Naked): nude female self-portraits @ Museen Böttcherstraße, Bremen

This is a strange little show, around the theme of feminine courage and pride in nudity throughout the twentieth century, consisting of a dozen or so paintings and photographs. There are a few surprises here, in terms of choice and at least one surprising omission, but it was the line taken in the press release that nagged away at me – that the nude self-portraits represented acts of daring revelation and vulnerability; that didn’t quite ring true. At least, that’s not what I got from the pictures. I didn’t see any vulnerability, on the contrary. I didn’t see anything unguarded or daring, unfortunately. I saw nudes that were also individuals, often working as artists in their studios, occasionally adopting mythic or symbolic roles.

Leaving aside the issue of gender for a moment, why would artists picture themselves nude, when working in the studio? Most artists don’t work in the nude. Usually artists portray themselves as serious or critical or stylish or deep or any number of salient personality traits, but the emphasis is usually on just the face. Painting yourself nude says something about you certainly, but it’s hard to see what it might mean as a portrait of an artist. Artists sometimes picture nudes of course, just as they picture all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, but nudity isn’t really at the core of being an artist (whether painter or photographer).

For me, nudity comes back to the issue of sexuality. I assume for these female artists their identity as artists is intimately linked with their identity as women, in a way that does not really arise for men. There’s an old saying “‘Men have bodies, women are their bodies” – I forget where I heard that. Was it Shirley Conran? If so, she was probably quoting someone else, but it was most likely female. Anyway, this strikes me as getting closer to the matter than the gallery press release, which is at pains to see this nudity as ‘natural’ but not sexual (I think nature is sexual; the sexual is natural). But I take it the idea is that the self-portraits try to get past the idea of just sexual allure. They’re trying to be more honest or frank about the particular woman’s body, and several are of older or middle-aged women, but why should honesty then reside in nudity? The older women could be equally frank about their figures and age while dressed and I suspect there are just as many female self-portraits where the artist remains dressed, so that the issue is why some female artists are drawn to self-nudity? (German has no distinction between naked and nude, incidentally).

This one has been buzzing around in my head for a week or so, while I’m supposedly attending to more timely duties. My conclusion – tentative conclusion – is that some female artists are more insecure in their identity as artists, and compensate by trying to ground it in more fundamental matters. Let’s face it, being an artist can be kind of vague and confusing. So their bodies are their bottom line, in a way that’s not exactly vulnerable, but is a bit sad. I don’t see it as critical of more idealised sexual allure, or as some kind of riposte to the pin-up. If anything, it complements it. You do see the individual, as I’ve said, but it’s a person resorting to a fairly desperate measure to present themselves, a sort of inverse of the idealised pin-up that dwells on anatomy at the expense of personality. It’s valid on those terms – let’s face it there are such people. But whether we should generalise that this is typically feminine or female is unwise.

I did try and discover the curator for the show, uncredited in any of the literature and since the Museen Böttcherstraße never got back to me, I’m assuming it was the ‘Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin’ Verena Borgmann - pretty good job Verena. The choice of works was determined firstly by access to the Paula Modersohn-Becker Collection, which seems to be part of the same Kunstverein complex in Bremen, and Modersohn-Becker pretty much a pioneer of the female nude self-portrait, but the show includes obvious figures like Joan Semmel and Louise Bourgeois with lesser known talents like Austrians Maria Lassnig and Xenia Hausner – the Hausner face is particularly striking. I resist saying it is so German. But it is. There were more obscure works, such as the tragic Elfriede Lohse, Anita Rees, British artist Rachel Lewis, Amrita Sher-Gil and South African regionalist, Clare Menck, all circling the theme, all worth a look. There is also photography from Imogen Cunningham, Marianne Breslauer, Jo Spence and Renee Cox but these were less impressive, the fatally afflicted Spence perhaps the pick.

The most conspicuous absence was surely an early painting by Jenny Saville. This may simply have been unavailable. Saville’s work carries the neurosis of the nude self portrait to uncomfortable but compelling ends and would have made a shrewd counter to Semmel’s slick narcissism. Where Semmel is trapped in elegant self-regard, is too academic in facture to ever really submit to print niceties of Photo-realism, Saville’s claustrophobic framing from the late 90s, (the following example I know, is not a self portrait, but others from this period are, and as importantly, when not, they are often implicitly substitutes or surrogates through association with her self-portraits) where the figure is often caked in paint as if in cosmetics. Typically, closed eyes, limp limbs, sundry scars and mutilations extort an uneasy pathos with a ham-fisted facture. The painting is flabby, in just the way that the figure is obese. Its diet is too rich, too self-indulgent. The nude is inflated,much like an ego, to fill the vacuum of the surrounding space, the blank background emphasises the self as nowhere, but staying close to the picture plane, 'in the face' of the viewer. These paintings are about being clingy, needy in the extreme. But of course this is to argue for the female nude self-portrait as something much more calculating and melodramatic that the Museen Böttcherstraße show allows; perhaps must await another occasion.
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Re: Sie. Selbst. Nackt. @ Museen Böttcherstraße, Bremen

Postby jaspurr » Thu Dec 26, 2013 11:14 pm

I think the vulnerability comes from the fact that women are often judged. . Valued. . Objectified.. criticized because of their bodies. Thus exposing themselves .. being naked.. risks such reactions
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Re: Sie. Selbst. Nackt. @ Museen Böttcherstraße, Bremen

Postby CAP » Fri Dec 27, 2013 5:02 am

Everyone is judged by their appearances. But where women choose to present themselves nude, they do so in full knowledge of standards (male and female) - I can't see this as any more vulnerable than self-presentation in general.
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Re: Sie. Selbst. Nackt. @ Museen Böttcherstraße, Bremen

Postby jaspurr » Fri Dec 27, 2013 12:23 pm

Yes of course. But surely you can see women's looks have been far more judged objectified criticised over history and now.
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Re: Sie. Selbst. Nackt. @ Museen Böttcherstraße, Bremen

Postby CAP » Fri Dec 27, 2013 2:15 pm

I don't see them judged more than men, just differently, perhaps less flexibly.

Discussing this article with a lady friend, she said I was splitting hairs - that I felt sorry or sad for women resorting to nudity for their portraits, but that I didn't want to count this as vulnerability.

Vulnerability to me is laying yourself open to risk or danger, perhaps unknowingly - say like a child wandering the streets alone. But this is not how I took the nude self-portraits. There was no danger of them being judged badly, as say poor or embarrassing sex idols or ideals, because pose and setting were mostly radically different. They weren't vulnerable to ridicule in this way. I was more puzzled by why they thought nudity might be somehow more candid or sincere than if they'd just chosen some distinctive outfit for themselves. That's why I got onto the radical difference between male and female attitudes to the body (it's basically Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus kind of thing). I think for women the body does represent a sort of base line - they are their bodies - where for men the body is just one more option depending on context.

But look - it's definitely a show worthing seeing and thinking about - which is more than I can say for most things around at the moment. :)
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